“if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
“we create our own reality of sorts. […] We are history’s actors because we have the courage to do what’s necessary.”
Adviser to G.W. Bush, quoted by journalist Ron Suskind
Recently, Israel’s minister of intelligence and atomic energy made an unexpected admission. In an interview with Al Jazeera, he conceded that, contrary to popular belief and much political fanfare, Iran’s president had never promised to”‘wipe out” the state of Israel.
Dan Meridor’s statement has been judged as both consequential and irrelevant in equal measure, but the most interesting result of the admission has been the way the spin machine has managed to slip back into gear so quickly, smoothing over the implications of the comment and rushing out new lines and new assertions to reinforce the same message.
George Orwell was not alone in recognising how, in politics as in marketing, the cunning formulation of words can initiate a reliable pattern of behaviour – emotional response generates a favoured interpretation which leads to accepted belief and, ultimately, to action.
In the “wipe off the map” controversy, and in the reams of comment and argument that have followed the Meridor interview, we can see this process of “thought corruption” in action.
Now it must be said that Israel was not responsible for putting any words, cunningly formulated or otherwise, into the mouth of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The original translation of his comments was, as best as I can determine, provided by Iran’s own government staff.
But by the time the inaccuracy was noted and a precise translation was at hand, it was already too late.
Aided by the media, Israel had adopted the phrase at face value and had worked hard to establish it in mainstream public consciousness.
A pithy phrase does have a habit of sticking in the mind, and once this one found root it became the basis upon which an entire anti-Iran narrative was built.
Statement of fact
It seems the the strength and durability of this particular belief was barely tested by Meridor’s admission, because despite being revealed as erroneous, its essential message has survived intact.
A recent piece in the New York Times demonstrates how.
The piece, a blog post by Robert Mackey, begins with a precisely worded statement of fact:
Although there is general agreement now among translators and scholars that Mr. Ahmadinejad did not commit his country to the project of destroying the state of Israel in that 2005 speech, the phrase that was wrongly attributed to him then remains so firmly rooted in the popular imagination that it is frequently used as evidence of Iran’s genocidal intentions.
At first blush, the statement in italics leaves no doubt: Ahmadinejad was not only mistranslated, but even the mistranslation was not a statement of Iranian government policy.
But what of the phrase that follows the italics?
The qualifier “in that 2005 speech” opens the door to the suggestion that while Ahmadinejad did not threaten Israel on the occasion in question, the threat was repeated elsewhere.
Having aired that suggestion, the rest of the Times article attempts to back it up.
It quickly reels off a series of other elements that buttress the Israeli position and propagate the idea of “Iran’s genocidal intentions”. [Itself a powerful phrase but subtly employed the sentence construction seems to render the phrase benign, but the idea sticks in the mind nonetheless.]
Mackey references Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Washington DC, in which he gave President Barack Obama a copy of the Biblical Book of Esther, and states baldly that the book “recounts the tale of a Persian leader who wanted to annihilate the Jews”.
Then follows a quote from Netanyahu: “Then, too, they wanted to wipe us out.”
But neither of these assertions are correct, a point I made in the comments section of the article.
I received a reply:
I’m not clear on your objection – is it that the post did not state that the story in the Book of Esther is not history? If so, it is beyond the scope of this blog to start adjudicating which tales from religious texts of the distant past are history and which are myth, but there is a link in the post at that point to an article in the Christian Science Monitor that notes the story might be fictional.
So the author was absolutely comfortable with mis-representing “religious texts of the distant past” , but felt that accurately representing them would amount to adjudication, and thus be “beyond the scope of this blog”.
Instead, he offered a link to something else as a token geture towards establishing balance.
But regurgitating Netanyahu’s fictional take on history was not the end of it. Here’s the next paragraph:
In January, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, told a New York Times Magazine writer: “The Iranians are, after all, a nation whose leaders have set themselves a strategic goal of wiping Israel off the map.”
So having only a few moments earlier debunked the “wipe off the map” story, the Times then reinstates it through the mouth of Ehud Barak.
Perhaps Barak was referring to a different occasion in which this threat was made. Since we’re not told, we have to assume it’s a reference to the same Ahmadinejad speech.
So what purpose, then, does the Barak quote serve? Is the Times trying to hint that Barak is untrustworthy because he seems unaware of the “general agreement among translators and scholars”?
Or perhaps the author thought he was providing some useful background, you know, the kind that doesn’t amount to “history” and is thus acceptable.
But if that were the case, why does he not make a single reference to the many other comments made by President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei, official policy statements that stress abhorrence of nuclear weapons and denying any intent to attack Israel? Isn’t that relevant background?
Instead, Mackey does provide a link to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and tells us that they have “compiled an interesting collection of photographs”.
And just in case some readers don’t know how to follow links, the piece helpfully reprints a some of the photographs in question, all of which perpetuate the anti-Iranian theme and the “wipe off the map” narrative.
A weak disclaimer confirming the “pro-Israeli perspective” of his link is the toeken attempt at balance, but once again, the “wipe off the map” meme is given prominence.
My point here is not to nitpick a single article. But when a newspaper that presents itself as the most balanced in world perpetuates a myth at the same time as professing to debunk it, then I would suggest that not only have we seen a prime example of language becoming thought but also a demonstration of its remarkable power to cloud judgement.
Not long after the Meridor interview, Israel’s Defence Minster Ehud Barak went on CNN.
Asked whether Meridor’s words were significant, Barak was dismissive. As with the New York Times, Barak’s strategy was simply to keep the fear fires burning by providing fresh accusations to support the “existential threat from Iran” narrative.
Barak denounced Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons as a lie because, he claimed, lying is permissable in Islamic scripture.
Evidence of the duplicity, he said, can be seen in the fact that Iran’s Supreme leader had “scolded”, in Barak’s terms, Muammar Gaddaffi for giving up his nuclear programme.
It remains to be seen whether these talking points will exercise the same grip on mainstream imagination as the “wipe off the map” story, or whether this less partisan perspective will find its way into the debate, and into the mainstream media.
In the meantime, Netanyahu has also kept up the pressure from a different angle, returning to one of his personal favourite doomsday invocations.
At a remembrance ceremony of the Nazi holocaust, Netanyahu once again accused Iran of following the Nazi lead, and once again ignored the more sober perspectives offered by those who might have a valid reason to invoke such spectres but don’t.
So as the propaganda process grinds on and as more words become thoughts, we find ourselves inching ever closer to action, and a point where all the debates held thus far would be rendered irrelevant.
For as as Ron Suskind’s source pointed out, history’s actors feel no need to dwell in the “reality-based community”, nor to constrain themselves with inconvenient facts when half truths and distortions will serve their purpose better.
And however ugly and brutal their actions, and the new realities those actions create, it must be reassuring to know there’s big brother to pick up the pieces.