The word “axis” conjures up images of the alliance of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito that our fathers and grandfathers fought in World War II. People in these countries now believe that each of these leaders maintained his power with the help of his ability to stir the simplistic side of his electorate with bombast.
Today, bombast still hogs the headlines, skewing understanding between the mainstream of each country. For example, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a kind of Hugo Chavez notoriety around the West for his wild and provocative statements and actions: calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” denying the existence the Holocaust, insisting on Iran's right to nuclear arms, and persecuting gay people in Iran. Ahmadinejad is an ideologue, and Americans who find him outrageous are fully justified.
But, much as we might viscerally disagree with Ahmadinejad, it's dangerous to simply dismiss him as a madman. To him, and to his followers, his logic does make sense: if Germany killed the Jews, why are Palestinians (rather than Germans) being displaced to house the survivors? Everyone in Iran understands — better, perhaps, than we foreigners — that Ahmadinejad is more extreme than the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And, crucially, the Supreme Leader is more powerful than the president. Many locals I talked with discounted Ahmadinejad's most outrageous claims as overstatements intended to shore up his political base. While that doesn't justify the hateful images and slogans I couldn't avoid as I explored his country, it might help explain them.
Meanwhile, Iranians get just as fired up about the rhetoric of American politicians. During our visit (in the summer of 2008), Iranians were still buzzing about the potential presidencies of John McCain (who jokingly rewrote the lyrics of the Beach Boys classic song, “Barbara Ann,” to become “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran”) or Hillary Clinton (who said she would “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel). For Iranians, hearing high-profile representatives of the world's lone superpower talk this way was terrifying. Unfortunately, that fear enables people like Ahmadinejad demonize America in order to stay in power.
Ask anyone who has lived in a country where they disagree with the leaders: Attention-grabbing bombast does not necessarily reflect the feelings of the man or woman on the street. Throughout my visit, I kept thinking: politicians come and go. The people are here to stay.
About This Entry
You are reading "Bombast and the Axis of Evil", an entry posted on 08 March 2010 by Rick Steves.