Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad grabbed attention this past week for his “defiant” posture towards the United Nations over Iran’s nuclear program and his asinine comments at Columbia University on the absence of homosexuality in his home country.
But what may be more revealing than what the speeches tell us about him as a man, or even about the worsening tensions in U.S.-Iran relations, is what the reaction to his visit says about the state of democratic discourse in America.
In a replay of the hate-filled hysteria over Iraq’s Saddam Hussein that swept the nation in fall 2002, the U.S. political and media establishment lashed out without restraint against the Iranian president.
The one-sided condemnations of Ahmadinejad also contrasted with the uncritical praise for George W. Bush after his UN speech on Sept. 25, urging the UN to more aggressively promote human rights and oppose authoritarian regimes around the world.
Inadvertently, however, the confluence of these events served to highlight a creeping form of authoritarianism in America. The contrasting treatment of the two world leaders was a case study in what a leading scholar of authoritarianism, Robert Altemeyer, identifies as “authoritarian submission” and “authoritarian aggression.”
By "authoritarian submission," he means a high degree of submission to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society of which one is a member. "Authoritarian aggression" is characterized by hostility toward people who are perceived to be disapproved by the established authorities.
Both of these tendencies have been apparent in the past couple of weeks, especially around Bush’s and Ahmadinejad’s addresses to the United Nations.
In contrast to the vitriol directed at Ahmadinejad for daring to even step foot in New York, Bush was essentially given a free pass over his many hypocritical statements in his address to the General Assembly.
Typical of the coverage of Bush’s speech was a report from Bloomberg.com, which noted without a hint of irony that Bush “challenged the United Nations to return to its founding principles and take the lead in opposing repressive regimes and championing the cause of human rights and freedom around the world.”
Bush faulted the UN for the world’s deteriorating human rights situation, saying that its Universal Declaration of Human Rights “is not being upheld.”
Bush Abuses Forgotten
Virtually no one in the U.S. media spelled out what the individual rights were in the 1948 declaration – presumably because Bush had violated so many of them – nor did the American press corps delve into the conflict between the UN and the Bush administration over its alleged human rights abuses.
The fact that the UN and other international organizations have long called on Bush to adhere to international standards in his prosecution of the “war on terror” was largely ignored by the U.S. media in its coverage of Bush’s speech.
There was no mention, for instance, of the UN’s call in February 2006 to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, and either bring the detainees before a competent tribunal, or release them.
Five independent investigators of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights made this recommendation after an 18-month investigation into the situation of detainees at that U.S. Naval Base. The recommendation was endorsed by Secretary General Kofi Annan, who said he hoped the prison camp would be shut down “as soon as is possible.”
A year and a half later, the camp is still fully operational, and hundreds of suspects continue to languish there without charges, with little hope of ever being freed.
The U.S. also still maintains an unknown number of secret CIA prisons at undisclosed places around the world, continues to practice “enhanced interrogation” techniques that essentially amount to torture, and continues “extraordinary renditions” in which terror suspects are sent to countries that are known to practice torture.
This important context disappeared in the U.S. press coverage which dutifully reported on President Bush slamming the UN for abandoning the cause of human rights around the world and calling on the international body to return to its founding principles of promoting freedom and democracy.
But more ominous may be the possibility that the U.S. media and political establishment are succumbing to a good vs. evil view of the world, in which America represents all that is good, and those designated as enemies represent all that is bad.
When contrasted with the unrestrained attacks on the Iranian president, the lack of critical reporting on Bush’s speech is especially glaring. When it came to Ahmadinejad, virtually anything could be said with little fear of being asked for factual documentation or being accused of hyperbole or exaggeration.
‘Evil Has Landed’
Typical was a New York Daily News headline the day after Ahmadinejad arrived in New York: “The Evil Has Landed.”
In other media outlets, there were comparisons of Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler, denunciations of him as a “terrorist,” and even attacks on Columbia University for inviting him to speak there. Pundit Greg Gutfeld of Fox News called the university a “crack house” for granting Ahmadinejad a platform.
Not only did newspapers and pundits criticize Columbia University for inviting the Iranian president, but some prominent voices even questioned his right to speak at the United Nations, of which Iran is a dues-paying member.
As the UN’s host nation, the United States is obligated to grant member states and their representatives diplomatic access to New York and physical protection. Despite this requirement, some Bush administration officials depicted their grudging tolerance of Ahmadinejad’s trip as a tribute to America’s commitment to freedom of speech.
