Iranian President (and Holocaust denier) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia

Iranian President (and Holocaust denier) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed up at Columbia University yesterday to give a speech. Given my interest in Holocaust history and Holocaust denial I had debated whether to comment on it before it happened. Given my contempt for him, his anti-Semitism, and his Holocaust denial, I was rather torn by the whole affair. On the one hand, I am very much in favor of free speech, and having this loon speak can in one way be argued to be evidence of what is great about this country (although it would have been more convincing if Columbia had a better record on this score with regards to controversial home grown speakers and how the administration has caved to disruptive students whose purpose is to interfere with the speech of people they don’t like). On the other hand, given that this man is a Holocaust denier, leads a government that is supplying weapons to insurgents in Iraq who are killing U.S. soldiers, and has called for the destruction of the State of Israel, I have to wonder if, as Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt put it, the administration of Columbia is being so open-minded that its brains fell out.

In some ways, I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, Ahmadinejad did his usual dancing around tough questions about his Holocaust denial and his sponsoring of terrorism, among other things, but what surprised me is the vehemence with which these points were brought up. I had expected oh-so-polite euphemisms and no tough questions, but President Lee C. Bollinger went after him right out of the box.

For example, here is what he said about Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial:

In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as a “fabricated” “legend.” One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers.

For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda. When you come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.

You should know that Columbia is a world center of Jewish studies and now, in partnership with the YIVO Institute, of Holocaust studies. Since the 1930s, we’ve provided an intellectual home for countless Holocaust refugees and survivors and their children and grandchildren. The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history. Because of this, and for many other reasons, your absurd comments about the “debate” over the Holocaust both defy historical truth and make all of us who continue to fear humanity’s capacity for evil shudder at this closure of memory, which is always virtue’s first line of defense.

Will you cease this outrage?

“Either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated”? Not bad, but I would have included another possibility: that he is, quite simply, a liar about the Holocaust. It’s a convenient way for Ahmadinejad to look as though he is showing solidarity with the Palestinian cause and to whip up anti-Semitism. Bollinger also went after Ahmadinejad for his sponsorship of terrorism, his support of a proxy war against U.S. troops in Iraq, his brutal crackdown on scholars, journalists, and human rights advocates, and his call for the destruction of the State of Israel–all in the opening remarks.

If you really want to get an idea of just how credulity and poor reasoning begets credulity and more poor reasoning, one has only to look at some of Ahmadinejad’s remarks on science, 9/11, and the Holocaust. For example, he seems to be more than flirting with 9/11 conspiracy theories:

Then he appeared to question whether al-Qaida was responsible, saying more research was needed.

“If the root causes of 9/11 are examined properly – why it happened, what caused it, what were the conditions that led to it, who truly was involved, who was really involved – and put it all together to understand how to prevent the crisis in Iraq, fix the problem in Afghanistan and Iraq combined,” Ahmadinejad said.

Note the call for “more research.” Unfortunately, a member of the audience asking questions fell into this trap with the Holocaust, as Deborah Lipstadt recounts:

Question to Ahmadinejad: why is more research necessary on the Holocaust [as you say it is] if everything has been so well documented?

Oy. Even as this is being asked I see what’s coming. This is an example of a poorly worded question: OF COURSE THERE IS ROOM FOR MORE RESEARCH…

But what Ahmadinejad says is he wants “MORE RESEARCH TO DISCOVER THE FACTS.” In other words he is arguing that the truth of the event itself is not fully known.

Exactly! And Ahmadinejad’s answer is breathtaking in its crank logic:

Ahmadinejad says: Well what about physics? We know a lot about physics but we keep studying it? Who says we already know everything?

Yes, we still study physics, but the certain aspects of the basics (for instance, Newton’s laws) were worked out centuries ago and are well accepted. Similarly, for the Holocaust, it is not disputed that Nazi Germany had a policy to expel or exterminate the Jews or Europe and that they nearly succeeded, killing approximately six million in the process. Fortunately, he was called out on this dodge:

But Coatsworth, who is chairing the event, is calling him on it. Good for him…Coatsworth responds to Ahmadinejad’s answer by saying that we have certain facts which are established about an event. What you, Mr. President, are doing is calling for more research not to “fill in the details” but to “establish the facts.” And establishing the basic facts, Coatsworth points out, is NOT necessary since they have been firmly established.

This is about as excellent a response to crank logic as I have ever heard. Cranks like to argue that “more research is needed,” a sentiment that no scientist or scholar could argue with. However, that’s because scientists and scholars know the difference between research to establish the facts or to establish a phenomenon and research needed to push beyond what is already known. Cranks usually mean the former when they call for “more research”; scientists and scholars mean the latter, and cranks exploit this confusion.

Perhaps the statement most hilariously unmoored from reality made by Ahmadinejad came in response to a question about his government’s treatment of homosexuals:

He provoked derisive laughter by responding to a question about Iran’s execution of homosexuals by saying: “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country … I don’t know who’s told you that we have this.”

As I said, utterly hilarious, even if there are credulous fools out there who didn’t see through Ahmadinejad’s bloviations and have gone so far as to compare him to Martin Luther King, Jr. or even Ghandi.

Cranks obviously attract cranks.

Believe it or not, I’m beginning to think that this appearance did more good than harm (although marginally). On the one hand, Ahmadinejad did get a chance to speak to an audience, and no doubt he will broadcast an edited version of his speech and question and answer session (minus the embarrassing bits in which he was asked uncomfortable questions) for propaganda purposes. On the other hand, however, the very fact that he came in, so full of hubris, and miscalculated so badly, allowing himself to be lectured on his policies and his crank ideas, was refreshing. I’m guessing he’s never experienced something like that before. Moreover, by making such patently ridiculous claims as that there are no homosexuals in Iran Ahmadinejad revealed himself perhaps even more plainly than ever before as a complete and utter wingnut–and in the process revealed a lot about how cranks think.