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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Hoffa Got "Ahmadinejadized"


The insane amount of tsuris and pearl-clutching that has arisen out of Teamsters’ President James Hoffa’s Labor Day speech and whether an apology is in order, or whether President Obama should distance himself from those comments is . . . well, insane.  This is an entirely manufactured scandal, the outrage exhibited by Teabaggers and the Fox News chasing media having been conjured out of thin air. 

Unfortunately, this is also nothing new.  Manufacturing outrage by misquoting a political speaker in order to make it appear that speaker was advocating violence is an old way to demonize one’s enemies.  When that occurs in connection with domestic politics, as here, it is just a sad commentary on the state of our discourse and how easily the Republican Wurlitzer can mislead a large swathe of the American public in order to gin up the GOP base against their political enemies.

But when it occurs in the context of talking about – say – Iran, it becomes something much more dangerous, because it provides grist for the warmongers among us who are still so very, very anxious to march on Tehran.

Watching the pseudo-scandal around Hoffa’s speech unfold, the first thing it reminded me of was how a fairly innocuous speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad back in 2005 was mistranslated and misquoted to give the impression that Ahmadinejad had “threatened to wipe Israel off the map.”  For many, it may seem like a huge stretch to connect the two, but let’s consider the parallels between the cases.

Everybody here’s got to vote.  If we go back and keep the eye on the prize, let’s take these son of a bitches out and give America back to America where we belong!  Thank you very much!

Absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Hoffa is clearly calling on people to vote out of office the politicians with whom he (and they) disagree.  Doing so is what America’s system of governance is all about.  But, of course, Fox News dishonestly edited the speech so that Hoffa’s sentence appears to begin with the words “Let’s take these son of a bitches out . . . ” clearly making it sound a lot more as if Hoffa is advocating violence.  It was this dishonest editing that quickly got passed around and generated calls for apologies and for White House distancing.

But what is truly sad about this event is that it demonstrates how effective a false allegation can be in the political world, even after everyone knows it to be false.  Although Hoffa’s comments are entirely within the realm of reasonable political discourse – let’s vote the bastards out! - the media nevertheless is still trying to peddle a controversy based on these statements. 

I can think of at least three reasons for this:

            1.         Our Feckless Media. Well, it’s the media isn’t it?  A mock scandal is easier and sexier to cover than is a real issue.

            2.         Cokie's Law – named after Cokie Roberts, who helpfully explained how today’s political media works:  “At this point it doesn’t much matter whether [it’s true or not] because it’s become part of the culture.  I was at the beauty parlor yesterday and this is all anyone was talking about."

            And, related to Cokie’s Law,

            3.         Our Unshakeable Initial BeliefsThe unfortunate fact is that once someone comes to strongly believe a claim, being told that claim is actually false makes that person even more likely to believe it; this, in fact, is why many Conservatives still believe Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and why smear campaigns can be so effective.

Of course, the Republicans have long recognized that simply throwing out a false but exciting bit of controversy can be enough to serve their purposes.  The rest of the Villagers will pursue that controversy – to paraphrase Jon Stewart – like a bunch of 8-year olds chasing a soccer ball (Our Feckless Media).  And even after the original claim has proved to be totally unfounded and has been reported to have been totally unfounded, the claim is still “out there” in the heads of low information voters (Cokie’s Law).   And if Conservatives who believe the claim are later told that it is not true, that will only cause them to believe it even more (Our Unshakeable Initial Beliefs).

* * *

But let’s leave this small-scale political kerfuffle behind and consider just how dangerous this practice can be when it comes to things like, say, going to war.

In America, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is famous for having “threatened to wipe Israel off the map.”  In fact, this may be what Ahmadinejad is best known for over here, and is routinely cited as evidence that Iran is so unhinged in its hatred that it would risk its own annihilation just to eliminate Israel.  Only last year Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren once again told Wolf Blitzer on CNN that Ahmadinejad had called for the destruction of Israel “and was therefore speaking of genocide.”

Only one problem:  Ahmadinejad never said any such thing.

Juan Cole, middle-east scholar and translator of both Arabic and Persian, addressed this years ago:

[Ahmadinejad] made an analogy to Khomeini's determination and success in getting rid of the Shah's government, which Khomeini said "must go" (az bain bayad berad).  Then Ahmadinejad defined Zionism not as an Arab-Israeli national struggle but as a Western plot to divide the world of Islam with Israel as the pivot of this plan.

