Almost in the manner of the ancient disputations of Byzantine Christianity, a great deal of misery may hang on the proper definition, even the proper spelling, of an official declaration. The pronouncement in question was made by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who in October said either sahneh roozgar or sfaheh roozgar, "off the map" or "out of the pages of time [or history]," about Israel. A genocidal distinction without a difference, one would have thought.
But in The New York Times "Week in Review" on Sunday, Ethan Bronner reported on a risible discussion about the Iranian president's anti-Zionist meanings. Does he believe that Israel should be wiped off the map or out of time? Should the Jewish state be extirpated spatially or temporally? An intriguing question, no? Israeli planners might be forgiven for regarding both contingencies as strategically and existentially unacceptable; but here is Juan Cole suggesting that they would be over-reacting. "Ahmadinejad did not say he was going to wipe Israel off the map because no such idiom exists in Persian," Cole explained reassuringly. Never mind that precisely such an idiom appears on the president of Iran's own website. Perhaps the president's Persian is as bad as his politics. "I smell the whiff of war propaganda," Cole ominously suggested to Bronner about the inflammatory translation of Ahmadinejad's inflammatory remark. War propaganda? The West is now negotiating with Tehran, under the leadership of the Bush administration, and in defiance of every syllable the Bush administration has ever uttered about the Islamic Republic. The issue in this pseudo-debate is not merely the security of Israel. It is also the integrity of language. Cole's interpretation is that an intention to go to war with Israel must not be inferred from a desire to destroy Israel. There are clearer ways, of course, of communicating an intention not to go to war; but apologetics have always proceeded by the traducing of ordinary words.
Indeed, even as this discussion about the benign meanings of malign words was taking place about Tehran, it was taking place also about Queens. Yes, Queens--Howard Beach in particular, where a local fiend called Fat Nick Minucci was on trial for assaulting a black man. Fat Nick had no nuclear centrifuges, he had only a baseball bat. When he approached his victim, he called him a "nigger," but his lawyers insisted that he meant nothing negative by the term. "A form of benign address," as the Times reported the judgment of an expert witness; or "nigger" in the good sense. The jury did not fall for the socio-linguistic extenuation, and it found Fat Nick guilty of a hate crime. It heard "nigger" only in the bad sense. And we hear "wipe" and "off the map" and "out of time" only in the bad sense. If we cannot make the world less perilous, we can at least make it less stupid.