Saturday, May 20, 2006

Competing Authorities

Juan Cole today recounts an exchange with a journalist:
"I had a very disturbing short email correspondence with a reporter of a major national newspaper who used the inaccurate 'wiped off the face of the map' quote. When challenged, he said it was 'carried by the news wires and is well known' or words to that effect. I pointed out that the 'quote' was attributed to a specific speech and that the statement was inaccurately translated. When challenged further he alleged that his trusted translator in Tehran affirmed that Ahmadinejad had said the phrase. When that was challenged, he reported that the translator said that anyway he had said something like it. When I pointed out that the translator was either lying or lazy, the reporter took offense that I had insulted a trusted colleague! I conclude that this reporter is attached to the phrase. He complained about being challenged by 'bloggers' and said he was tempted to stop reading 'blogs.'"

In one sense the exact translation here is academic, as no one doubts Ahmadinejad hates Israel. As we saw during the Khatami years, however, the President is hardly the main power base in Iran, and so despite the need of some on the right for an arch-villian against whom they can whip up war fever, you also need to consider the majlis and more importantly Ayatollah Khamene'i and others in the clerical overlay to Iran's more democratic institutions.

In terms of that translation itself, however, I've come to belief Juan Cole has it right, not only in the literal wording, but in its larger essence. He once posted something like, "It's probably from an old Persian poem or something." I'm not sure I have the right to source this very specifically, but scholars who work on jihadi rhetoric have said that these tapes that get released contain a lot of very classical poetic language, and I see no reason why Ayatollah Khomeini should have been any different when he made his speech. Juan Cole, who has been the editor for the International Journal of Middle East Studies and is pretty well-connected with knowledge of both Arabic and Persian, probably has a sense of this, and is far better able to comment on Persian idioms than journalists. Dismissing him as a blogger is pretty silly, and calls to mind these comments by Matthew Yglesias:
"One of the most neglected aspects of the blogosphere, in my opinion, is that precisely because it's (mostly) composed of people who aren't professional journalists, it's composed of people who are professional doers of something else and know a great deal about what it is they 'really' do. Consequently, the overall network of blogs contains a great deal of embedded knowledge. The consensus that emerges from that process can, of course, be mistaken but even though the most prominent people expressing that consensus may not be experts in the subject at hand (the most prominent bloggers tend to be generalists), the consensus will almost always be grounded in some kind of well-informed opinions. If you want to push back on that, in other words, you'd better know what you're talking about and not treat your audience like a pack of mewling children."


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