Among the proud recipients of Time magazine's fluffy end-of-year "People Who Mattered" feature, is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Here's how it begins: "He is an unlikely firebrand: the soft-spoken son of a blacksmith who still sometimes drives a 30-year-old Peugeot. But Iran's new president doesn't shrink from controversy. After winning a disputed election, he said. . . . " Now, before I finish that sentence, let's at least note that so far Time is using the same tone it might use to talk about John McCain, Joe Wilson, George Clooney or some other "soft-spoken" "unlikely firebrand" beloved by the media.
So, does Ahmadinejad have a wacky blog? Did he admit on "Larry King Live" that he voted for Ralph Nader in 2000? What makes him such a charming rogue?
Let's pick up that sentence where we left off and see: "After winning a disputed election," Time reports, "he said he would continue Iran's nuclear program, called the Holocaust a 'myth' and pledged to destroy Israel. Even some of the nation's ruling clerics are nervous about what he will do next." So even some of Iran's terrorism-supporting theocratic dictators are "nervous" about this guy.
What, one wonders, would it take for the editors to get really rough? Perhaps if Ahmadinejad offered a deeply negative review of "Brokeback Mountain"?
Time describes Pope Benedict XVI as perhaps "too polarizing a conservative." But for Ahmadinejad, who declared that a member nation of the U.N. should be "wiped off the map" and that the touchstone moral horror of modernity was nothing but a "myth" . . . well, let's make sure to bring up that he drives an old Peugeot. That's a crucial fact. If only we could find out what kind of tree he would be if he could be a tree. Maybe next year.
I know what you're thinking, but this isn't a jab at liberal media bias - though we can have that argument if you like. Rather, this points to something deeper: the resurgence of American isolationism.
Few issues are more shrouded in myth and misunderstanding than isolationism. Even as the "come home, America" chorus grows louder on the left, we're still told that isolationism is a right-wing phenomenon. This myth starts with the Republican Party's rejection of the Treaty of Versailles, which didn't really have much to do with isolationism. The Republican Party - the party of Teddy Roosevelt, after all - was full of interventionists and hawks. And the Democratic Party had plenty of isolationists and doves.
In the 1930s, isolationism was respectable across the ideological spectrum. Norman Thomas - the president of the American Socialist Party - was an isolationist. Oswald Garrison Villard (former editor of the Nation), Charles Beard, John Dewey, Bernard Baruch and countless other liberal luminaries were isolationists of varying intensity.
John F. Kennedy sent the isolationist America First Committee $100 while he was at Harvard with the note, "what you are doing is vital." But that was the same JFK who wrote "Why England Slept" - his senior thesis-cum-bestseller on why Britain was unready for war. Kennedy's explanation: The British people were unwilling to face reality. The same was true of the United States in the 1930s. The memory of the horror and stupidity of World War I was fresh enough in Americans' minds - as was the ongoing Depression - that the idea of going to war or even engaging in world affairs just seemed unthinkable. So, we didn't think about it. We used language that made things seem OK.
But the problem, as Kennedy learned, is that evil men and dangerous forces don't take a timeout until we're ready to pay attention. And that's where Iran comes in. Seriously challenging Iran just strikes a lot of people as too much to fit on the American plate right now, so we prefer to call Ahmadinejad an "unlikely firebrand" instead of a murderous fanatic.
But whatever we call him, it won't change the fact that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and that Ahmadinejad is a particularly kooky religious fanatic (possibly a member of the Hojjatieh, which seeks to foment global chaos in order to hasten the arrival of the messianic 12th imam).
In response to Ahmadinejad's comments, the world has responded with only slightly more outrage than it would if he'd called for trade barriers on pistachios. It's time to wake up.