Am I undermining the seriousness of intellectual conservatism by calling the Iranian president by a nickname?

JJM writes:

While I obviously consider him every bit as evil and stupid as you do, I feel like I have to take issue with your constant use of the nickname “Johnnie” for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to an earlier post, you started using this moniker because you apparently consider his real name to be “absurd” and “obtrusively foreign” as well as “onerous to speak and write.”

If say, the man was an American immigrant, I think your critique would be on solid ground. To attempt to be a citizen of western civilization while simultaneously retaining a name that demands complex, alien pronunciations is to disrupt the coherence of that society in a subtle, but nevertheless significant way. I’ve thus never had a problem with the long history of Hollywood Jews changing their names to make themselves more marketable, or the fact that my own grandparents were openly expected to Anglicize their only mildly exotic Dutch names when they immigrated.

But I don’t think we have any right to demand this sort of thing from foreign citizens of foreign lands, or pass judgment on them accordingly. As it stands, foreign cultures are, in fact, different from our own, and we are going to be honest about the world around us, we should probably embrace that fact, rather than get indignant when confronted by its various manifestations. Iranian parents could probably care less how “absurd” their names sound to English-speaking westerners, and really, why should they? Do I care about how my children’s names sound to them? Unless we believe that there should be a single, global culture, or that the standards of one culture should be adhered to by all others, then there is really no need for the kind of victim language you used to justify the “Johnnie” nickname.

I’d much rather refer to all foreign citizens and leaders by their correct, foreign-names, and put that foreignness on display. Their names, traditions, etc, don’t have to be understood or appreciated by us, but they do need to be acknowledged in a mature and adult way, rather than a reactionary, mocking, childish way.

You’ve written a lot recently about the importance of “seriousness” among conservative intellectuals , and I think on the issue of the Iranian president’s name, your blog is embarrassingly unserious.

LA replies:

You make sensible comments about the desirability of Americans having names that “fit” in the English language. Apart from that, your thoughts and concerns about what you think are my thoughts and concerns in this matter are laughably off base. I am not indignant at the Iranian president’s name. I am not claiming that I am being “victimized” by his long name. I am not complaining about Iranian names. I am not demanding that Iranians or other foreigners change their names. And, finally, I’m not seeking to construct a homogeneous global culture where all people’s names are the same.

My concern is very simple and practical: Johnnie’s real name is too long and too onerous to pronounce or write without undue effort. Five syllables, with an uncertain pronunciation, is asking too much of people. Evidently I am not alone in this, as many people keep casting about to find shorter and, yes, less onerous, ways of spelling his name, such as “A-jad.” And when I hear people bending themselves out of shape to pronounce his name correctly, I smile and think of how I’m spared all that, by just calling him Johnnie. Furthermore, why should we bend ourselves out of shape for the sake of an enemy who seeks our destruction? To protect the enemy’s dignity? Is a little jocular irreverence toward an enemy so out of place? Also, harmless irreverence is all it is, since I’m not even insulting him. I’m just giving him a nickname.

Your point about the importance of seriousness is silly. Does being serious mean we can never be light about anything? And if we are light about something, does that mean that our appeal to the importance of seriousness is hypocritical?

Everything in its place.

LA continues:

If you had simply said that you feel that it is unseemly and inappropriate for me always to be referring to a foreign leader by a nickname and not his real name, that would have been a reasonable point. It was the over-the-top quality of your criticisms, and your offbase suppositions as to my motives, that I was dismissing.

i will consider the possibility of occasionally referring to the Iranian president by his real name.

JJM replies:

Thank you very much for posting my critique.

The only additional comments I have are as follows:

Describing Ahmadinejad’s name as “hard to pronounce” would be one thing, and I would sympathize with that. But in the earlier post I referred to, you justified calling him “Johnnie” with very harshly emotional, personal, and judgmental language. By using words like “absurd” and “obtrusively foreign” I felt you were presenting his name as if it was some sort ostentatious title he intentionally gave himself to make life difficult for westerners, rather than something he has a) no personal control over, and b) no reason to make compatible with our culture.

It does come off like I may be defending this monster in some sense, and I assure you that’s not the case. Insulting and demeaning our enemies is certainly appropriate at times. The only reason I expressed concern in the first place is because I know you obviously can make, and repeatedly do make, very intelligent, thoughtful, complex criticisms of non-western cultures, peoples, and leaders. When you make a fuss about arbitrary things like names, I think it has the potential to undermine the seriousness and depth of your true motivations.