The phrase he then used as I read it is “The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods) must [vanish from] from [sic] the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad).”

Ahmadinejad was not making a threat, he was quoting a saying of Khomeini and urging that pro-Palestinian activists in Iran not give up hope – that the occupation of Jerusalem was no more a continued inevitability than had been the hegemony of the Shah’s government.

Whatever this quotation from a decades-old speech of Khomeini may have meant, Ahmadinejad did not say that “Israel must be wiped off the map” with the implication that phrase has of Nazi-style extermination of a people.  He said that the occupation regime over Jerusalem must be erased from the page of time.  (emphasis added).

According to Cole, Ahmadinejad seems to have been calling for a political change in the control of Jerusalem.  He wasn’t calling for violence, he was instead calling for an end to what he perceives to be the occupation of Jerusalem.  And his hope for such an end wasn't necessarily misplaced.  As Cole notes later, “Ariel Sharon erased the occupation regime over Gaza from the page of time” -- presumably Ahmadinejad could hope for the same thing with respect to Jerusalem.

* * *

Now, please understand.  I have no brief for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and neither apparently does Juan Cole:

I should again underline that I personally despise everything Ahmadinejad stands for, not to mention the odious Khomeini, who had personal friends of mine killed so thoroughly that we have never recovered their bodies.  Nor do I agree that the Israelis have no legitimate claim on any part of Jerusalem.  And, I am not a exactly a pacifist but have a strong preference for peaceful social activism over violence, so needless to say I condemn the sort of terror attacks against innocent civilians (including Arab Israelis) that we saw last week.

But in order to function as a representative democracy, we need access to accurate information.  Ahmadinejad may be a bad man, but then so was Saddam Hussein.  The majority of this nation was convinced that we needed to invade Iraq because The Powers That Be scared us with talk of weapons of mass destruction and intimations that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved with the 9/11 attacks.  I tend to doubt very strongly that the United States would have committed so egregious a foreign policy blunder had The Powers not lied to us.

And the same thing applies here.  Yes, the United States has a very special relationship with Israel and – yes – if Israel were actually being threatened with its elimination then of course the United States would step in militarily.  The fact that every other nation in the world – including Iran – knows this is one of the reasons that I personally don’t think Israel is much threatened with elimination.

But, of course, I could always be wrong and if new evidence is presented me then I can always change my mind.  But just as with scary stories of Nigerian yellowcake and non-existent mobile biological weapons labs, that evidence shouldn’t be manufactured for the purpose of getting me to agree to something I otherwise would not.

And the crime of “manufacturing evidence” to get me to believe something applies to dishonest editing, translating or reporting of any political speeches – whether they are made by the President of the Teamsters Union, by the President of Iran or, say, by the President of Venezuela.  The same principle – accuracy of information – must apply in all cases, and if we are going to condemn the misreporting of Hoffa’s speech then we should – indeed, given how much more serious an effect it could have we must – also condemn any misreporting of speeches by foreign leaders with whom we “disagree."

UPDATE:  I Cross-Posted this over at The Daily Kos, where it generated a good deal of . . . well, let's call it consternation.  Via a Kossack named Corwin Weber, it appears that Juan Cole (and the UK'sGuardian, it seems) may have gotten this one wrong.  Mr. Weber directed me to a New York Times article that contains this statement:
But translators in Tehran who work for the president's office and the foreign ministry disagree with them. All official translations of Mr. Ahmadinejad's statement, including a description of it on his Web site (www.president.ir/eng/), refer to wiping Israel away.

I attempted to click on the link in the NYT article, but that is no longer valid.  However,  I have no reason to doubt that the Times correctly characterized the official translation released by Iran.

So I pretty much have to update this post to reflect the fact that Prof. Cole got that one wrong.
But while the choice of the specific analogy used in this post may have been unfortunate, I want to be clear that I believe its point still stands.  Just as I tried to be quite clear in my responses to some of the comments posted over at The Great Orange Satan, this never was about defending Ahmadinejad but was, instead, about insisting that the information with which we are presented is correct.  If - as it now appears - the translation provided by Prof. Cole and others was incorrect, then I am more than happy to acknowledge that fact.  Getting it right was the real point here.  

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