Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Exactly what would it have accomplished to "engage in a debate" with Hitler?

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating Op-Ed piece which is food for thought, Liberals or not alike. The question asked is whether Columbia receiving Hitler for a speech in 1939 would have made any difference? In other words, are there limits to dialogue and discussion?

The question is not an idle one as Columbia University, this hallowed bastion of New York Liberalism, is receiving Mahmoud Ahmadinejerk, oops!, Ahmadinejad for a speech while this one is coming to the UN conference as if he were your average head of state, Ground Zero visit included. Justly justifying, I think, the title of the piece is "Columbia's Conceit".

At the end of the article we can read the following:
In just a few years, some of these men [who would have received Hitler at Columbia in 1939] will be rushing a beach at Normandy or caught in a firefight in the Ardennes. And the fact that their ideas were finer and better than Hitler's will have done nothing to keep them and millions of their countrymen from harm, and nothing to get them out of its way.
To bring this into some context, for this Venezuelan blog at least, let's observe that Ahmadinejerk is a close ally of Chavez (not Venezuela, Chavez, extremely important distinction).

Serendipity wants that last night in a fit of idleness I watched La Hojilla, the worst political garbage of the state network VTV. Bad luck had it that Chavez linked to La Hojilla at 11:40 PM, from a big room where a U shaped system of tables showed plenty of bleary eyed folks still at work at some conference (we are in an electoral campaign and even if the country infrastructure is crumbling and the shelves are usually empty of milk, sugar and beans, there is a need to project an image of a president working 25 hours a day). While La Hojilla host, a pathetically semi orgasmic giggling Mario Silva, was shown on the little left corner square of the TV set, Chavez occupied most of the screen while explaining to us all the wonders of the Iranian collaboration, how they had to study hard to transform their mills designed for wheat into mills that could process corn and how now Venezuela would be buying plenty of mills from Iran to process the crops.

I cannot stress how wrong this is, how stupid and bad faith was Chavez last night. The problem in Venezuela is not the processing of Corn flour. We are the best at that, and we have even developed a spectacular infrastructure for the very specific needs of the type of corn flour that is needed for our Arepa, a very different quality than what is used in Mexico or elsewhere. Polar and other giant concerns in Venezuela have been perfectly able to supply for now decades enough corn flour to ALL Venezuelans at a very decent price, making it even often the only food item that poor Venezuelan could afford. That reality was even bad enough that Polar corn flour comes even supplemented with some trace elements to try to palliate some of the nutritional deficiencies that come with a diet based on corn flour bread alone.

No matter what Chavez says or said, corn floor production and supply in Venezuela was one of the greatest capitalist success story in that it provided a whole country with a cheap source of food that would allow to stop the hunger crisis of the past in a way no other government was able to do, including this one who can only avoid empty shelves through increasing imports of food, with all the irregularities, waste and corruption that come in a subsidized scheme. The problem in Venezuela today are the ill conceived agrarian policies which are ruining agricultural production. The problem is not processing and distribution of food stuff, the problem is their production, and this is the abject reality that Chavez is so desperate to hide.

But Chavez is willing to jettison what Venezuela does best in order to increase his control on all. Polar et al. must be broken and the Iranian alliance will be the tool, or so he hopes. Chavez will control the food supply to Venezuelans so that we will owe him everything and for this he is binding Venezuela to the most alien culture to the Venezuelan way of life where adultery, beer, string bikini and even gay sex flourish (there are enough repressed and not so repressed homosexuals in Chavez entourage). In Iran all these people risk from public lashing to outright death by stoning.

And Chavez also announced to us, after defending Iran's nuclear program, that one day Venezuela will start its own nuclear program. Until when for Columbia to receive Chavez?

