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“The World is Unthinkable”

Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: I received your letter. It is eloquent and sometimes cogent. Even those who will believe you are grandstanding cannot avoid the contradictions in American policy that you note. You know how to push people’s buttons. It’s the … Read More

By / January 22, 2007

Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

I received your letter. It is eloquent and sometimes cogent. Even those who will believe you are grandstanding cannot avoid the contradictions in American policy that you note. You know how to push people’s buttons. It’s the next best thing to having a nuclear arsenal.

You address the American people, and I am American by default. I have no Ellis Island stories or grandfathers who ran away from European drafts. My ancestors were Americans as far back as I know. My skepticism about the American government not withstanding, I am American through and through.

Anti-Americanism is the deepest kind of Americanism. Skepticism about government runs in the family. My mother told me not long before she died that she and my father had only voted in one election—the relatives convinced them to vote for Eisenhower—but they subsequently decided it was a mistake. She told me this story, I think, because she thought I was too worried about George Bush.

Addressing a head of state seems at least as important as voting. I want to say something direct and forceful: as an American, I am ashamed of the Bush administration and outraged by its policies as I was ashamed and outraged by the Johnson administration. The arrogance and violence of the American government has been a persistent danger to the people of the Earth. We can agree about George Bush and his neocon ideologues. They are intent upon destroying both your part of the world and—unwittingly perhaps—mine.

It is not just that the Bush administration violated the Constitution; they tampered with the intelligence, attentions, and energies of the people. The resources the U.S. government squandered on arms and armies and the resources they caused other governments to squander trying to keep up could have made the Earth a paradise. That possibility may now be lost.

There is a problem in trying to respond to you, and I think it goes to the heart of the muddled world. Everything I want to say sends me on rhetorical tangents. To get things straight enough to have a correspondence we would have to straighten out everything—every big thing humans ever thought.

We need to start at the beginning. I start babbling about the origins of monotheism or the problem of the One and the Many, or the nature of leadership and perfection. Or I go in another direction. I want to tell you about being scared shitless as a sophomore in college during the Cuban missile crisis. Then there are stories about civil rights and anti-war demonstrations in the sixties.

Late last night, scribbling away, trying to find what I thought to say to you, I was spinning out a conspiracy theory that blamed our predicament—and it is truly a predicament—on the arms makers and “the masters of war” that Bob Dylan sings about. All of these things are relevant and even necessary. Your letter is lodged in a place in world history where all of the paradoxes and impossibilities come together. It is a kind of rhetorical apocalypse.

There was something elegant and funny about our doom in “Dr. Strangelove.” Now we have garbled
sentimentality, self-deception, and rank baloney. Your letter and perhaps all of your possible letters and all of my possible responses belong to an impossible history. During the Cold War, both sides were grandly wrong. Now our wrongness is muddled and sad. The world is unthinkable.

You say, “We all deplore injustice, the trampling of peoples’ rights and the intimidation and humiliation of human beings….We all detest darkness, deceit, lies and distortion, and seek and admire salvation, enlightenment, sincerity and honesty.” Such golden sentiments are in some sense undeniable. They are the things we tell ourselves again and again. They are good and true things. They are also meaningless. Repeating them and agreeing upon them does no good, but we have to begin somewhere.

Things went utterly wrong in the twentieth century. It is estimated that nearly 200 million people died directly as a result of political and social policy—war, ethnic cleansing, and other forms of intentional killing. This estimate does not include the unaccounted numbers, surely hundreds of millions more, that died from neglect, murderous, unregulated industry, and willfully irresponsible official action. The platitudes you pen so eloquently are not true. We are not only believing and doing the wrong things; we must also be wanting the wrong things.

You pray, “O, Almighty God, bestow upon humanity the perfect human being promised to all by You, and
make us among his followers.” It is a savvy rhetorical move, but it is the wrong thing to want. It is what both Christian and Islamic End-timers want. It is also probably what George Bush thinks he thinks he wants. (Bush may pray this prayer; he may think he is this leader.)

The perfect human leader bestowed by god would destroy the world and could only destroy the world. Godly perfection means the destruction of the world. To submit to the perfection of the One is the root of the tradition that our cultures share, and everyone is getting antsy and excited about the coming fireworks. It is a dangerous passage, when the opposing forces want the same thing. (The Cold War was less volatile.)

The world is deeply in danger from people like you and George Bush. You are mostly a rhetorical threat. And rhetoric is truly dangerous. It can destroy the world. Bush is more dangerous. Although his rhetoric is meager, his arsenal is large.

I keep thinking perhaps we can destroy the world and save the Earth. We must want not godly or human perfection, but Earthly forms of value, which are never perfect or complete. We need not figure out how a and b can be perfectly devoted to, and united in, the perfect leader. That destroys the world. We must find earthly forms in which what is better for a is better for b. As something to want, it is perhaps as unrealistic as the perfect leader. It can, however, be accomplished one a and b at a time.

Don Byrd Albany, NY January 22, 2007

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