Friday was a sad day for Western civilization. The day after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad advanced the 9/11 “truther” theory in his speech at the UN, President Obama responded, in an interview with BBC Persia, by calling the remarks “offensive” and “hateful.” He also called them “outrageous” and “disgusting.” And according to Obama, their outrageous disgustingness and offensive hatefulness were compounded by the circumstances:
It was offensive. It was hateful. And particularly for him to make the statement here in Manhattan, just a little north of Ground Zero, where families lost their loved ones, people of all faiths, all ethnicities who see this as the seminal tragedy of this generation, for him to make a statement like that was inexcusable.
One’s immediate urge is to tell the president to man up, already. We know what Ahmadinejad said was offensive, hateful, and inexcusable. But what does it really mean for Ahmadinejad or Iran that we’re over here, not excusing him for his outrageous and disgusting statements?
Nothing, of course. Which is why the president’s reflexive resort to decrying “hate speech” is not just illuminating about him, it’s bad statecraft. Obama did well to go on and speak to BBC Persia of the significant gap between Ahmadinejad’s conspiracy theories and the sentiments of the Iranian people — but that should have been the first thing out of his mouth, and it should have been couched in terms of Iranians’ sympathy with our ideals rather than their empathy with our plight. In this strategic opportunity to communicate with Iranians, Obama’s adjective-laden lament came off as whining and off-key. It’s not clear how an Iranian audience was supposed to react to his invocation of the modern West’s hate-speech meme.
There were important things to say about our regard for truth and civic transparency and our belief that ordinary Iranians share that regard. The problem with the hate-speech meme is that in prioritizing the offense and the victimhood of a transient moment, it preempts the mood and rhetorical atmosphere needed to foster inspiration. It leaves us resentful and self-absorbed rather than courageous. Others will say — no doubt, rightly — that Obama was tending domestic constituencies with the hate-speech passage. But it could hardly be clearer how unready that practice makes us for representing our ideals and our bona fides to foreign peoples.
In treating most communication as a means of stating how he feels about what someone else has done, Obama is not merely demonstrating his own personality. He is embodying the character and reflexes cultivated today in academia, the traditional media, and in politics. In exactly his present form, he is the ideal of our cultural elite. Sadly, that elite doesn’t know any longer how to speak to Iranians in the tones of liberty, empirical confidence, and moral courage. Its expertise now lies in reducing all questions to matters of hate speech and victimhood.