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The Perils of Flogging A Dead Metaphor

Why would Israel's Ehud Barak unearth a Putin quote?
It is curious how words, ideas, and narratives can appear on the scene, enter the discourse, assume extraordinary importance over time, and on occasion go on to become myths in their own right without so much as a puzzled glance or questioning look from most of us.

Take, for instance, the undying myth of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the horse. On January 3, 1889, the tale goes, after seeing a carriage driver flogging a horse in a piazza in Turin, a weeping Nietzsche rushed toward the horse, flung his arms around its neck, and collapsed in a fit of insanity from which he never recovered.

There may be elements of truth in the story, but it was so exaggerated, misconstrued, and embellished that it can be viewed only as fiction. How could a frail 55-year-old man who suffered from severe myopia see a horse being whipped across a large, crowded Italian piazza, or sink to the ground unconscious while clutching the neck of a large animal? And why is it that the scene is so evocative of Raskolnikov's dream in Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment"? The story, cooked up in all probability by Italian newspapers after the philosopher's death, remains to this day the subject of numerous scholarly disquisitions, a plethora of literary works, and even a movie.

Sometimes ideas and concepts seem to be in the air, traveling freely in texts, defying distances, borders, and ideological barriers. It is often difficult to know who first thought of what. Prominent French orientalist Gilles Kepel once observed that many radical Islamists in the Middle East viewed Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations thesis approvingly. Well, little wonder.

Anyone familiar with the writings of such theorists of political Islam as Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian thinker and activist executed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966, will have noticed the Manichaean distinction they draw between Friend and Enemy, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of Hostility (i.e. the rest of the world), and the emphasis they lay on the struggle between the two as a major determinant of future global politics. In that respect, Qutb's "Milestones" yields curious parallels with Huntington's vision of the inevitable confrontation of civilizations, the difference being that the former is, perhaps, marginally less fatalistic.

A Form Of Flattery?

Such similarities arise not only from dedicated research and inspiration, but also from closely related methodologies and worldviews. Which side of the political fence people stand on, and the philosophical stance they take, are frequently of secondary importance.

Seeking inspiration in great thinkers, or simply borrowing ideas from more talented or more successful political leaders is a time-honored tradition in politics. In essence, there is nothing wrong in doing so, but for the fact that rivals may interpret it as a sign of intellectual laziness or, worse, bankruptcy, and voters are unlikely to be too impressed.

A recent example was provided by the election campaign in Israel. In an address to Russian-speaking voters in the run-up to the February 10 ballot, Israeli Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak unearthed a quote from Vladimir Putin vowing to hunt down Chechen "terrorists" wherever they may be. "As they say in your neck of the woods, whack them in the shithouse," AFP quoted Barak as telling his audience in heavily accented Russian. Tough talk, it is hoped, will boost the chances of the Labor Party in an election dominated by security concerns.

But here's the snag. Putin used the phrase in September 1999 after a spate of bombings had wreaked havoc in three Russian cities, killing about 300 civilians and sending the country in a state of near-hysteria. The Russian authorities blamed the bombings on Chechen separatists in a bid to galvanize public opinion in support of a new war in the breakaway territory. To this day, however, not a single Chechen has been charged with committing or abetting the crime, and almost from the start there were doubts that Chechens had indeed orchestrated the attacks.

Style Over Substance

In an April 2002 poll conducted by Russia's public-opinion research center, over 40 percent of respondents thought it likely that the country's secret services were linked to the bombings. Only 16 percent of those questioned in the poll were totally convinced that the bombs were planted by Chechen fighters.

Nevertheless, the groundswell of public support for Putin, then, as now, Russian prime minister, swept him to the presidency just six months later. Since then, Putin has radically transformed the course of Russian politics, marginalizing the opposition, muzzling the free press, tightening the Kremlin's control over the economy, and rolling back civil liberties.

A politician's language and style can become part of his mystique, pleasing some and causing consternation in others. Moreover, it is perhaps naive to expect a leader with low approval ratings, running in a hotly contested election, to worry about ethics and, well, decorum.

The issue, however, is that Israel prides itself on being a democracy. This raises the question: Why would a politician in a democracy, even for the sake of winning a few extra votes, want to resurrect (and be tied to) the rhetoric and slogans of an autocrat who has dismantled virtually every democratic institution in his country?

Aslan Doukaev is director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL