Friday, September 28, 2007

Where have all our manners gone?

On September 23, 2007, the CBS program 60 Minutes carried an interview with Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The interview, conducted by Scott Pelley, was conducted in the customarily aggressive 60 Minutes style. One does not expect politeness or good manners in 60 Minutes interviews; that is not their style. It was, however, shocking to hear Pelley quote President Bush. The transcript of the program shows that Pelley said this:

I asked President Bush what he would say to you if he were sitting in this chair. And he told me-quote-speaking to you, that you've made terrible choices for your people. You've isolated your nation, you've taken a nation of proud and honorable people and made your country the pariah of the world. These are President Bush's words to you, What's your reply?

President Ahmadinejad seemed slightly taken aback, but he regained his composure quickly and said he did not believe President Bush had really said those things. Pelley claimed that he was quoting the American president directly. If Pelley was telling the truth, it is a truth that should make all Americans feel deeply ashamed and embarrassed. There is no excuse for one head of state to say to another, even through a television interviewer, that the other head of state has taken a nation of proud and honorable people and made his country the pariah of the world. That, of all people, President Bush, who has disgraced his own country in the eyes of the world, should say such a thing is a prime example of a pot calling a kettle black; but that is not the point. The point is that no head of state should ever speak in such undiplomatic and unprofessional language of another. Speaking in such a way is inexcusably rude, not to mention potentially dangerous. It is conduct unbecoming a president of the United States.

Perhaps emboldened by President Bush's carelessness and rudeness, a few days later Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, addressed aggressively rude remarks of his own to President Ahmadinejad, who was an invited guest speaker at the university. President Bollinger said:

Let's then be clear at the beginning. Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator. And so, I ask you—and so, I ask you, why have women, members of the Baha=E2=80=99i Faith, homosexuals, and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country? Why, in a letter last week to the Secretary General of the UN, did Akbar Ganji, Iran's leading political dissident, and over 300 public intellectuals, writers and Nobel laureates express such grave concern that your inflamed dispute with the West is distracting the world's attention from the intolerable conditions in your regime within Iran—in particular, the use of the press law to ban writers for criticizing the ruling system? Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?

Then, before he invited President Ahmadinejad to speak, President Bollinger closed his introduction by saying:

Frankly—I close with this comment—frankly and in all candor, Mr. President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions. But your avoiding them will, in itself, be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterizes so much of what you say and do. Fortunately, I am told by experts on your country that this only further undermines your position in Iran, with all the many goodhearted intelligent citizens there. A year ago, I am reliably told, your preposterous and belligerent statements in this country—was at one of the meetings of the Council on Foreign Relations—so embarrassed sensible Iranian citizens that this led to your party's defeat in the December mayoral elections. May this do that and more. I am only a professor—I am only a professor who is also a university president. And today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better. Thank you.

I, too, am only a professor. But if Lee Bollinger were the president of my university, I would demand his resignation as president for making such embarrassingly disgraceful comments in full public view to an invited guest. There is no excuse whatsoever for inviting a guest to speak and then to introduce him by accusing him of being a petty and cruel dictator with a fanatical mindset who makes preposterous and belligerent statements.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed long ago, the United States of America has never been the envy of the world for being a bastion of refinement and polished civilization. That notwithstanding, the United States has in the past been a place of decency and civility. Are those days gone forever? Are we now to expect the president of the country to make rude and disparaging remarks of other heads of state? Are we to take it as a matter of course that prominent academics associated with our most prestigious universities will blurt out schoolboy taunts to invited guests? If so, we have become a sadly fallen nation indeed.

If no one else will apologize to President Ahmadinejad for the brazen crudeness and impudence of our public figures, then I will. President Ahmadinejad, on behalf of the American people, I apologize for the shoddy treatment you received while visiting my home and native land. While I myself have many differences of opinion with you, I admire the gracious cheerfulness with which you received the rudeness of my countrymen, and I thank you for saying several things about the policies of my country that desperately needed to be said. May your criticisms of us not fall on deaf ears.