Politicians say the darndest things. Perhaps sometimes it’s unfair to fixate on whether it was right or proper for certain things to be said, especially when an individual is caught off guard. Remember when US President Barack Obama called the rapper Kanye West a ‘jackass’ for interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009? That was when Obama thought the interview was off-the-record – yet he stands by this quote even today. George W Bush was also widely pilloried for his ‘Yo, Blair!’ greeting to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair at a G8 meeting in 2006, again when he probably assumed this was off the record – Bush’s defenders insist it was the slightly less undignified-sounding ‘Yeah, Blair.’
Such quotes can become positive spin during a period of popularity (as with Obama) or as negative publicity to underscore a leader’s unpopularity (as with Bush). But in the grander scheme of things, they can be considered benign. The stakes get raised when the things politicians say carry grave consequences in relation to ethics, governance, and lives and livelihoods. Consider the palimpsest of untruths, denials and obfuscations by outgoing British prime minister Boris Johnson over a succession of scandals during his brief and controversial tenure. Did he and his staffers knowingly break lockdown rules by partying while the rest of the country was traumatised by the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic? Was he already aware of the allegations of sexual conduct before appointing Chris Pincher as his Deputy Chief Whip? The lies over Partygate might have caused distress to the many people who lost loved ones to the pandemic, but it was the Pincher debacle that was the clincher in Boris’s political downfall.
Boris Johnson is not the first politician to have lied – colossally and brazenly, too – and neither will he be the last. As the veteran American journalist Jeff Greenfield once said, ‘well, politics is war, and in war, truth is the first casualty.’
This issue of Critical Muslim focuses on ignorance, which makes a consideration of such manipulations of truth and lies especially apposite. What is the line that separates truth from untruth and the stupid from the sublime? What is the boundary between ignorance and enlightenment? We present a list of verbatim quotes from politicians that we can pore and argue over as though they were lines of poetry or verses of scripture. In no particular order, here are some of the quotes from the more recent past that have caught our imagination.
1. Donald Rumsfeld, 2002
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.
The late Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense during George W Bush’s administration, from 2001 to 2006, and was one of the architects of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. It was found later that the pretext for the US-led invasion of Iraq – the allegation that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was still actively stockpiling weapons of mass destruction – was unsubstantiated. It is within this context that Rumsfeld’s ‘there are known knowns’ quip gained legendary status.
Taken on its own, this quote is uncontroversial. It’s a basic analytical framework, based on much research at the Pentagon – the Johari window – which was already used in NASA and other project management circles. But it is Rumsfeld’s use of it in a 2002 press briefing to justify yet another imperialist military project by the US government that has earned its enduring position as a classic example of Orwellian obfuscation.
2. George W Bush, 2007
‘This government does not torture people. We stick to US law and our international obligations.’
Speaking of the consequences of lying, this late 2007 quote by Bush when he was nearing the end of his second term is particularly chilling. Bush uttered these words after the New York Times reported in 2005 that the US Justice Department secretly authorised harsh interrogation techniques for terror suspects. Even after President Obama admitted that the CIA tortured terror suspects, Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney, continued to deny that waterboarding qualified as torture. In fact, Cheney maintained that he would ‘do it all over again’ if he had to because it was effective. There is lying, as exemplified by Bush, and then there is the manipulation of concepts and definitions to avoid being called a liar, as exemplified by Cheney. In the case of Obama, there’s making excuses even after telling the supposed truth about torture:
A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots….It is important, when we look back, to recall how afraid people were after the twin towers fell, and the Pentagon had been hit, and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent.
3. Bill Clinton, 1998
‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.’
There is a fine line between telling an outright lie and manipulating concepts and definitions, albeit beyond recognition. President Clinton’s infamous denial about his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky was, of course, a lie. But the phrasing of it suggests cognitive contortions that might have made it somewhat more palatable for his own personal conscience. Perchance he didn’t regard the definition of ‘sexual relations’ as extending to fellatio?
4. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 2007
‘In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you we have that.’
Western liberals collectively gasped in outrage and disbelief when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad uttered these words to an audience at Columbia University in 2007. It appeared to be a lie of staggering dimensions. Of course there are ‘homosexuals’ in Iran, as in every nation on earth, and they have been there since the beginning of time. Beyond Ahmadinejad’s strange phrasing, however, his claim was actually not that different from the rejoinders made by many postcolonial activists from the Global South. ‘Homosexuality’, after all, is a relatively modern term of Eurocentric coinage, and global lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) activism has long been accused – even by queer and trans people in the majority world – as overwhelmingly white, European and middle-class. In Iran, in particular, there were historical and culturally specific terms to identify a young man – amrad – who was the object of an older man’s romantic and erotic desires. But neither party would have expressed their desires or identities as ‘homosexual’. This qualifier is definitely not a defense of Ahmadinejad – the difference between him and postcolonial queer activists from the Global South, including queer Muslims, is that he was justifying existing homophobia in Iran, including the sentencing of minors to death. Progressive activists in Muslim contexts are challenging Eurocentric and secularist definitions of gender and sexuality to expand basic rights and freedoms. It is not just the context of a claim that is important, but its intent.
