26 September 2007

Mr. Ahmadinejad Goes to New York

I have been trying to make sense of the circus at Columbia University yesterday, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to speak, after previously having been uninvited from the same forum. I think the nominal arguments about so-called academic freedom in this case are more cliché than justified: academic freedom Рwhich only exists for tenured professors Рrepresents the freedom to pursue knowledge, no matter how unpalatable that knowledge may be to mainstream thought. Since the academic in question is nominally protected against reprisal through tenure (although there are many, many subtle and excruciating forms of reprisal that can be levelled against an academic aside from firing), s/he has the freedom to be on the fringe. But Mr. Ahmadinejad is not a professor. Nor is anyone who is interested in studying him or his ideas prevented from doing so by obtaining other of his very public pronouncements or writings, or by even attending one of his shindigs in Tehran.

Was the purpose to put him through the wringer, to embarrass the man, as Columbia University’s president did? This seems like a cheap publicity trick, unworthy of a major university, although university presidents are not above cheap publicity tricks (that occasionally backfire). You can see my problem in making sense of it all.

A recent acquaintance who has been reading McLuhan wrote to me and said,
In my view the President of the of University Mr. Bollinger was focusing in 'content' (such as the fact that Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust) and lost the opportunity to let the guy free for us to grasp his 'message'. Iran and Ahmadinejad are the media. Anyway his message is to challenge the western.
And that got me thinking.

The message or effect of a medium is not singular, and is always relative to some ground. According to the Laws of Media, there are four effects that are common to all media – including the medium that is the construction of Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, in New York. The four effects are arranged in four quadrants of the Laws of Media tetrad (beginning at the upper right and moving clockwise) as Extension (enhancement, acceleration, intensification or enablement); Reversal; Obsolescence; and Retrieval. Here’s what I came up with, beginning with my correspondent’s suggestion, and adding some of what is known:

  • Challenge to western hegemony (I’m presuming that the challenge is to the hegemony)
  • Huntington’s (Clash of Civilizations) thesis
  • Front man who extends the fundamental, radical ideology of a non-public “Supreme Leader”Influence and power among those of essentially (or potentially) like mind
  • Reinforced hegemony, rather than the rise of a counter-hegemony via organic intellectuals, √† la Gramsci
  • Multi-culturalism, pluralism
  • Front pushed to the rear; behind-the-scenes leader has no voice, losing influence
  • Apparent power becomes marginalized by those who it originally sought to influence
  • ???
  • (note: he does not retrieve Hitler as many people irrationally suggest, Godwin’s Law notwithstanding. Hitler spoke for himself, and didn’t challenge a hegemony – his was a material and territorial ambition, not the clash of cultures or ideology.)
  • Progressive agenda
  • Fukuyama’s (End of History) thesis of the universality of liberal democracy

I wasn’t able to come up with a good Retrieval at first. However, I applied my notion of the Principle of Media Equivalency – an extension of McLuhan’s “tetrad cluster.” The Principle says that any two media that can be shown to have the same quadrant elements relative to a common ground can be considered to be equivalent, and therefore may share other elements relative to other grounds.

If we consider the neo-liberal political economic ideology that is clearly dominant in many western nations – and especially powerful in the U.S. today, then it can be argued that the current administration is merely the “front man” for a neo-liberal “Supreme Leader,” whose influence is especially felt with respect to current middle east policy – and in particular, the policies that have sent 130,000 young men and women into harm’s way. Indeed, all of the quadrants can equally apply to the current administration, right down to the power and influence becoming relatively marginalized, given the dwindling support of most countries for the war, and the greenback’s nosedive.

What is the Retrieval in this case? I would say the Robber Barons of the early 20th century, those relatively few men who accumulated vast wealth and power. This is not dissimilar to those who accumulate and concentrate wealth and power among Ahmadinejad’s supporters in other mid-east countries.

The media equivalency of the respective leaders of Iran and the U.S. points to an interesting dynamic that is often characteristic of conceptual polarities: they can be considered as essentially two sides of the same coin, or one as the “evil twin” of the other, viewed from each other’s perspective. But this is not really surprising. Throughout its history, America has always defined itself (although not exclusively) in ideological opposition to its “evil twin.” The founding myth of the country was a result of religious opposition in England. Its War of Independence was waged against one of the world’s superpowers of the day. Its 20th century history and emergence as a modern superpower was shaped by its opposition to the Soviet Union. But with the fall of the USSR, America lost its governing mirror (a theme that I have explored extensively in my Reversal of America posts). Amadinejad’s visit to New York, with all the hyperbolic media coverage of his Columbia University coming out party, allowed America to once again look in the reversal mirror and stare its evil twin right in the face, thereby reinforcing its own sense of identity.

Which brings us to Huntington and Fukuyama for a closing thought. The universality of liberal democracy – Fukuyama’s contention for the so-called end of history – is problematic, since liberal democracy as it has been constructed by the western hegemony ignores the realities of marginalization, the massive influence of neo-liberal political economy, the realpolitik of corporate interests in contemporary politics, and many other similar concerns. Huntington’s clash of cultures, on the other hand – despite the seemingly overwhelming empirical evidence in support of his thesis – is, I think, temporary. It is a retrieval of the religious wars in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries that were characteristic of the break boundary disruption of epochal change. This is precisely the circumstance in which we are now living, and, as the saying goes, this too shall pass. Neither countries nor civilizations can define themselves in opposition – keeping a distance or separation – in a ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate world. Those that insist on doing so, and cannot realize that we are now on the other side of a historic break boundary, are destined to the obsolescence quadrant. Something to think about while looking in the mirror.

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