LA replies:

Ok, thanks. I found the October ‘07 entry you object to. Different subjective opinions here, of course, but to me, on re-reading it now, I don’t think that I was using “very harshly emotional, personal, and judgmental language.” I think I was discussing the real difficulty that I and many other people were having with his name, and giving examples of the lengths people were going to in order to come up with a manageable name for him. One website I found even called him “PAM,” short for “President Ahmadinejad, Mahmoud,” reversing his first and last name to produce an acronym.

That was the context in which I spoke of the onerous quality of his name that had driven people to such absurd lengths. Names that produce such difficulties for people are a problem, no matter what country the person lives in. What if a person had a ten syllable name? Would we insist that everyone use it? What about my favorite example, the L.A. pathologist in the OJ Simpson case, Lachmanan Sathyavagiswaran (I didn’t have to look it up, I have it imprinted in my brain)? Suppose he were the president of a country. Would we expect the world to come to a halt every time someone said his name? No, people would come up with a shorter name for him. Happens all the time. Not just in monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon countries.

In that entry, I also wrote a paraphrase of the the last two verses of the Bob Dylan song “Gotta Serve Somebody” to make the point that no matter what we call the Iranian president, his country represents a danger to us and we have to do something about it. What I meant to convey by the paraphrase was that calling him by a nickname did not take away from the seriousness of the danger.


You can call him Mahmoud, you can call him Achmad,
You can call him Mahmy, you can call him Ajad,
You can call him Johnnie, you can call him PAM,
You can call him anything, but no matter what the name,
You’re still gonna have to stop somebody. Yes, indeed,
You’re gonna have to stop somebody.
Well, it might be the Muslims or it might be the Left
But you’re gonna have to stop somebody.

- end of initial entry -

Terry Morris writes:

I’m looking for an appropriate nickname for Hussein Obama. Is my incessantly calling him by the name “Hussein Obama” unjust, or unserious? What if I added “Barack” to the name I call him by? Would that make it more serious, more just, more respectful … less foreign?


Lydia McGrew writes:

As I recall, my impression of your original post on calling the Iranian President “Johnnie” was that you are motivated in part by seeing talking heads take pride in pronouncing it just right, as though that proves their respect for him or their multicultural credentials. I don’t think you actually said this, but it seemed to be in the background of what you said—that you resented (rightly so, in my view) this idea that we Americans need to be _specially careful_ to find out the right way to pronounce this guy’s name and need to be proud of ourselves if we know how to do it better than someone else. Such snobbishness about knowing how to pronounce a foreign potentate’s name would be merely funny if it weren’t for the fact that he is a monster and our enemy, which makes it sort of grotesque.

I could be off-base here, but ever since then I’ve very much appreciated the idea and refer to him as “Johnnie” all the time.

LA replies:


Thank you. :-)

Ron I. writes:

The Financial Times spells his name “Ahmedi-Nejad.” That makes all the difference in the world. By breaking it in two, it’s much more manageable. Particularly since the first two syllables are already familiar to us from other uses. Of course, there’s no clue to where the stress, if any, goes.

It was so much easier to say “the Shah.” Maybe Ahmedinejad is the “Shah Na Na”!

(And why not? Those syllables are from “Get a Job,” after all. How appropriate.)

Like Chris Patten, I always call the capital city of China “Peking,” because that’s English. No one has ever corrected me. But if anyone does, I’m ready for him:

It’s impossible to say “Beijing” in English. The first consonant is an unaspirated voiceless bilabial plosive, i.e., the P in “spigot,” rather than the B in bigot or the P in Piggott, and never an English initial. An Anglophone might get it if he studied a Latin or Slavic tongue, or Finnish or Tagalog. The second consonant is a voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate. _Ain’t nothin” like it in English, though with some Russian or Hungarian, one might fake it. As for the vowels, unless you know the tones, forget it … So, since neither of us can say it in Mandarin, let’s return to the English: “Peking.”

Nobody orders “Beijing duck” or a “Mumbai Sapphire Gin.”

June 25

Ran M. writes:

The best approximation of his name that I’ve heard (and what I say in my mind whenever I read his name) is: I’m-in-a-jihad.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 23, 2009 05:07 PM | Send

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