Anti-Iranian Racism is Patriotic, Part 2
This is the second article in a two-part series. The first article, which discusses Argo and the 300 franchise in detail, can be found here.
By NAVID FARNIA
In the 1980’s comic Batman: A Death in the Family, Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, flees to Iran and aligns himself with the Iranian government. The country’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini appoints the Joker as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. After explaining to the U.N. General Assembly how he has much in common with Iran’s leaders, including “insanity and a great love of fish”, the Joker lethally gases the room. By having the Joker represent Iran, the comic’s makers imply that Iran supports his terrorism and thus, is a state sponsor of terror. The comic is but one example within a larger trend of anti-Iran sentiment in the U.S. since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
A 2007 cartoon published on the Columbus Dispatch editorial page (pictured further down) was similarly revolting. The cartoon illustrated Iran on a map of the Middle East as a sewer with cockroaches (representing Iranians) crawling out. The Iranian American community’s reaction was swift and angry, but the Dispatch’s editor still defended the horrific depiction.
Earlier that year, U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain joked about bombing Iran. When asked about U.S. military action against Iran, McCain responded, “That old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran. Bomb, bomb, bomb…,” referencing the Beach Boys song, “Barbara Ann.” McCain’s audience reacted with laughter, apparently because U.S. militarism and anti-Iran sentiment are funny. In another incident, Debra Cagan, a senior adviser to the Bush administration, explicitly indicated her hatred of Iranians in a meeting with British government officials. “I hate all Iranians,” Cagan expressed.
These are among the more extreme instances of anti-Iranian racism. Furthermore, the above examples help to explain the popularity of movies like 300 and Argo, which of course, also actively contribute to anti-Iranian racism. Thus, the racism that we see in popular culture and in American society/politics mutually reinforce each other. Hollywood creates and supports anti-Iranian sentiment, but it doesn’t act alone.
Orientalism and Anti-Iranian Racism
Whether it’s perpetuated by politicians, newspapers, pundits or artists, anti-Iranian racism is a routine fixture in the U.S.’s culture industry. Through their depictions and commentary, social institutions and public figures claim to be experts on Iranian society, politics, culture and history. In reality, their self-anointed expertise becomes a justification to propagate racist hatred.
Knowledge that these so-called experts spread about Iran is marred by their racism, which both is conditioned by and fuels the American culture industry. As such, their “knowledge” and “expertise” are informed by an Orientalist worldview.
Orientalism is the creation and dissemination of knowledge about Middle Eastern, Asian and African societies and cultures as seen through Western eyes. It’s based on false stereotypes regarding non-Western peoples, and it functions to generalize them as backward, stagnant, violent and underdeveloped in relation to Europe and the U.S. More importantly, Orientalism is a political concept because it conditions an ideology of Western (white) superiority. But since it essentially deals with how Americans and Europeans imagine the rest of the world, Orientalism says more about the people who are propagating this false knowledge than it does the societies being surveyed.
Given its current political tensions with the West, Iran and its people are now a central subject in Orientalist thought. Iranians are the acceptable and convenient target in American culture, and American power is expressed through anti-Iranian racism. Violence against Iranians (and Middle Eastern peoples in general) is normalized as part of a patriotic American fantasy. Maiming and murdering dark-skinned folks who are all categorized under the vast “Persian” umbrella is acceptable because it’s in the name of freedom, democracy and America. Yes, America is synonymous with freedom according to this logic. This is the embodiment of imperial hubris.
Privileging Racism in American Culture
It’s true that with every racist act, there’s a public backlash denouncing such behavior. The many criticisms of 300 are an example. Nonetheless, the reality that anti-Iranian sentiment persists and filters out through the media speaks to how hate speech originates in society’s most privileged positions.
People like John McCain, Frank Miller and Debra Cagan aren’t outliers to the media’s greater message of tolerance and acceptance. Rather, the fact that they remain accomplished figures shows that their racism has actually helped them to get where they are. Because anti-Iranian racism is enduring, we know that little effort has been made by society’s most powerful institutions (including the media) to mitigate it.
When filmmakers, artists, politicians and talking heads are continually privileged and given soapboxes to propagate racism, it’s the racism that is being privileged in American society and discourse. If this wasn’t the case, anti-Iranian racism would not be so routine in the media and entertainment industries. As a result, racism ultimately becomes patriotic.
Anti-Iranian racism signifies American imperial hubris. In general, racism gives the narcissistic U.S. empire a sense of self-importance and purpose. Without an enemy, the U.S. has no rationale for exerting its influence around the world. In the same way that the 300 franchise would lack a story without the Achaemenid (Persian) enemy, American power lacks purpose without Iran, Al Qaeda, North Korea or whatever adversary the U.S. concocts. The idea that Iran is the U.S.’s enemy, which reflects a Cold War-style thinking where Iran to a small degree replaced Russia, enables public figures and social institutions to proclaim their racism; this is because the idea itself is racist.
As such, rogue artists and talking heads actually become the ideological mouthpiece for an empire. An entire people’s culture and history are erased in the process only to be replaced by an Orientalist stereotype and ahistorical misinformation campaign. In this way, Iranian existence is defined by the American gaze and the U.S.’s hatred of everything Iran. Argo, with its violent mob of American-hating Iranians, illustrates this phenomenon.
Flipping the Logic of U.S. Empire
However, convincing audiences that the hatred originates in Iran and is directed toward America is the ultimate trick. By propagating American victimhood, the culture industry translates imperial aggression to self-defense against extremist terrorists and tyrannical warmongers.
Hamid Dabashi perfectly describes this occurrence in his article about 300. “In this emotive swap, the U.S. as ‘the West’ wants to…act as the Achaemenid (what they call ‘Persian’) Empire did but assume it is a small band of Spartans defending freedom and democracy against a horde of foreign invaders.” He further explains:
Leonidas’ mission in [director Zack] Snyder’s 300 is an act of suicidal violence – a suicidal violence that if performed by white people in remote corners of history is heroic but if by Palestinians or Iraqis then it becomes a sign of barbarism. So what [300 comic book writer Frank] Miller/Snyder effectively want is yet another example of having their cake and eating it too – stealing the strategy of suicidal violence from those desperate measures of resisting imperialism of one sort (U.S.) or another (Israel) and cast the enemy as imperial. It is a complete reversal of fact to make spectacular fantasy – stealing resistance of the poor folks of color and white-identifying it, while projecting your own imperial barbarity to some remote point in history and calling it the enemy, “The Persians.” This is a remarkable act of reversal, a projection backward. You become the enemy you abhor and you catapult the abhorrence you are to your enemy. 300 thus amounts to a CGI-engineered sense of tragedy and valor for an otherwise carnivorous empire that has just inflicted unfathomable pain and suffering on millions of Afghans and Iraqis.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky elaborates this point in his commentary on Rise of an Empire, “The Empire in question is not the Achaemenids’, but Athens – a power that deserves to slaughter and subjugate its enemies because it represents a cornerstone of Western culture, and whose actions are excused because they represent noble intentions.” If we replace “Western culture” with white power, the sentence holds the same meaning. The real barbarity, as Dabashi asserts, is the American empire which undermines non-white lives both on the big screen and in the real world.
Even when movies travel back to ancient times and faraway lands, the ideals still signify our present-day gaze. “It is an interesting paradox that works of imagination set in the distant past or the future tend to say more about how things are at the time of their making than movies with a contemporary setting,” says Masoud Golsorkhi. In this sense, the 300 series more closely reflects contemporary politics and U.S. imperial interests than it does actual history. Consequently, the movies’ makers can get away with sacrificing history and facts for racism and patriotism.
300, Argo and countless other examples show us how the American culture industry propagates Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations hypothesis. The U.S. is the most ruthless and murderous empire in world history. This is a reality that politicians, artists and talking heads refuse to admit not because they are ignorant, but because they profit from the imperial machine. It’s a conscious and self-inflicted blindness. On the other hand, Iranian people are merely another victim of this machine.
Throughout U.S. history, the country’s culture industry has demonized different racial groups, including Native Americans, Blacks and Asians, because they resisted a predatory empire. At one point or another, each group has been a convenient target.
Racism has always been patriotic because it privileges white American interests. The U.S.’s political climate dictates what kinds of racism are acceptable and patriotic. Today, anti-Iranian racism is socially acceptable, and it’s patriotic.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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