5. Donald Trump, 2010
‘With the coldest winter ever recorded, with snow setting record levels up and down the coast, the Nobel committee should take the Nobel Prize back from Al Gore.’
It is not at all difficult to find a quote from former US President Donald Trump in which he denies the reality of human-made climate change. But this one is special not only because of how it is structured but because he said it in 2010, six years before he was elected president. In it, Trump invokes verifiable, empirical evidence – the ‘coldest winter ever recorded’ – to challenge a prevailing misunderstanding of climate change as being solely about linear global ‘warming’. This quote also conveniently confuses short-term weather patterns with long-term climate change. Trump then uses this commonsense, plain-talking ‘wisdom’ to turn the scientific evidence for climate change into ideological warfare. It’s ignorant but, as continues to be clear amongst vast swathes of the US population, it’s effective.
6. Jair Bolsonaro, 2022
‘The indications are that something wicked was done to them.’
As with the other items on our list, the ramblings of climate deniers such as Trump would not be so frightening if they did not also have chilling reverberations in so many other parts of the world. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, for example, continues to borrow shamelessly from Trump’s playbook, not only to justify the continuing destruction of the Amazon, but to wash his hands off the persecution and murder of environmental and human rights activists. As with Trump’s quote on climate change, this one is not an outright lie. Of course ‘something wicked’ (some outlets translate Bolsonaro’s phrase as ‘some malice’) was done to the environmental journalist Dom Phillips and the indigenous rights advocate Bruno Pereira. They were murdered, simply for defending people and planet. But notice the passive construction of Bolsonaro’s statement – it allows the actual perpetrator(s) of that ‘something wicked’ to disappear, and for the authorities to shift the blame back onto Phillips and Pereira for venturing into ‘dangerous’ and ‘complicated’ territory.
7. Mike Pence, 2016
‘…the truth is that this culture of political correctness has tied the hands of law enforcement around this country.’
These were Mike Pence’s words when he was Governor of Indiana, before he became vice-president in the Donald’s presidency. Famous for his anti-abortion and anti-Black Lives Matter stances, this quote could have been referring to either of these issues. But Pence was speaking to the late Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio show host, about that other so-called threat so beloved of the Far Right – Islam. Not treating every Muslim as a potential terrorist was, in Pence’s estimation, a manifestation of ‘political correctness’ gone mad.
8. Sarah Palin, 2008
‘I can see Russia from my house.’
Sometimes a statement’s idiocy is so clear that it needs no explanation, right? Wrong! Former governor of Alaska and Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin has often been lampooned for this surreal quote. In reality, this was a line from Tina Fey’s impersonation of Palin during a Saturday Night Live sketch. The actual quote from Palin is, in fact, a fact. Her exact words were: ‘They’re our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.’ But this is far from a defence of Palin. Using the empirically verifiable visibility of Russian soil from Alaska in response to a question about one’s expertise in international relations is, frankly, a little bit eccentric. It brings to mind a quote by Christina Ricci’s character Lucia from The Opposite of Sex: ‘I went to a bar mitzvah once. That doesn’t make me Jewish.’
9. The pundits vs the voters, 1960
This list might appear heavily skewed against individual politicians, and mostly American ones at that. There’s a reason for this – political spin seems to have been honed into an art-form and a mainstay in American cultural life. Often, the joke is not just on the politicians – it’s also on the voters and the so-called pundits. Here’s an excerpt from a piece in Time magazine, in relation to the 1960 US presidential election:
In Washington, so the story goes, Republican top strategists huddled, and all were glum indeed – except one. ‘I’m sure we’ll win, there’s no doubt about that,’ he enthused. Everyone wanted to know the reason for his confidence. Answer: ‘I have a deep and abiding faith in the fundamental bigotry of the American people.’
The Republican presidential candidate that year was the infamous Richard Nixon, the incumbent vice-president at the time. Nixon was defeated by John F Kennedy, but later won the presidency in 1969.
10. FBI Director Ben Harp from Point Break, 1991
We’re giving the last word on ignorance and enlightenment to yet another American, albeit a fictional one. Fans will be able to quote this infamous exchange by heart:
Ben Harp (played by John C McGinley): You know nothing. In fact, you know less than nothing. If you knew that you knew nothing, then that would be something, but you don’t. You’re a real blue flame special, aren’t you, son? Young, dumb and full of cum, I know. What I don’t know is how you got assigned out here in Los Angeles with us. Guess we must just have ourselves an asshole shortage, huh?
Johnny Utah (played by Keanu Reeves): [quietly] Not so far.