There was something way over the top in Western responses to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's UN visit this week: There seemed to be a bull's eye painted on him as soon as he arrived in New York. Everyone was trying a bit too hard, as if they had something to prove.
Columbia University president Lee Bollinger introduced Iran's leader by saying his school was showing the "courage to confront the mind of evil," a fairly brazen way to welcome a campus guest. David Letterman called him and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez by schoolyard names, for no particular reason. Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson, referring to his critique of invasions of privacy in the U.S., groaned: "Stop, you're killing me."
Criticisms like those made against the Iranian leader can easily be made of the West, and George Bush, and often are: about Western hypocrisy regarding gays or women; or science being subjected to religious standards; or human-rights outrages such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib; or state sponsorship of terror - for which the U.S. has been condemned by the World Court. But criticism of "our" side isn't ever phrased as abusively. Columbia's Lee Bollinger said, "Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator." You can't imagine him saying anything like that to George Bush, along with, "I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterizes so much of what you say and do," though it would easily apply to the U.S. President. There's more than hypocrisy or imbalance in this choice of language; it implies a sense of entitlement, even privilege.
The Columbia president expressed that sense perfectly during his verbal assault. He said: "I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for." Why does he get to bear that weight, traditionally the white man's or Western man's burden?
It's not a question of which leader is the real buffoon. Both qualify. It's about who gets to draw the line, make the judgment, bear the burden. For most of modern history, it is voices in the West who got to do so for both "sides." We sent out the explorers and anthropologists, "they" didn't come to evaluate our strange ways; just as we now send most of the tourists and they receive us. As part of the package, we get to decide who is evil, or a buffoon. It's assumed that the standards reside on our side of the divide.
But the dawning change in the postcolonial world is that you don't just get ex-colonies that are formally independent - or genuinely independent. What's starting to happen is that customary Western ways of seeing reality can no longer be easily imposed. The dominating "gaze," as they say in cultural studies, is no longer solely that of former colonizers, even when it's been implanted in the heads of ex-colonials.
There's a new game. The gaze gets reversed. The West doesn't just get to die laughing at the goofy Eastern despot; the East can laugh at the inane Western bully. Think of Hugo Chavez gleefully waving a volume by Noam Chomsky at the UN last year while sniffing the lingering sulphurous odour of George Bush. It's this matter of who gets to laugh at whom, who gets to classify whom as joke or toxin, that may have led to those panicky overreactions during the Ahmadinejad visit. It's about who defines reality, a conflict far more important than some fictitious war of civilizations. The power of the West wasn't based on its higher civilizational values - it was based on its ability to dominate economically, militarily and culturally, through its way of seeing the world, which included the notion that it represented a higher civilization.
That's what Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad challenge when they come to the UN and strut their stuff. The issue isn't whether they're right or wrong, it's whether the civilizational playing field is finally being levelled.