Argo: Iran, Empire, and American Privilege

Spoiler Alert: (I point to the obvious ending of the movie; it’s a spoiler if you know nothing about the events of Iran 1980).

Update: See below.

It is very alienating to be in this country right now if you refuse to accept the premise that the lives of Americans have more worth than those of foreign nationals.  By right now, I mean three weeks before the national elections to determine who will oversee the American Empire for the next four years. Last night, based on a brief description on a commercial movie site, I tweeted outrage about the timing of a new movie, Argo, produced by Ben Affleck, George Clooney, and others. The description mentioned the true-story rescue of 6 American Embassy staff from the Canadian Ambassador’s residence in 1980 during a tense moment in Iran’s history, and one of several especially tense moments in the history of Iran’s relationship with the United States. The movie is staffed by great lights, including Adam Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler and starring Ben Affleck as the CIA operative who rescues the Americans.

It is hard not to be seduced by the great production and staff—what’s not to love about Affleck? He’s hot, smart, with good politics generally—and by the comic plot of the rescue, which requires the Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, played by John Goodman, to assist Antonio Mendez, the CIA operative, figure out a plan to help the 6 American Embassy staffers leave Iran. Initially, I felt sheepish about my outraged tweet, and worried about my skeptical preconceptions about the timing and tone of the movie.

My skepticism had been enhanced by the prominent production presence of George Clooney, whose assertive embrace of the Democrats during several key egregious moments in the last four years—notably after the extra-legal assassination of Osama Bin Ladin—remains prominent in my mind.  There are funny, absurd, and delightful moments in this film, whose title is a play on a joke and catchphrase used by Ben Affleck’s, Adam Arkin’s and John Goodman’s characters: “Argo Fuckyourself.” But I am not offering a film review.

While the details of the film may not be completely accurate in trivial ways, it is technically quite “accurate” in its rendering of the logic of the moments leading to the rescue by the CIA, including the brief moment when the mission was temporarily aborted. It is a refined film, which makes it difficult to do anything other than sympathize with the Americans and worship Tony Mendez, the CIA officer in charge of the operation, who refused to leave his charges even after the clandestine mission was shut down. In fact, aside from a dramatic story, the not-so-subtle subplot of the movie appears to be the celebration of the CIA as a competent organization. More, it declares that the CIA is vital to the “cooperation” between great nations. Indeed, there is a slogan to this effect that springs onto the screen against the backdrop of heart-swelling patriotic music. As alarming, it urges us to trust the CIA with lives and livelihoods of the nation, its citizens, and the world more generally.

Even more telling is what is not said but what is shown: The movie “properly” offers a brief—very brief–introduction in narrating the history of Iran from the 1950’s until the 1980’s.  The (unplanned but certainly familiar) ingenuity of this film is its easy resonance with Dem VP Biden’s assumptions, articulated two nights ago in his debate against Paul Ryan: the easy and urgent priority of the value of 6 American lives—worth so much more than the other lives (that the US) sacrificed under the installation of the Shah. In fact, those 6 American lives justified a planned top-secret mission into the confusion of post-revolutionary Iran.

The unrest was a direct consequence of what was once thought to be the US Empire’s greatest moments (the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected prime minister), but was soon recognized as one of the biggest mistakes of the American Empire under whose auspices the CIA precipitated a chaotic revolutionary moment.

Indeed, the authenticity of the original footage, the film’s zeal to “stick to the facts,” makes it much easier to inhale the spectacle of crazy imams, zealous armies and well-educated (and well-armed) Revolutionary Guards rushing here there and everywhere to shoot on sight those whom they suspect of treason to the Islamic Republic. There’s no disputing that these things happened. There is no dispute that the American 6 were “innocent” of wrongdoing, and make for sympathetic victims. They were “ordinary Americans,” which heightens the heroism of the CIA—going in under such dangerous circumstances to rescue them. The heightened contrast between the worthy Americans and the unvalued brown folks is seen in the fate of Sahar, the housekeeper of the Canadian Ambassador. She is seen suspiciously and then sympathetically as her loyalty to her boss and his guests is revealed. But even as we understand that her life is at severe risk—and that her rescue will not be by the CIA but left in her own hands, the attention is fleeting.

