The Dangers of Dilettantism

I’m sometimes amazed at the ability of generalist pundits in Washington to inveigh on a host of issues ranging from gay rights to foreign policy to constitutional law. I find it hard enough to keep track of the various facets of my own field, American foreign policy. But sometimes there are instances where the presence of the dilettantes is damaging to the discourse. For example, here is The New Republic’s James Kirchick sneering at Matthew Yglesias’ suggestion that when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared his desire to see Israel “wiped off the map,” he might not have envisioned the genocide of the Jewish people.

I don’t like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I think he is a dangerous simpleton who should not be in charge of anything more portentous than perhaps municipal garbage collection in Shiraz. But he does enough repulsive things that he need not be accused of additional ones.

French television followed up with Mr. Ahmadinejad, doing an interview with him in 2007, in which the reporter asked him about this controversial remark. (Clip is in French, exchange begins about 6:00 into the clip.) In it, the interviewer references the quote and asks Ahmadinejad about whether he can understand why people are afraid of Iran’s nuclear program in its context. Ahmadinejad responds:

Why are you worried? Where is the Soviet Union? It has disappeared, has it not?

Ahmadinejad goes on to demagogue the issue, talking about democracy across all of Palestine, which for obvious reasons would cause Israel to be “wiped off the map.” But the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union did not involve the genocide of the Russian people, or even any military action against the USSR. Instead of haranguing about analogies to Poland, Kirchick would be better served researching what analogy Ahmadinejad himself has used on the matter.

Now, maybe Ahmadinejad is lying. That’s a fair debate to have. But since the discussion is about what Mr. Ahmadinejad said, it seems relevant to pay attention when someone asks “hey, what did you mean by that remark?” and the speaker responds.

I think this is the danger of having generalists parachute into all manner of debates over national policies. As I said, it’s hard just to keep track of my little world. I can’t imagine thinking I had the breadth to contribute to the debate on many more issues than my own.