I am not prepared to link Chavez to Hitler, not even Mussolini, and perhaps not even Peron. He is too much of a coward, of a tropical small time thug to manage to create a system that could really threaten the peace of the world (except for the continuous decrease of Venezuelan oil production). Besides, even if he is surrounded by sycophants (the presentation of Hector Navarro last night, the "Science" minister, was particularly pathetic), these ones are of such low quality that I wonder if they could run a concentration camp efficiently. Not that they would not try to do it, after all there is the Tascon list to show to the world that active discrimination is now an everyday occurrence in Venezuela. No, they are just too incompetent: the Chavez regime is held in place by corruption and hand outs through high oil prices while Cuban agents control things behind the scene.

But it cannot denied either that Chavez is a danger. A danger to Venezuelans to begin with. A danger to the world by supporting people like Saddam, Ahmadinejad and Castro, not to mention a discrete support for North Korea, the Taliban and other assorted terrorist groups and common criminals such as the FARC. All the evidence is there, nothing needs to be discussed anymore.

One wonders at Columbia receiving someone who has made the destruction of Israel his personal pet project. Is there any discussion, dialogue possible with such a person? I do not think so, and the Columbia board is looking mighty stupid in receiving someone who has been put on the shit list of even a country like France.

And what about Chavez and his supporters here? As is the case for Ahmadinejad, Chavez becomes everyday more difficult to defend for those who are willing to dig a little bit below the show that Chavez masterfully puts up 24/24. There are certain things that free aspirin distribution cannot hide and even less compensate. Venezuela today is more vulnerable than ever. Besides oil there is nothing we produce in enough quantity to export and trade to compensate for a continued decline in oil production. And with the constitutional changes coming among an already fraudulent electoral campaign, human rights violations will become soon more frequent than even in Iran.

The question that is asked here is how long will dialogue be an option with Chavez and his supporters. Is it even an option today? Already Chavez refuses to answer questions from the press and treats them badly, saying that their questions are stupid and he thus does not need to reply to them. Will in the next future the press even get close enough to ask him how come there is blood on his hands? Will Columbia students treated as stupid if they dare to ask him real questions that even a true blue Liberal would ask? As for Chavez supporters, well, they are now a waste of time and judging to what happens in Internet pages such as this one or in newspapers such as EL Universal, they have stopped making sense and are easily exposed. So, when Ahmadinejerk or Chavez are invited to Columbia, who is there to blame? When are these trouble makers going to be taken for what they really are, even if their people were stupid and ignorant enough to vote for them? When will the likes of John Coatsworth realize that sometimes conflict cannot be avoided and early confrontation and containemt is the only way to avoid further damage?

But I suppose that Coatsworth, some in the Columbia faculty, Chavez and Ahmadinejerk all share something: they are incurable narcissists, those that have long ago adopted the saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

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Since I do not know how long the WSJ keeps up its pieces, I am posting the whole thing below.

Columbia's Conceit
Exactly what would it have accomplished to "engage in a debate" with Hitler?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

On Saturday John Coatsworth, acting dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, made the remark that "if Hitler were in the United States and . . . if he were willing to engage in a debate and a discussion to be challenged by Columbia students and faculty, we would certainly invite him." This was by way of defending the university's decision to host a speech yesterday by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

An old rule of thumb in debate tournaments is that the first one to say "Hitler" loses. But say what you will about Mr. Coatsworth's comment, it is, at bottom, a philosophical claim: about the purposes of education; about the uses of dialogue; about the obligations of academia; about the boundaries (or absence of boundaries) of modern liberalism and about its conceits. So rather than dismiss the claim out of hand, let's address it in the same philosophical spirit in which it was offered.

A few preliminaries: When Mr. Coatsworth postulated Hitler's visit, he specified the year 1939, just prior to Germany's invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II. This, then, is not yet the Hitler of Auschwitz, though it is the Hitler of Dachau, the Nuremberg Laws, Guernica and Kristallnacht. Mr. Coatsworth takes the optimistic view that "an appearance by Hitler at Columbia could have led him to appreciate what a great power the U.S. had already become," and thus, presumably, kept America from war.

