I know some of my friends are upset about Dave Weigel’s account of last weeks’ Milton Friedman dinner, which focused on the audience reaction to Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji’s Friedman Award acceptance speech. Now, I was seated a table or two down from Dave, and his description matches my recollection, as far as it goes. Ganji got a thundering standing ovation as he took the stage, but the reaction was more muted as (through a translator) he delivered a strong indictment of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and in particular its support for both Israel and despotic secular Arab regimes. The only notable applause line (before the end) was a quotation from George Bush.
But I think the inference Dave tacitly draws—that the crowd was out of sympathy with Ganji’s critique and supportive of George Bush—is quite wrong. Indeed, I suspect the majority view in the room was just the reverse. At any rate, I know I was substantially in agreement, and I think I clapped at the same points.
Why? Well, first, even if you’re not especially jingoistic, and even when the speaker is a hero like Ganji, and even when you agree with the basic substance of what he’s saying, I think most people feel a little awkward listening to a lecture from a foreigner about their country’s misdeeds. I don’t remember exactly what the Bush line was, but it was a natural applause line in an otherwise fairly wonkish disquisition, and as Ganji deployed it (not entirely consistently with Bush’s original intent, I suspect) the quotation was in line with the general tenor of his remarks. Also, I think people may have finally felt they had “permission” to applaud the critique when it was filtered through a domestic source.
In short, I think Dave’s account was descriptively correct but misleading in what it implies about the crowd’s attitude to what they were hearing.