October 22, 2006
Spinning in different languages or proper adjusting of message to audience?
Following up on some small debates on MEMRI mendacity and accusations of doubletalk between English and Arabic on the part of Arabophone intellectuals, I found the following article from Reuters interesting, amusing and also thought-provoking: Diplomat acknowledges U.S. "arrogance" in Iraq.
The essence of the story, the head of US public diplomacy Near East bureau, Alberto Fernandez, apparently (I have been too busy to watch TV myself) acknowledged the US has bollixed up Iraq due to arrogance and stupidity. The US government has forthwith claimed (re the English) it is a misquote.
A moment to reflect on the problems of structuring messages and communicating between languages, based on the longer text of the same Reuters story from the NY Times Reuters feed.
[Update: Unsurprisingly this is showing signs of setting off, what was it called in comments, a stupid storm: I point to Bou Aardvark's note on the issue. I wonder if the stupid storm on the part of pornstarlet wannabes like Malkin will actually deprive the US of one its few capable interlocutors on the Arab Sats, in some cretinous recreation of Soviet style purges for not following party lines]
First, it would be a refreshing moment of credibility building and honesty to admit, presuming he did the following:
"We tried to do our best but I think there is much room for criticism because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq,'' Alberto Fernandez, director of public diplomacy in the bureau of Near Eastern affairs in the U.S. State Department, told Al Jazeera.
"... But I believe there is a difference between mistakes made by the United States in Iraq and the noble and honorable intentions of the United States in Iraq. We need to concentrate now on how to save Iraq and end the violence and killing,'' said Fernandez, who was speaking in Arabic.
Now, I presume one of my co-authors either caught this or can direct me to a video so we can judge the accuracy of the English rendering ourselves (as Aqoul), but while perhaps not mealy mouthed say nothing diplomacy, it actually strikes me as a fairly decent mea culpa to the obvious and the undeniable while at least re-rendering the effort as at its heart sympathetic.
After all denying one has fucked Iraq into a cocked hat merely means one is a liar or delusional - or a stupid cretin I suppose - and framing it as an honest attempt destroyed by incompetence and arrogance at least steps up to the plate, whereas the other choice is for people to believe you deliberately have fucked the Iraqis.
Now predictably, the double talk has begun:
The U.S. State Department had said earlier that a translation of the comments posted on Al Jazeera's English language Web site misquoted Fernandez.
"What he (Fernandez) says is that it is not an accurate quote,'' State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. Asked whether he thought the United States would be judged as being arrogant, McCormack said "No.''
So, is this not an example of two different messages for two different language communities?
Honestly, yes it is.
Not entirely inappropriate either.
Messages have to be crafted to the market, not to some idealised bollocks of a mythical universal truth audience.
Of course, the question is, when does crafting to an audience become mendacious rather then merely an issue of emphasis?
I also found this (and I dearly would love to see this in the original) interesting:
Al Jazeera aired a separate interview with a spokesman for ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's Baath Party who said the United States was seeking a face-saving exodus from Iraq, and insurgents were ready to negotiate but not lay down their arms.
The spokesman, identified as Abu Mohammed, outlined a series of conditions he said would have to be met before talks with the Americans could begin.
The demands included the return to service of Saddam's armed forces, the scrapping of every law adopted since his removal from power, the recognition of insurgent groups as the sole representatives of the Iraqi people and a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Fernandez dismissed the conditions.
"There is an element of the farcical in that statement ... They are very removed from reality, and the traditional Baath Party in Iraq is a thing of the past,'' he told Al Jazeera.
Pity Mr Fernandez is not on Al Jazeera every bloody day. He seems talented and sharp.
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The statements by and about the Baath strike me as interesting, as they appear to be related to the negotiations that were reported in Amman, between the Islamic Army of Iraq and others, and the US gov. (I think Cole wrote about this, sources are there.)
If I understood this correctly, the Army of Muhammad, which includes a good number of former military and Baath people, was also involved in those negotiations, and it seems too much of a coincidence, that the Baath would pop its head out and call (however surreal their initial conditions) for a diplomatic solution at the same time.
Witness also the angry reaction from several resistance groups to the al-Qaida "emirate" declared in Ramadi, and the rumours about a coming American shift in strategy visavi the al-Maliki gov, and a possible turn towards Sunni groups -- and these appear as signs of a media war between some of the res groups, even if it isn't clear exactly what it is about.
Or, of course, it could simply be that these are strategic leaks to create pressure on al-Maliki to cooperate in the militia question.
Then again, what do I know. It could be related to just about anything. But something is clearly going on here.
Posted by: arre at October 22, 2006 04:48 PM
Fernandez is on Al Jazeera almost every bloody day. I caught the show, English rendering seems to be accurate although would need to compare it to an Arabic text.
Posted by: Meph at October 22, 2006 05:53 PM
Well, I keep missing him then. Stupid work getting in the way.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 22, 2006 05:58 PM
Talking different things to different audiences is an old game--there are stories about it going back to the Middle Ages (and some pretty well-known ones in early 20th C. American electoral politics.). The problem with this is that, especially these days, you get caught because other people are increasingly able to listen in as well. Don't know if Mr. Fernandez spoke these words to al Jazeera on his own or if he were instructed to do so. Either way, there'd be a hell to pay, both for those involved themselves and for American foreign policy. Fascinating stuff, like a slow motion train-wreck.
One-man stand-up diplomacy, but who's the audience? US diplomats have to conduct diplomacy with the home front, to sell Bush's war. The administration will not let reality seep through the cracks of language. But will they prevail??? Follow next week's episode of...MASTERS OF UNREALITY!!!
Posted by: Klaus at October 22, 2006 07:00 PM
Fernandez now says he misspoke. US official retracts Iraq remarks.
Posted by: Ali K at October 22, 2006 11:54 PM
My first thought was that someone at State decided that saying one thing to domestic and another to international audiences was a normal practise in the ME anyway, so we may as well go on al Jazeera and do the same thing. Even if the domestic audience catches you out and you have to 'retract'--how exactly do you retract a statement like that once made?--the message that you want to put out is still out there.
Posted by: Antiquated Tory at October 23, 2006 10:35 AM
Abu Aardvark notes: "His humility treats those [Middle East] audiences with respect . . . ."
That's the real gut cause of the outrage in a nutshell.
Posted by: matthew hogan at October 23, 2006 11:16 AM
outrage in a nutshell?
"outrage in a nutshell"
Mixed drink made of peanuts and Everclear.
Otherwise in a nutshell is a figure of speech to mean succinct expression of a thought.
Posted by: matthew hogan at October 23, 2006 03:05 PM
yeah...I know you're the madman of metaphors. Wonder if we could make up some new Aqoul drink names...such as a Stupid Storm, or a Subliterate Git.
Did notice though that most Western media missed that Fernandez asked the countries surrounding Iraq to live up to their responsibility, instead of trying their best to make it a new DR Congo. I can't imagine that would be in their interest. But who knows how long-term their strategic thinking is.
Posted by: Klaus at October 23, 2006 06:40 PM
Hmm, the "Subliterate Git". I reckon 2 parts plymouth gin, 1 part absinthe, 1 part cointreau, dash of bitters. Lowers the intelligence, raises the blood pressure and leaves a foul taste in the mouth. Yet oddly compelling.
Posted by: duaneg at October 24, 2006 05:16 PM