Less clear is whether Mr. Coatsworth issued his invitation in the name of Columbia's current faculty or on behalf the faculty of the 1930s or '40s. We'll assume the answer is the current faculty, since it's unlikely that a committee led by Jacques Barzun, Mark van Doren, Lionel Trilling or other Columbia luminaries of the day would have had much use for "discussion" with the Führer (though it seems Columbia hosted a speech by Hans Luther, Hitler's U.S. ambassador, in 1933).

What, then, would be the purpose of such an invitation? Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, offered a clue in a statement issued last week: "Columbia, as a community dedicated to learning and scholarship, is committed to confronting ideas--to understand the world as it is and as it might be," he said. "Necessarily, on occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most or even all of us will find offensive and even odious. We trust our community, including our students, to be fully capable of dealing with these occasions, through dialogue and reason."

That's an interesting thought, coming from a man who won't countenance an ROTC program on campus. But leave that aside. What's more important is the question of how Columbia defines the set of ideas it believes are worth "confronting," whether its confidence in "dialogue and reason" is well placed and, finally, whether confronting ideas is a sufficient condition for understanding the world.

In a March 1952 essay in Commentary magazine on "George Orwell and the Politics of Truth," Trilling observed that "the gist of Orwell's criticism of the liberal intelligentsia was that they refused to understand the conditioned way of life." Orwell, he wrote, really knew what it was like to live under a totalitarian regime--unlike, say, George Bernard Shaw, who had "insisted upon remaining sublimely unaware of the Russian actuality," or H.G. Wells, who had "pooh-poohed the threat of Hitler." By contrast, Orwell "had the simple courage to point out that the pacifists preached their doctrine under condition of the protection of the British navy, and that, against Germany and Russia, Gandhi's passive resistance would have been to no avail."

Trilling took the point a step further, assailing the intelligentsia's habit of treating politics as a "nightmare abstraction" and "pointing to the fearfulness of the nightmare as evidence of their sense of reality." To put this in the context of Mr. Coatsworth's hypothetical, Trilling might have said that in hosting and perhaps debating Hitler, Columbia's faculty and students would not have been "confronting" him, much as they might have gulled themselves into believing they were. Hitler at Columbia would merely have been a man at a podium, offering his "ideas" on this or that, and not the master of a huge terror apparatus bearing down on you. To suggest that such an event amounts to a confrontation, or offers a perspective on reality, is a bit like suggesting that one "confronts" a wild animal by staring at it through its cage at a zoo.

There is also the question of just what ideas would be presented by Hitler at Mr. Coatsworth's hypothetical conference, and whether they would be an accurate reflection of his beliefs and intentions. In his 1933 speech, Ambassador Luther made the case for Hitler's "peaceful intentions" in Europe, according to historian Rafael Medoff. Millions of Europeans believed this right up to September 1939, just as millions of Americans did right up to December 1941.

Let's assume, however, that Hitler had used the occasion of his speech not just to dissimulate but to really air his mind, to give vent not just to Germany's historical grievances but to his own apocalyptic ambitions. In "Terror and Liberalism" (2003), Columbia alumnus Paul Berman observes the way in which prewar French socialists--keenly aware and totally opposed to Hitler's platform--nonetheless took the view that Germany had to be accommodated and that the real threat to peace came from their own "warmongers and arms manufacturers." This notion, Mr. Berman writes, rested in turn on a philosophical belief that "even the enemies of reason cannot be the enemies of reason. Even the unreasonable must be, in some fashion, reasonable."

So there is Adolf Hitler on our imagined stage, ranting about the soon-to-be-fulfilled destiny of the Aryan race. And his audience of outstanding Columbia men are mostly appalled, as they should be. But they are also engrossed, and curious, and if it occurs to some of them that the man should be arrested on the spot they don't say it. Nor do they ask, "How will we come to terms with his world?" Instead, they wonder how to make him see "reason," as reasonable people do.

In just a few years, some of these men will be rushing a beach at Normandy or caught in a firefight in the Ardennes. And the fact that their ideas were finer and better than Hitler's will have done nothing to keep them and millions of their countrymen from harm, and nothing to get them out of its way.

Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. His column appears in the Journal Tuesdays.

-The end-

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