Iran's president at Columbia University

Full transcript, the very end of which is Columbia’s Bollinger having the last word:

I’m sorry that President Ahmadinejad’s schedule makes it necessary for him to leave before he’s been able to answer many of the questions that we have or even answer some of the ones that we posed to him. (Laughter, applause.) But I think we can all be pleased that his appearance here demonstrates Columbia’s deep commitment to free expression and debate. I want to thank you all for coming to participate. (Applause.)
Thank you.

I understand that by inviting the leader of Iraq to speak in a public forum, Columbia’s Bollinger risked fallout that could have affected his career. I was not surprised that he began with a speech that put Ahmadinejad on the defensive. And I was not surprised that Ahmadinejad twisted and dodged so much.

I am hardly an expert on linguistics, but I used to teach a freshman engineering writing course when I was in Toronto as a grad student,and from time to time, I had to teach students who had gone to high school in another language how to write college English. I remember learning that one way to translate the concept “learn” into Chinese is the concept “copy,” so when I saw Mandarin speakers (many of whom were second-generation immigrants to Canada) struggling until I gave them the model, and then respectfully reproducing my work and expecting to be praised, I had to ask someone if there was a different word for Chinese “watch all the little components of what I do, so that you can improvise and do different things  as circumstances require”. Oddly enough, when the students wrote their first personal paragraphs, they often wouldn’t actually state the main point — they thought it would be an insult to the reader’s intelligence for a memo to spell out exactly what the client should do. (I told those students, if you don’t insult your North American clients that way, you’ll lose their business.”  (“North America” is friendly Canadian slang referring to “Canada and that country south of us”.)

Ahmadinejad’s speech reminds me of so many different freshman papers I got from students with a Middle Eastern background. I don’t want to start making generalizations, because I never really made a serious academic study of this (there is a whole field of English as a Second Language acquisition, so I’m sure this is nothing new), but the facial expressions that Ahmadinejad gave, the way he cheerfully evaded answers, even the way he responded (after behind reminded) to a the question of gender discrimination by saying “But as for women, maybe you think that being a woman is a crime. It’s not a crime to be a woman.” On the surface, coming right after his insistence that at there are no homosexuals in Iran, he looked intolerant and ridiculous — how could he possibly think that the question accused him of thinking that being a woman is a crime? (Of course, he backed up his statement by giving only examples of traditional female roles, though elsewhere he did emphasize the role of women in science and government.)

I particularly noticed the moderator, Coatsworth, heading down a road
that made me uncomfortable when he criticized Ahmadinejad for not
giving the kind of answer he wanted.

MR. COATSWORTH: Mr. President, I think many members of our
audience would be — would like to hear a clearer answer to that
question, that is — (interrupted by cheers, applause).

The question is: Do you or your government seek the destruction of
the state of Israel as a Jewish state? And I think you could answer
that question with a single word, either yes or no. (Cheers, applause.)

PRESIDENT AHMADINEJAD: And then you want the answer the way you
want to hear it. Well, this isn’t really a free flow of information.
I’m just telling you where I — what my position is. (Applause.)
I’m asking you, is the Palestinian issue not an international
issue of prominence or not? Please tell me, yes or no. (Laughter,
There’s a plight of a people.

MR. COATSWORTH: The answer to your question is yes. (Laughter.)
PRESIDENT AHMADINEJAD: Well, thank you for your cooperation.

that Coatsworth has no problem agreeing to such terms, but Ahmadinejad
does not see his own refusal to give a “yes” or “no” answer as a
weakness; in fact, he trumpets the fact that he has manipulated
Coatsworth into a position of weakness.  The whole world already
watched Ahmadinejad dodge question after question, but maybe Coatsworth
knew that to get his point across to the “News is so boring” crowed, he
had to oversimplify. And he suceeded in letting Ahmadinejad present him
as an un-nuanced binary thinker.

I remember a student from a
middle eastern nation (I don’t remember where) getting very defensive
and upset about the line of questioning… he did not like with I told
him that this passage was irrelevant or that this passage didn’t
contain any evidence. I’m sure part of it was my own inexperience as a
writing student, but he was older than me and after several weeks of
giving him one-on-one time (far above and beyond what I was paid to do)
he ended up blowing up on me during a workshop and I handed him
completely over to my boss.  I don’t know what happened But I do
remember his expression when my boss looked at the paper that I had
marked a D and said “This should be an F.” 

My boss did let
him resubmit and he did pass the course; many of the engineering
students who didn’t have a strong command of English resented that they
had to take an English course but some of their professors (so they
said) knew even less English.  In many of their Engineering subjects,
this barely mattered, but but as an outsider who couldn’t “do
engineering” I was sometimes a target of displaced frustration. Still,
because they were all Engineering students, I quickly learned what
would work on them, and a few references to Star Trek and video games
in the first class was often enough to break the ice.

But the
only idea or value that that I needed to push on these students was
“Canadian engineers have to learn how to write this way in order to get
good grades on these assignments,” and after they resisted a few times
and got burned with low grades and realized that charm or petty
complaints (like Ahmadinejad beginning his speech complaining that
Bollinger had taken up time meant for him, or Coatsworth’s final
sniping reference to unanswered questions) will not change the scale on
which they are evaluated.

He spent so much time beginning with stories from the Koran, but
obviously in his rhetorical tradition, that moral grounding was
necessary. I actually listened to most of it without watching the video.

translator was so earnest and sympathetic, with little cute squeaks in
her voice, that I really didn’t want to look at his eyes, because it’s
hard to imagine how he can so cavalierly dismiss the Holocaust as a
myth, but insist on promoting the very kinds of evidence that he offers
as proof that Palestinians have suffered.

Would it be too much
for him, in one of his diatribes, to say something like “The
Palestinians have suffered *TOO*!”  Am I guilty of the same rhetorical
bias that can only see a strength in this position, like the
Coatsworth’s confident admission that the fate of the region is an
international matter. I am no expert in this field, and I have no idea
what the political ramifications of such an admission might be…. I
imagine that, like arguments about abortion or gun control, there are a
whole battery of ready-made answers that I’m just too tired to seek out.

These notes are more about rhetorical style than politics, but on the global stage they are always related.