Other U.S. political figures wouldn’t even go that far. In a 60-second radio ad, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticized the United Nations for inviting Ahmadinejad to speak to the international body, and called instead for his prosecution under international law.
“What we should be doing is indicting Ahmadinejad under the Genocide Convention,” Romney said in the spot, which was run in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.
Romney offered no legal rationale for prosecuting Ahmadinejad under the Genocide Convention, which defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Ahmadinejad, who was elected Iran’s president in 2005, has not been implicated in any such mass slaughter, but Romney apparently was referring to Ahmadinejad’s doubts about the Holocaust and his rhetoric about eliminating Israel as a Jewish state. Supporters of Israel have been rallying to prosecute him for genocide ever since.
(Ahmadinejad says the Holocaust represents a chapter of European history that deserves critical scholarship but that nevertheless it wasn’t the fault of Palestinians who were forced from their lands to make room for the settlement of Jewish survivors. He also says he favors a referendum of Israelis and Palestinians to determine the future of those lands.)
Although it would be unprecedented to prosecute a world leader for simply stating offensive and obnoxious opinions, the U.S. Congress and the U.S. ambassador to the UN have supported such a move.
By a vote of 411-2, the U.S. House of Representatives endorsed the call to charge Ahmadinejad with genocide, and urged the UN Security Council to take action. U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton lent his support, too. In his last month at his UN post, Bolton joined a panel of diplomats and lawyers calling for Ahmadinejad to be prosecuted for his remarks regarding Israel.
Bolton’s call came as Ahmadinejad insulted Israel in late 2006. “Thanks to people’s wishes and God’s will,” the Iranian president said, “the trend for the existence of the Zionist regime is downwards and this is what God has promised and what all nations want.”
While few would deny that Ahmadinejad has a tendency to say stupid things worthy of criticism, what is remarkable about the reaction to his words is the lack of proportionality when compared to the silence that follows President Bush making remarks that are equally foolish.
Plus, Bush not only designates entire nations as “evil,” he backs up his rhetoric with coercive military threats, an intimidating arsenal of weapons including nuclear bombs, and military action, such as the invasion of Iraq launched under the false pretense of eliminating Iraq’s WMD and leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
That was the point that an anti-Bush group called World Can’t Wait tried to make in a full-page ad on the back cover of New York’s free daily Metro on Sept. 21. The ad showed Bush’s face within a nuclear mushroom cloud and pointed out that the United States is the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons.
It also referred to criticism of the U.S. by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, which condemned attempts by the Bush administration to falsify information on Iran’s nuclear program. The Metro newspaper refused the ad, calling it “too inflammatory.”
On Sept. 25, the day of Bush’s address to the UN, World Can’t Wait attempted to run another ad in Metro warning of the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran. The ad said, “One million dead in Iraq. Afghanistan gone to hell. Now Bush zeroes in on Iran!”
The ad, which referred to Bush as “belligerent,” was rejected for the back cover explicitly on the basis of its content, says World Can’t Wait.
The row over the World Can’t Wait ads coincided with the more publicized controversy over a MoveOn ad in the New York Times, criticizing Gen. David Petraeus with the juvenile pun on his name, “General Betray Us.”
After coming under intense political pressure from the Right, the New York Times public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote on Sept. 23 that the ad “appeared to have backfired on both MoveOn.org and fellow opponents of the war in Iraq and on The Times. It gave the Bush administration and its allies an opportunity to change the subject from questions about an unpopular war to defense of a respected general with nine rows of ribbons on his chest, including a Bronze Star with a V for valor. And it gave fresh ammunition to a cottage industry that loves to bash The Times as a bastion of the ‘liberal media.’”
Hoyt said the Times should not have published the ad because it amounted to “an attack of a personal nature” on Petraeus. Yet, the following day, the Times ran an ad that was clearly a personal attack on Ahmadinejad.
The full-page ad was sponsored by a pro-Bush, pro-war advocacy group called Freedomswatch.org. Under the headline “Ahmadinejad Is a Terrorist,” the ad denounced Columbia University for allowing the Iranian president to give a speech.
“Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatens our nation and the freedoms we value,” the ad read. “He has supported attacks on our soldiers and our allies. He should be treated as the terrorist that he is.” [NYT, Sept. 24, 2007]
But the Times’ backpedaling over the MoveOn ad – and its pandering to conservatives in running the Freedomswatch ad – was not enough to satisfy Republican politicians who sensed they had the antiwar movement on the run.
First, the Republicans pushed through a bipartisan Senate resolution expressing “full support” for Petraeus and condemning MoveOn for its attempt to “impugn the honor and integrity of General Petraeus and all the members of the United States Armed Forces.”
The House of Representatives followed suit, taking the denunciation a step further by condemning the advocacy group “in the strongest possible terms.” The House resolution passed by a vote of 341-79.
The stampede against MoveOn appeared to have few limits. Republican presidential candidate John McCain even called for MoveOn to be “thrown out of this country.”
Since MoveOn has over three million members, the Arizona senator’s comment – taken literally – could be interpreted as seeking the expulsion of one percent of the U.S. population because of their political views.
While some may dismiss McCain’s remarks as empty bluster or a desperate attempt to inject some life into his flagging presidential campaign, history tells us that the United States has deported people based on their politics before. During the Red Scare of 1919-1920, the government expelled hundreds suspected of radical political views.
McCain’s remarks were especially dangerous in today’s combustible political climate. Right-wing groups such as the Gathering of Eagles and the Free Republic have long been a presence at antiwar marches, but lately have become increasingly aggressive in countering what they consider to be domestic enemies of America.
At a Sept. 15 antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C., counter-protesters wore t-shirts that read “fighting the insurgency at home” as they hurled insults at antiwar demonstrators. At times, the confrontation escalated into physical altercations between the opposing groups.
In this tense environment, a call from a major presidential candidate to expel MoveOn for its unpopular political views might well have justified harsh public criticism of McCain. But the senator’s comments passed largely unnoticed, especially when contrasted with the furors over the MoveOn ad and Ahmadinejad’s speeches in New York.
[For more details on the rise of repression in the United States, see Consortiumnews.com’s “George W. Bush’s Thug Nation” or our new book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.]
But this double standard is at the crux of authoritarianism.
As explained by Robert Altemeyer, who has spent much of his career as a psychologist studying right-wing authoritarianism, the phenomenon is characterized by a high degree of submission to the authorities who are perceived to be legitimate, and a general aggressiveness toward those perceived to be targeted for abuse by the established authorities.
Altemeyer sees the foundation of authoritarianism as a basic personality trait within the individuals who make up a nation.
His definition of the authoritarian personality, developed over years of testing and experimentation based on the scientific method, consists of three attitudinal clusters: authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism – a high degree of devotion to the social conventions which are perceived to be sanctioned by society and its established authorities. [See Robert Altemeyer, Right-Wing Authoritarianism]
By “attitudinal clusters” he means “orientations to respond in the same general way toward certain classes of stimuli (namely, established authorities, targets for sanctioned aggression, and social conventions).”
He further identifies one of the defining characteristics of authoritarians as their belief “that established authorities have an inherent right to decide for themselves what they may do,” which may include breaking the laws that they make for the rest of society.
While granting substantial leeway to established authorities, authoritarians generally reject the idea that regular people should develop their own ideas of what is moral and immoral, because the laws and social conventions have already been laid out.
Most of these tendencies can be seen in America today and have risen to new heights over the past couple of weeks with events such as the MoveOn controversy and the vitriol surrounding Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York when compared to the free pass given to President Bush over his hypocrisy.
For years, Altemeyer has warned that based on his empirical research into the authoritarian personality, it is apparent that many ordinary people living in advanced democracies are psychologically disposed to embrace antidemocratic, fascist policies.
Because of this disposition, Altemeyer concludes that “a potential for the acceptance of right-wing totalitarian rule exists in … the United States.” [See Robert Altemeyer, The Authoritarian Specter]
This threat can be exacerbated by a national crisis or emergency. In such a circumstance, Altemeyer notes, the fearful mood of a populace “can create a climate of public opinion that promotes totalitarian movements.” This state of mind “can intimidate politicians, journalists and religious leaders who might otherwise oppose repression.”
With the authoritarian foundations laid by the Bush administration and to a degree legitimized and legalized by the U.S. Congress – including elimination of habeas corpus rights, warrantless wiretaps, and military commissions run by the Executive Branch – it may not be long before this authoritarian specter becomes a reality.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.