Greetings from sunny New York—home to the 62nd United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). I arrived last Sunday, September 23rd in advance of the Monday kickoff. It’s been an interesting four days in the city, to say the least. So many sites. So many sounds. So many security checkpoints to get in innocent New Yorkers’ way (most have been amenable to the delays; others just roll their eyes and stomp their feet in disgust at “this stupid UNGA thing.”). It’s a nonstop spectacle of foreign dignitaries—all with their respective agendas, entourages, and motorcades to clog an already busy Manhattan.
So, here I am in the city that never sleeps – wait, isn’t that Las Vegas? Here I am in the city that never stops negotiating. From Wall Street to the General Assembly, there’s always a deal waiting to be struck. This is the time of year when the world’s governmental bodies come to the Big Apple, the United Nations Headquarters specifically, to talk about global issues like environmental concerns, international sanctions, poverty and war. Not only are they here to talk, they’re also here to be seen. I’ve never witnessed so many impeccably dressed people in one place. The Europeans walk through the lobby of our home for the week, the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel, in their grays and blacks. The Americans in their shiny lapel pins, power suits, and blackberries. The Africans in their colorful garbs and stylish headdresses. The Middle Easterners in their traditional dress.
It’s the time for flowery speech making at podiums and hand shaking in front of cameras. Even the most unliked and least admired receive their five minutes of fame during UNGA. The particularly unpopular Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, addressed the Assembly amid a fair share of empty seats on Tuesday. Just a day earlier, he gave a speech to a skeptical crowd of Columbia University students, where he was characterized by the university’s president as having “all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”
I was surprised by the frankness with which Columbia University president Lee Bollinger spoke, but was pleased all the same by his unfiltered words. The institution leader’s introductory remarks reinforced the existence of freedom of speech that we as Americans have enjoyed since the creation of this nation. If I could send Mr. Ahmadinejad a welcome message, it would go something like this: ‘Sure, you can have your time at the podium because that’s how we do things in the U.S. I don’t have to like what you say, because that’s what the American way of agreeing to disagree is all about. But just so you know, while you’re out pushing your agenda, there’s going to be a fair share of people just beyond the walls of the United Nations Headquarters, Columbia University’s lecture hall where you’ll be speaking, and on the streets of New York with a few thoughts of their own. Just thought you might want to know that people have voices here, aren’t afraid to use them, and refuse to go unheard. Welcome to America.’
In fairness to both sides of the debate, there were a handful of protestors outside the UN Headquarters who were proponents of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s policies. Again, you’ve got to love this country for the fact that all sides are able to freely voice their opinions to anyone and everyone that will listen.
I heard both sides. Here’s to agreeing to disagree…