The story of this film just happens to resonate with the story that we have been hearing for months. It is the story that justifies the sanctions upon Iran (with increasingly frequent references to the threat of nuclear war in the hands of the same ‘crazy’ imams and their minion Mahmoud Ahmedinejad). It is the story that drives Bibi to throw his hands up in frustration as POTUS—thus far—refuses to invade Iran. It is the story that confirms the political and moral weight of American Empire. And as importantly, it is the story that reaffirms the decisions made by the CIA on behalf of American Empire. It validates the CIA’s existence, it valorizes its supposed competence.  It is the fantasy of a CIA that has probably never existed—and certainly not now—as we recall the incident of the CIA agent who shot two Pakistanis last year, whose story was covered up by an embarrassed US—at least for a few days.

It is hard not to recall the events in Benghazi last month as U.S. State Department rushed to lie about the circumstances of the deaths of US Embassy Staff and Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens.  Remember the initial narrative we received from the State Department: mobs of Muslims were furious at the satire and insults of the (much cruder anti-Muslim) movie made by Sam Bacile, and invaded the US embassy to kill 5 staff, including Stevens. The ensuing “correction” that the mobs in Benghazi were responding TO the killing of Stevens and other Embassy staff—barely registers.

Indeed, the recent complicity of the media and State Department in depicting Libyans as hordes of teeming zealots and savages who couldn’t tolerate being badmouthed in a crappy movie comes to mind. It resembles scenes in Argo that depict hordes of Iranian men who lose their tempers as one of the American six takes a photograph for the “film” that they are supposedly shooting.

Even as it engages in these reinscriptions of “crazy” Muslims and seething Iranians, Argo seduces, assures, and comforts. It balances its savage-ization of Iranians with alternate scenes that intimate that ordinary Iranians are forced to submit to the fundamentalist aims of its unfortunate religiously zealous dictators. The suspense of waiting to see whether the Americans will be able to escape Iran before the Revolutionary Guard catches on to them, is heightened by the frequent splicings of masses of darker-skinned folks chanting and shouting; menacing dark and bearded men in uniforms aiming rifles at other Iranians; and a hijabi member of the Revolutionary Guard reading out statements condemning the United States for its imperial behavior.

Technically, there are no single facts or details that are grievously “inaccurate” in the portrayal of this event. The flaw lies in the way the facts are massaged and assembled to reflect a patronizing Orientalism, and of course, Islamophobia (I have taken issue with this term from time to time, but I believe it is accurate here).  Towards the movie’s end, as the Americans barely managed to catch the SwissAir jet that would whisk them away, the scene is interspliced with laughing, infantilized images of the Revolutionary guards who have been gifted with animated scenes from the faux movie that the “Canadian filmmakers” are supposedly there to research.

They, along with the teeming brown hordes, are contrasted with an unabashed, if warm and moving, embrace of the priority of (white) American lives—protected and facilitated by the help of the US’ neighbors to the north. In this movie, we hear Joe Biden’s contemptuous insistence to Paul Ryan that Afghans need to step up, that American lives are more valuable. We hear Madeleine Albright’s insistence that the deaths of so many Iraqi children (under Clinton-era sanctions) were “worth it.” We hear the reinscription that American lives are always worth more, are worth clandestine CIA operations. And of course, it enables the justification and valorization of the CIA less than 3 weeks before the US national elections: it reiterates what is already an uncontroversial point for Republicans and Democrats.

