Dispatch from the bowels of the Ivy League: Trapped in a room with a dictator for over one hour.
Rafael Correa, ruler of Ecuador, came to Yale University today. In one of the most embarrassing displays of self-aggrandizement ever seen by this professor, Mr. Correa brought the art of patting oneself on the back to new heights today (and that’s saying a lot, given the propensity of most academics to engage in such behavior).
Mr. Correa broke other records as well, such as delivering the most puerile and non-academic lecture imaginable, packing the greatest number of lies into a single presentation, and making some of the most outrageous and indefensible claims ever made at an Ivy League University (and that’s saying a lot, too, given the high number of questionable “experts”on the academic lecture circuit).
Security was tight. All of the upper end of Hillhouse Avenue was blocked off, and “No Parking” signs had been tied around its majestic pin oaks since yesterday.
Correa seemed oblivious to the fact that he had come to deliver his talk in a most ironic setting: the street where some of the earliest titans of the industrial revolution chose to build their mansions in the nineteenth century. Upper Hillhouse Avenue is so chock full of stately palaces that when Charles Dickens visited New Haven in 1868, he declared it “the most beautiful street in America.”
So Correa had come to the cradle of capitalist industry and trod the same ground as the hegemonic money-makers he hates so much: men who believed in inventing and making stuff and selling it to others, men who revered patent laws.
But Correa had not come into one of the mansions. His pseudo-lecture was in Luce Hall, one of the ugliest buildings at Yale, which the university’s worst administration allowed to be built in the 1990’s in the sole vacant space on Hillhouse Avenue.
It was an appropriate setting for an ugly speech by a dictator.
The lecture hall was packed. I recognized no one. Not a single person. If these were Yale people, I don’t know where they came from. I didn’t see any of my students, or colleagues, or any of Yale’s top administrators.
I would later find out why the top brass was absent. Correa had already held a very cozy news conference with Peter Salovey, the president of Yale.
Correa’s entourage was there in full force: lots of men in black suits, a few women too well-dressed for a college campus, two medal-bedecked military men, one in a green uniform, the other in a blue uniform.
The look on their faces reminded me of Goya’s painting “Saturn Devouring His Son.”
Correa was introduced by a Yale professor, Scott Strobel, a biologist who does research in the rain forests of Ecuador. Professor Strobel praised Correa as a man of vision, a builder of bridges and roads, a protector of environmental treasures, a guardian angel of the poor and dispossessed. Had Professor Strobel been familiar with Plato, he might have added that Correa was just like the philosopher kings described by the ancient Greek philosopher in The Republic.
Professor Strobel seemed unaware of his resemblance to everyone who ever praised Benito Mussolini for making the Italian trains run on time.
Much to my dismay, the Ecuadorian dictator droned on for over one hour. Directly in front of me, two men with laptops kept busy. One was in charge of the Powerpoint presentation, the other in charge of the teleprompter for El Presidente. The fact that I could read the words to Correa’s speech before he uttered them and see the images before they were projected on the giant screen lent a surreal air to event.
I fell asleep several times. I couldn’t help it. Correa’s talk could was so boring and I was so tired. I’d only had five hours of sleep last night. I stayed up till four a.m. writing a lecture for my class and had woken up at 9 so I could spend another three hours preparing for class.
The so-called lecture delivered by Correa was disgraceful. Its content was offensively infantile, irrational, and bombastic, nothing more than a huckster’s oily sermon, wholly unsuitable for an academic setting. Whoever invited him to Yale should be embarrassed.
Forget the fact that he had charts and graphs to prove that he was the best leader ever in all of Ecuador’s history. Forget all of the pseudo-facts he tossed at the audience concerning the four universities he has established. Forget the fact that he claimed a unique ability to discern what is just and moral. Forget the fact that he placed himself on a pedestal as a sainted patron of the downtrodden and a protector of the environment.
Correa also made some outrageous claims while glossing over all his offenses against human rights.
He demanded the “hegemonic” industrialized nations pay Ecuador and all other nations with rain forests for the oxygen produced by the trees in those forests. I let out a chuckle. Much to my surprise no one else laughed.
He also demanded that Ecuador be paid for all of the petroleum that he refuses to extract from its soil in order to keep the rain forest pristine. Not drilling for oil costs Ecuador billions of dollars, he complained. Some clapped enthusiastically.
And he demanded that the “hegemonic” industrialized nations pay fines to the non-industrialized nations as recompense for the air pollution caused by their industries and vehicles. More applause.
Even more applause greeted his proposal to abolish intellectual property and patents. No one should charge for what they invent, and perhaps not even for what they manufacture, he argued.
He called these proposals “a new distribution of labor” and railed against the present “world order” as unjust and “immoral.”
He made a few other outrageous claims, but they’re really not worth mentioning.
The question-and-answer session after his pseudo-lecture was an even worse offense against the intelligence of everyone seated in that auditorium, though most of the audience seemed not to notice.
Blank cards had been distributed before the talk, on which the audience could submit questions. It’s an old trick, and the best possible way to give an illusion of openness while tightly controlling the audience’s freedom of expression.
I wrote two questions, one on each side of my card. One asked him to explain his repressive measures against free speech. The other asked him to elucidate on his enthusiastic support for the criminal Castro regime in Cuba.
Master of cermonies Professor Strobel rose from his seat, a stack of question-bearing cards in his right hand. Though he was holding dozens of questions from the audience and knew damn well that the clock was ticking fast, he ignored the audience’s questions and asked one of his own, about the environment.
Correa babbled on for a long time about the environment and the “new distribution of labor” and the “injustices” of the hegemonic industrialized nations.
Then Professor Strobel tossed out a question actually written by an audience member. It was a good question. Correa was asked why he had given refuge to Julian Assange, master leaker of classified information, while he himself repressed free speech in Ecuador. Correa became very agitated.
He began by evading the question, defending the sovereignty of all nations and claiming that Assange needed to be protected from the inhumane United States where he could have been sentenced to death. Then, he waxed philosophical and actually began to answer the question. His answer was as ugly as it was equivocal.
The biggest problem in Latin America, he claimed, was the fact that it has always been controlled by a very small number of privileged elites. Those elites, he also claimed, have always controlled the press. This means that every time he tries to do something for the poor and downtrodden, the press criticizes him. Such an awful concentration of power in a few hands not only needs to be broken, he argued, but is actually being broken by him. Then he seemed to catch the drift of what he was saying and backtracked, claiming that in Ecuador there is full freedom of expression and that he has silenced no one at all. “How can anyone say there is no freedom of the press in Ecuador when the press criticizes me every day?,” he quipped.
Thunderous applause from the audience, and laughter too.
The third and last question was about indigenous peoples, and Professor Strobel made it clear this was the absolutely last question.
That’s when I walked out. I was the only one to walk out during that long torture session.
I don’t care to know how it all ended.
Some of my colleagues were invited to dine with the tyrant. I was not. It would have been so nice to turn down the invitation.
It’s been a long Lent this year. Of course, every Lent lasts exactly forty days and no Lent can be longer than any other. But this one started later than most, and spring has been delayed longer than usual up here in these “hegemonic” latitudes. It seems longer, feels longer.
And that time I spent with the dictator, being assaulted by his words — especially by “hegemonic”– enduring the torture of the audience’s applause, which seared the core my soul: what about that time?
Staying put in that seat, waiting to see if one of my questions might be read to the dictator– knowing fully well that it would not happen — that might qualify as the most severe Lenten penance I have ever endured.