They didn't appear alike -- one was clean-shaven and sported a tailored suit, the other was bearded and wore a limp gray jacket that made him look like a shlump -- but the two men's speeches last week were equally Orwellian, not to say just plain bizarre. By the time the United Nations General Assembly meetings came to an end, it was obvious that the pair are frighteningly similar in other ways, too. I'm writing, of course, about George W. Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (to pronounce the Iranian president's name correctly, think of "I'm a dinner jacket," according to Katie Couric).
Bush spoke at the United Nations, while Ahmadinejad was busier, trying to visit the former site of the World Trade Center (his request was denied), and giving a speech at Columbia University as well as at the United Nations. Their addresses -- half sermon, half bad dream -- provoked gasps of disbelief. Neither man said anything particularly new, but what they did say was often so brazenly disconnected from reality, it was hard to figure out whether they were deliberate liars, clueless ignoramuses, or simply living in fantasy worlds of their own making. Or, more likely, all of the above. Whatever the case, both Dubya and DinnerJacket's speeches were mind-bending exercises that made you wonder how two such self-deluded know-nothings came to be leaders of critically important nations in these dangerous times.
At Columbia University, the Iranian president explained how women in Iran -- many of whom have been jailed or beaten for not wearing their head scarves just so -- enjoy "the highest levels of freedom" since they're "exempt from many responsibilities" because of the cultural respect given there "to the future mothers." Never mind what the women have to say about it -- and never mind that those views sound an awful lot like fundamentalist Christians' backward ideas about women's roles. DinnerJacket also expressed a longing for openness, but when asked whether Iran was helping Syria acquire nuclear technology, he quickly replied, "Next question." He then unleashed howls of audience laughter by claiming that, "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country." If that wasn't strange enough, when a journalist told him she knew some homosexuals in Iran, he asked for their addresses.
Ahmadinejad's speech the next day at the U.N. was a rambling defiance of the U.N.'s sanctions that offered little new information. In that sense, it was Bush who, although he spoke before his Iranian counterpart, had the final word. Luckily for him, some of those words -- like Sarkozy ("Sar-KO-zee") or Mauritania ("Moor-EH-tain-ee-a") -- were spelled out phonetically, as revealed in the advance copy of the speech released by the White House.
It wasn't Bush's pronunciation that had people in the U.N. General Assembly picking up their jaws from their desks, however.; it was the sight of George W. Bush chiding the U.N. for not enforcing its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here was the man who has essentially wiped his rear with the Bill of Rights; who thinks it's OK for the government to spy on any or all Americans without warrants; who, in the name of protecting "freedom," has ditched the centuries-old concept of habeas corpus by holding prisoners as long as he wants without filing charges; and who has refused to prosecute anyone in the White House for giving the green light to torturers at Abu Ghraib and in CIA prisons around the world. Here was the guy, in other words, who has turned America's proud heritage of defending personal freedoms into an international joke at best, giving other nations hell for violating human rights. He denounced a laundry list of countries as "brutal regimes," but failed to call out U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt, much less America's new personal banker, China, for their well-known human rights violations. And somehow that prison camp in Guantanamo didn't come up, either. It was a tour de force performance, such a blatant show of Hypocrisy 101-level two-facedness, you didn't know whether to laugh or cry. But then, that's been many people's reaction to this awful administration for some time.
Dubya and DinnerJacket: what a perfectly matched pair of buffoons. Underneath the rhetoric, they're like peas in a pod. Both are polarizing figures in their home countries, are religion-driven, have narrowly focused interests, and play to the fear of anyone who's different from them. Both are authoritarians posing as freedom lovers, figureheads for their respective country's real rulers: in Iran, the mullahs; in America, the corporate elite. Bush and Ahmadinejad both rose to prominence in their nations' politics as outsiders who appealed to religious fundamentalists as well as rural and suburban conservatives who mistrust the cities' cosmopolitan ideas and ways. Both men are aggressive nationalists who view the world in black-and-white, apocalyptic terms, and want to dominate the Middle East and its oil. And both are obviously reality-challenged in major ways. DinnerJacket denies t he reality of the Holocaust, while Dubya denies the holocaust his invasion of Iraq has brought to the most politically volatile part of the world.
There's one way the two men are not alike, however. Ahmadinejad lacks the authority, under Iran's constitution, to take his country to war. Of course, the same could be said of Bush and the U.S. Constitution, but that didn't work out for us, did it?