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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ahmadinejad's trutherism played to the crowd

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the United States of carrying out the 9/11 terror attacks at the UN last week, Americans were outraged at the obvious fraud and blood libel contained in Ahmadinejad's statement. But they weren't the intended audience.
Could it work? Like any politician, Ahmadinejad knows his demographic. The University of Maryland's World Public Opinion surveys have found that just 2% of Pakistanis believe al Qaeda perpetrated the attacks, whereas 27% believe it was the U.S. government. (Most respondents say they don't know.)

Among Egyptians, 43% say Israel is the culprit, while another 12% blame the U.S. Just 16% of Egyptians think al Qaeda did it. In Turkey, opinion is evenly split: 39% blame al Qaeda, another 39% blame the U.S. or Israel. Even in Europe, Ahmadinejad has his corner. Fifteen percent of Italians and 23% of Germans finger the U.S. for the attacks.

Deeper than the polling data are the circumstances from which they arise. There's always the temptation to argue that the problem is lack of education, which on the margins might be true. But the conspiracy theories cited earlier are retailed throughout the Muslim world by its most literate classes, journalists in particular. Irrationalism is not solely, or even mainly, the province of the illiterate.

Nor is it especially persuasive to suggest that the Muslim world needs more abundant proofs of American goodwill: The HAARP fantasy, for example, is being peddled at precisely the moment when Pakistanis are being fed and airlifted to safety by U.S. Marine helicopters operating off the USS Peleliu.

What Ahmadinejad knows is that there will always be a political place for what Michel Foucault called "the sovereign enterprise of Unreason." This is an enterprise whose domain encompasses the politics of identity, of religious zeal, of race or class or national resentment, of victimization, of cheek and self-assertion. It is the politics that uses conspiracy theory not just because it sells, which it surely does, or because it manipulates and controls, which it does also, but because it offends. It is politics as a revolt against empiricism, logic, utility, pragmatism. It is the proverbial rage against the machine.

Chances are you know people to whom this kind of politics appeals in some way, large or small. They are Ahmadinejad's constituency. They may be irrational; he isn't crazy.
What could go wrong?


At 8:42 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Irrationality and fanaticism can bring people along.

Hitler proved it in Germany. The truth does not matter as much as the speaker's passions.

Hate is more powerful than love and the masses are more easily persuaded by someone who dominates them and arouses their dark side over someone who reasons with them and appeals to their better nature.

Yes, that does play to the crowd. Always has and under certain conditions always will. Truth and logic have a limited political utility in certain places in this world.


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