Remember when Iranian President Ahmadinejad came to speak at the UN? I’d always had mixed feelings about him; on the one hand, he’s the head of state of an extremely authoritarian country, so he’s certainly no good guy. On the other hand, however, his country had become the latest target of the Neo-Cons’ “quick, let’s attack some third-world brown people to distract the American people from their deteriorating standard of living and liberties” campaign, so I was loathe to wholeheartedly embrace the hypocritical condemnations coming out of liberty-hating “conservatives” centered around the National Review, Weekly Standard, FreeRepublic.com, etc.
In the midst of the furor, he happened to also be scheduled to speak at Columbia University, which immediately sparked controversy. Under pressure for all manner of outside groups, the administration there took the position that they were in no way endorsing what he stood for, but believed the world would be better served by providing opportunities for dialog rather than censorship. Liberty-hating neo-cons raged against this decision as enabling a tyrant, but events proved their authoritarian approach profoundly misguided.
Ahmadinejad took the stage, and the speech was fairly predictable boilerplate. However, the Columbia administration made sure to allow for a question and answer period, and a student took the opportunity to ask Ahmadinejad about the persecution of queer people in Iran, and specifically the recent execution of two gay men. The President of Iran responded “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.” The crowd was silent for a moment, and then burst into laughter. In that moment, the leader of an authoritarian theocracy transformed himself into a clown.
I always found that moment to be profoundly striking, because it was a moment of truth. Our perceptions of the powerful people in the world are being managed virtually all the time through carefully scripted public appearances and speeches. What’s more, even when we see the powerful with their hair down a bit, so to speak, it’s generally in the company of other powerful people who have a similar incentive to makes sure they are perceived favorably. We see a photograph of a tyrant and the leader of a progressive European democracy smiling and shaking hands at some international meeting, and are thus implicitly told that the tyrant is “okay” despite the fact that he could be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. In this brief, unscripted moment, the veneer cracked, and we saw the violent bigot behind the mask of modern public relations.
A similar mask-shattering moment occurred recently to another high-level public official; this time he was an American. Faced with the daunting prospect of selling $2 trillion worth of bonds to cover the bailout budget, Treasure Secretary Geithner embarked on a whirlwind tour of China in order to reassure the biggest holder of US government debt in the world that “we’re good for it”. When, like Ahmadinejad, Geithner answered a question after having delivered a speech to a university by saying “Chinese assets are very safe”, he faced a gale of laughter. While the diplomatic rhetoric continues to flow from the Chinese government, the college students know the truth. That the United States is far past the point where we’re able to service our debts and remain a First World country.
The Federal Reserve is buying Treasury Bills with freshly created money. When money is introduced to a shrinking economy, inflation is the result; inflation helps debtors and hurts creditors, and the debtors own the printing press. Everyone in power already knows this, but they’ve been devoting their efforts to making sure the average Joe doesn’t see the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It took a room full of Chinese college students to call a spade a spade; hopefully that’s a signal that more people are waking up to the true crisis we’re currently beset by. If it’s true, then perhaps we can end finally end the vain (and expensive) attempts to revive to old financial and political order and begin to set about the enormous task of beginning to craft a new world.