Of Hosts and Hostages

There is an apocryphal story of the beautiful American dancer Isadora Duncan propositioning George Bernard Shaw that they should have a child together, because "with your brains and my body what a wonder it would be!" Shaw's repartee was simple but classic: "But what if it had my body and your brains?"

In the context of the American states, a similar case may be made for the welcome combination of southern hospitality and northern tolerance, but with one caveat-- God forbid that one should be exposed to northern hospitality and southern tolerance instead! Unfortunately, New York's reputation for liberal thinking and unfriendliness stooped to a new low when the president of Columbia University invited the democratically elected President of Iran to a debate and then proceeded to publicly humiliate the sitting dignitary during the introduction.

At the very outset, I would like to make it clear that this rant is completely apolitical, and should not be construed as either condoning or criticising the charges that, rightly or wrongly, have been levelled against the President of Iran. Instead, it is meant to condemn the shameful and disgraceful behaviour displayed by an academician, who in denying the commonest courtesy due to an invited guest, not only failed in his duty as the host and moderator of the discussion, but also turned the clock back on countering the global perception about the stereotypical arrogant American.

It is not difficult to understand what prompted the University President to rudely address the Iranian President as "a petty and cruel dictator" and "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated": having invited the wrath of conservative Americans (including benefactors of the University) for providing a platform to the controversial President, he may have wanted to preempt further criticism from the right-wing by isolating himself completely from the speaker's lofty hyperbole. Unfortunately, in doing so he betrayed the responsibilities of a gracious host.

The tale of two presidents boils down to who handled himself with more dignity and decency. One of them said, "I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions, but your avoiding them will in itself be meaningful to us", while the other responded with the following observation: "Tradition requires that when we invite a person to be a speaker, we actually respect our students and the professors by allowing them to make their own judgement, instead of providing a vaccination of sorts before the speech is delivered." The unbiased reader can decide which of the two presidents behaved more like a statesman.

Once one assumes an attitude of intolerance, there is no knowing where it will take one. Intolerance, someone has said, is violence to the intellect and hatred is violence to the heart.
Mohandas Gandhi

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