High-profile arguments between pundits, experts or intellectuals can be distracting sideshows. But the online fight between U. of Michigan history professor Juan Cole and neocon writer Christopher Hitchens, over the accuracy of translated remarks of Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is important. And potentially useful in preventing the neocons from successfully re-running the Iraq playbook for Iran.
(For details of the fight, check out these two blog posts from Prof. Cole. Additional blog takes from Just World News, CorrenteWire, Left I on the News, Sadly, No, Peking Duck, Pharyngula and Firedoglake.)
The key substantive point of dispute is: did or did not Ahmadinejad say that Israel should be "wiped off the map"?
Those agitating for war in Iran have repeated the alleged quote ad nauseam, to make the case that Iran is irrational and cannot be dealt with diplomatically. And as I have noted on LiberalOasis before, the argument over whether Iran is rational or irrational is "the ballgame," between persuading the American public that either direct talks are worthwhile or we have no choice but to launch a military strike.
Juan Cole argued in a private, off-the-record email group that the "wiped off the map" translation was wrong. Hitchens took one of those emails and proceeded to attack Cole's analysis in Slate. Yesterday, Cole wrote on his blog:
The precise reason for Hitchens' theft and publication of my private mail is that I object to the characterization of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as having "threatened to wipe Israel off the map." I object to this translation of what he said on two grounds.
First, it gives the impression that he wants to play Hitler to Israel's Poland, mobilizing an armored corps to move in and kill people. But the actual quote, which comes from an old speech of [Ayatollah] Khomeini, does not imply military action, or killing anyone at all.
The second reason is that it is just an inexact translation. The phrase is almost metaphysical. He quoted Khomeini that "the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time." It is in fact probably a reference to some phrase in a medieval Persian poem. It is not about tanks.
Cole then shared another one of his private emails that was part of the original discussion:
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.
Again, Ariel Sharon erased the occupation regime over Gaza from the page of time.
(Cole also stressed 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.")
The neocons had been successfully making the "wiped" quote accepted by the mainstream media as undisputed fact. Yet there were differing translations from the get-go. The NY Times provided the "wiped" translation. But MEMRI (no fans of Juan Cole) translated the line nearly exactly as Cole had it: "This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history."
And despite Hitchens' argument that if the "wiped" translation was wrong, "Ahmadinejad would have denied it," Iranian officials have on at least two occasions (Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh on CNN and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki during a Feb. news conference) challenged the translation.
Now, if we can attract more attention to the substantive dispute of the Cole-Hitchens fight, we will also call attention to the fact that translations are tricky business. And those with political agendas can selectively choose translations to obscure the big picture and manipulate the media.
If the media can be conditioned to understand that they should be extra careful with translations pushed by the neocons, we will have taken a big step to thwarting the White House agenda to dishonestly paint the Iranian government as irrational and fast-track us to war.