Still from Netanyahu's speech. Credit: C-SPAN.
I was driving home listening to NPR when the top-of-the-hour headlines came on. First item: Just moments earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing the UN General Assembly, “warned that by next summer Iran could have weapons-grade nuclear material.” Then a clip of Netanyahu, trying to sound chilling: “At stake is the future of the world. Nothing could imperil our common future more than the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons.”
"Nothing?," I wondered. Not even the melting of the polar ice caps, or a huge spike in global food prices, or an accidental launch of one of the many nukes that the U.S. and Russia still keep on hair-trigger alert?
Then I asked myself, Why is this big news? Everyone knew what Netanyahu was going to say. Everyone knows that he’s been beating the war drum for years to build his political base at home. Meanwhile, as everyone knows, he’s alienating the rest of the world. Top U.S. political and military leaders, and many of Israel’s top leaders, want him to cut it out before he stumbles us into a war that no serious person (very possible not even Netanyahu) really wants. There’s nothing new here, though there is something really dangerous in giving these bellicose words top billing when they hardly deserve it.
When I got home I noticed that the NPR website was running the story as its lead. But it wasn’t just NPR. On the websites of the nation’s two most respected newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, the lead stories were “Netanyahu Sets a Time Frame for Stopping Iranian Bomb” and “Netanyahu: Iran Could be Nuclear by Next Summer.” Again I asked, Really, why is this big news?
It was WaPo columnist Alexandra Petri who put me on the track of an answer. She noted that a diagram Netanyahu had held up during his speech, supposedly showing Iran’s progress toward a bomb, was drawn in the crude shape of a cartoon bomb that her four-year-old might have produced using MS Paint.
“It violates this bomb’s contract that there are no train tracks or Looney Tunes characters visible in the shot,” Petri mocked, “and that it is surrounded by three-dimensional people in color. This is not even a Clip Art bomb. This is a Wingding.”
But she went on to explain why “everyone’s fixated on the graphic design” (and indeed, both of our great newspapers prominently featured a photo of Netanyahu holding up the Looney Tunes bomb): “When you have to critique a speech, there are two approaches: try to step back and see the whole thing, or alight on one moment that anyone who made it out of kindergarten intact can argue about.”
Most people take the latter route because it’s easier: “Forget close reading. Skip the text.” Just say, “It was all there in the bomb.” It was all there in the cartoon.
Netanyahu’s endless warnings about “the Iranian threat” are just as cartoonish as his bomb. That’s not meant as an insult; it’s simply a description. We all appreciate a good political cartoon. It communicates a clear, simple message that you can grasp in an instant, because it’s done with a few exaggerating strokes of the pen -- or a few exaggerating words. Drawing verbal cartoons is one of the skills we expect any political leader to have.
It’s also, I suppose, one of the skills that journalists in the mass media must have, since their work is measured so much by the size of the audience they draw. Even readers of our two great newspapers rarely flock to subtle, in-depth analysis. (Just check out their websites’ lists of “most viewed” articles.) Most people want their stories clear, simple, easy to grasp -- and, I suspect, exaggerated. It’s the exaggerations that make the news not only simple but emotionally engaging.
Now back to my original question: Why was Netanyahu’s speech big news? Mainly, I think, because it would bring in big audiences for the same reason cartoons do. It offered yet another chance to trot out a simplistic, immensely popular, decades-old cartoon: little Israel, our hero, bravely and cleverly fighting off the Muslim foe, much like Roadrunner fends off Wile E. Coyote every time.
But without the laughs. We are forbidden, by an unwritten but immutable cultural law, to laugh. We must take absolutely seriously Netanyahu’s umphteenth reiteration of his warning about “the greatest threat to the future of the world,” even when it’s illustrated with a laughable cartoon bomb. Because this childish story of absolute good against absolute evil (and isn’t that what most great cartoons provide?) wouldn’t be nearly as emotionally satisfying if everyone admitted how silly it is and had a good Looney-Tunes-style belly laugh. No, it has to be treated as a profound, stirring drama.
So we are supposed to take this cartoon with a totally straight face, the way most cultures have taken their myths. A myth is not a lie. It’s a story that expresses something fundamental about the worldview and the values of the people who tell it. In our culture, cartoonish political words often do the same.
There is a lot of similarity between myths and cartoons. Both mix fact and fiction. Both exaggerate facts to fit the fiction and to evoke emotional response. So both create a caricature of truth, a picture that is oversimplified, schematized, and therefore easier to grasp and respond to.
But some myths, like some cartoons, are higher quality than others. A good myth or cartoon tells something important about the society that produces it. It has some complexity, some subtlety, something than an interpreter can sink his or her intellectual and emotional teeth into, even if it’s only to reject the myth.
The stories that Barack Obama, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and the latest report from Israel’s Foreign Ministry tell about Iran’s nuclear program have some of the qualities of a good myth. Even if they are ultimately built on fictions, they have at least a bit of nuance and complexity. There’s something there you can push back against.
Netanyahu’s cartoonish tale, on the other hand, is about as simplistic as it gets: absolutely easy to understand in a moment, even for those who barely made it out of kindergarten. That, I conclude with no pleasure but with serious sorrow, is a large part of the reason it made such big news.
Netanyahu's full speech:
(PS: A few hours after I posted this piece I noticed that articles about Netanyahu's speech, complete with photos of the cartoon bomb, were number one on the most popular list of the Washington Post website, but only number five on the New York Times site.)