We hear the media’s uncritical acceptance of these positions by the US government.  That is part of what renders this film so problematic: there is no critical assessment of the assumptions of the journalists and other raconteurs who covered these events thirty years ago—as there is no such assessment by most journalists in the MSM today. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out in his assessment of Martha Raddatz and faux objectivity, journalists can better inform their audience when they come to terms with their own biases. I would say: Moviemakers, too.

The others in the theatre where I saw the film may have been warmed by this feel-good story of American exceptionalism and superiority. I was chilled.

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Update: Sarah Shourd, an American who along with two friends, was captured in July 2009 on the Iran-Iraq border, offers an overlapping assessment of Argo. Thanks to @standardherald for the link.

White Privilege, American Privilege: Does It Make Sense to Be More Concerned with Rights at “Home”?

Updated Version

I love how white folks are going around deploying “white privilege” pejoratively at this particular moment, 6 weeks from the elections. I think the term is useful and can be illuminating in demonstrating racial and political economic hierarchies   But if white folks are going to use it responsibly, the term should be placed up front, followed by a verb, object, and citation to someone—preferably a writer or activist of color– who explains and puts the term in context.

I wonder if they know that lobbing it against someone else doesn’t make them racially or morally superior, it doesn’t exculpate them from their own (white) privilege, and it doesn’t actually do the work of explaining their concerns.

I also don’t think “white privilege,” as deployed by whites, is a particularly illuminating term in pointing to some of the serious issues that trouble people like me.  After all, we know plenty of folks of color who have accepted the invitation into white supremacy, and helped design policies that induced the suffering of many folks of color—through the architecture of torture, justifying rendition practices, cementing the extra-legal category of enemy combatant, among other things: Condoleezza Rice, Alberto Gonzalez, John Yoo—and that was under the Bush Administration. But plenty of folks of color are doing it today: Governors Nikki Haley & Bobby Jindal on eradicating social structures, reproductive choice, etc. Really, the privilege in question is American (whitish or liberal) privilege: the privilege of not having to know (or know about) foreign nationals or feel particularly obliged to them, or know about the harms done to them, simply because the wars, jingoism, and aggressive foreign policy of the US empire won’t affect you.

White supremacy. Pretty loaded word. As philosopher Charles Mills uses the term in his book, white supremacy is defined to talk about the system of power that is designed to keep whites in power. Mills uses it to talk about the Racial Contract—both as the counterpart of the Social Contract and its foundation. The Social Contract—the one that ensures that white folks will have access to equal and reciprocal rights, can only do so on the backs of black and brown folks, who are sub-persons, in Mills’ terms. And we’ve seen plenty of what this Racial Contract leads to–I write about it here and here and here. But it is certainly possible for brown and black folks to accept the invitation to move ranks—for plenty of good reasons—to escape vulnerability, persecution, harassment. But there are also less than compelling reasons, like doing the work of white supremacists for them: being the architect of torture, of rendition, leading the charge to invade other countries. It’s not unusual that folks of color are invited to do this—and may have some compelling self-interests to do so; but it doesn’t mean that we should refrain from criticizing them, or constantly be subject to charges of racism.

In short, yes, there are some—debatable—improvements with regard to issues that affect mostly middle- and upper-class U.S. citizens. But this is hardly a proud record of accomplishments that should be touted as representing “Americans.”  I’m listing the differences on a new page—both to support my position, but also because I don’t want to distract from the argument here. See here if you are interested.

Really, the idea that we must look so hard to find substantive difference between the two parties suggests that at so many levels, empire has finally taken root.  Empire. White Supremacy. Gawd, such loaded words. And yet, really, this is where the U.S. is. Empire is deployed to justify actions and unite those at home against the Other overseas, who have been subject to conquest.

Hannah Arendt, wrote about the links of race and capitalism as embedded in empire in the Origins of Totalitarianism in 1948.  As she explored the roots of empire in the early 1900’s, she found the “inner contradiction between the nation’s body politic and conquest as a political device” an obvious one.” (1948, 128)  But the failure of this contradiction leads to one of two outcomes: either a fully united national consciousness of those who were conquered…or tyranny. Empire was meant to unite folks at home, to insist upon the moral good done abroad, and to expect their conquests to like it.

Arendt pointed out that the drive to expansion and conquest was fueled by the desire for money to make itself and for power (the state) to follow money (the bankers and capitalists). Imperialists wanted “to expand political power without the foundation of a body politic”—without having a political structure that managed and checked capital and secured rights.

Sound familiar? Here is Arendt again:

“The secret of the new happy fulfillment [of the bourgeoisie’s desire to have money beget money]  was precisely that economic laws no longer stood in the way of the greed of the owning classes. Money could finally beget money because power, with complete disregard for all laws—economic as well as ethical—could appropriate wealth. Only when exported money succeeded in stimulating the export of power could it accomplish its owners’ designs Only the unlimited accumulation of power could bring about the unlimited accumulation of capital. (Arendt 1948, 137)
 

History repeats itself at this moment. This is why it does us little good to separate out “our” obligations to “our own” from our obligations to “Others.” If we try, then we engage in a false disconnect. What happens internationally is intrinsically linked to what happens in the U.S.   Foreign policy influences domestic policy, by insisting that we have to band together against the Other—or it brings the same mentality—and similar policies abrogating rights protections back home—in the form of NDAA, the expansion of FISA, Indefinite detention, wiretapping, FBI databases and fusion centers. Capitalists influence foreign policy in line with their own interests–and consistently in line with domestic policy that lines up with their interests. This seems clear when looking at the list of accomplishments on the parts of the Democrats.

Glenn Greenwald, Jonathan Turley, and numerous others, including myself, have been making this point repeatedly.  This is why I think the term “white privilege” deflects attention from what’s at stake: there is absolutely a privilege in being able to ignore what’s happening abroad, or to insist on our moral superiority or exceptionalism. As Sam Holloway points out:

It’s very revealing that the most consistent argument in favor of supporting Barack Obama (when better options are clearly available) is that the other corporate option (Romney) will be worse. Crystal ball access notwithstanding, this is a terrible justification. It’s a clear demonstration that millions of us are willing to allow atrocities to be visited upon others as long as our own privileges are left more or less intact. We don’t care how many foreign brown children Obama exterminates as long as the wealthier among us still has access to health care, abortions, etc. Let’s be clear– I’m not suggesting those are trivial issues. However, if you accept a situation where you have access and others don’t, then you are reducing these basic human rights to privileges. The same goes for your right to due process; if you tolerate Obama’s extrajudicial killings, then you are saying that life is a privilege that you deserve and that others do not. In addition to being morally reprehensible, this approach leaves you open to having your own privilege (to health, security, life, etc.) revoked at any time.
 

Isn’t this what we’ve been seeing? In the deportation of migrants, drone attacks, indefinite detention, NDAA 2012, H.R. 347, suppression of speech? These issues are inseparable—when they happen to others, they are used to justify “our” privilege—in this case, American privilege. But “our” privilege can be revoked using the same laws, same authority (or lack thereof) that were used to kill vilified U.S. citizens like Al-Aulaqi, to detain, harass, and confine U.S. citizens without fair trials—like Jose Padilla, John Walker Lindh, Fahad Hashmi, Tarek Mehanna, Bradley Manning—these will be used against “us” too–starting with the most vulnerable, dark, and threatening first.

Having the right to have my contraception paid for won’t protect you or me against that immoral use of power to hurt, humiliate, torture, incarcerate—lawfully. The violations of bodies of Black and brown folks are intrinsically connected to the lack of respect for the bodies of black and brown women–in the US and elsewhere.  And Mitt Romney may be worse on some of these issues—but his ability to harm all of us will have been made much easier by the likes of our past 2 POTUSes—Democrat and Republican—and the current Administration. Not to worry. That is the devastating future of American –and not just white–privilege.