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.

******************

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.

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The Power of Arrogance: the US and the Terrorism Card

Besides marking the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay, Wednesday was notable for the murder of an Iranian nuclear scientist, Mustafa Ahmadi-Roshan.  The NYT reported that, “The campaign, which experts believe is being carried out mainly by Israel, apparently claimed its latest victim on Wednesday when a bomb killed a 32-year-old nuclear scientist in Tehran’s morning rush hour.”

“Mainly by Israel.” Who else would help Israel…but the US, its closest ally?  Before I go on, just want to note here that the NYT reported it, which means that it is a fact that Israel (and a good probability that the US) murdered an Iranian national.  Why?  Because if the NYT is reporting it, it must have been confirmed by US and Israeli government officials.  We know that the NYT’s model of reportage, despite their claims to publish All the News That is Fit to Print, is more Pravda than Colorlines. We also know the NYT reports only what the US state approves for reporting (remember this? Scroll down to paragraph #9).

[NB: Here is a terrific sardonic analysis by Jay Rosen which I read after writing this post, which refers to a query of NYT readers by its Public Blog editor about whether the media should prioritize truth-telling! And here I worried that readers would decide I was a conspiracy theorist. I can’t even make this stuff up.]

Glenn Greenwald asks why, when a Saudi official is targeted for murder by Iranian agents, the US denounces that action as terrorism, but when the US and Israel are found to have collaborated on murdering an Iranian nuclear scientist, it’s called a covert or a targeted killing by most major media outlets.  Greenwald offered ample evidence of the double standards of the mainstream media (MSM) by pointing to clips from ABC News, AP, CNN, Washington Post, Council of Foreign Relations, and the US’ very own office of obfuscation, the Department of Justice, all of whom point to Iran’s actions in terms of terrorism, but find the Israeli/US hit to be merely a covert or targeted killing.

Why the double standard? The obvious, if too simple, answer is because the US has shifted from being an “superpower” to an Empire. And we know that Empires call the shots when they please, as they please, and how they please. And as importantly, Empires can choose which strategy they want to take: Shall “we” engage in direct brute violence and just kill folks en masse and openly (such as the German genocide of the Herero Tribe in Namibia)? Or should “we” codify our violence through the rule of law (such as the British massacre in Jallianwalla Bagh in 1919), and insist that it follows from the word of God, of Nature, or from an obvious consensus of “right-thinking” peoples in our midst at home and internationally?

Of course, Empires don’t have to choose. That is, after all, what it means to be an Empire. I mean, if Empires chose strategies, that might indicate that they were worried about public perceptions, backlash, or reprimands from other superpowers. As in the instances of Guantanamo, renditions, the National Security Entry –Exit System (NSEERS) (used to round up thousands of Muslim men residing in the states after 9/11), material support statutes which can retroactively name former allies as terrorists or terrorist organizations (PKK), the creation of enemy combatants, warrantless wiretapping, pre-emptive and indefinite detention of foreign nationals (and now, of US nationals)–ALL of these can be done under the aegis of the Rule of Law, while also engaging in overt and direct violence without a direct mandate, approval or review from Congress or the Courts.  We see this charade in the decision to attack Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the assassination of Terrorist #1 Osama Bin Laden, the assassination of Terrorist #2, US national Anwar Al-Awlaki (see the absolute absence of evidence of Awlaki’s terrorist credentials even in response to repeated questioning by ABC News’ Jake Tapper. Tune in at 2:24), and the assassination of Roshan.  Now we hear increasing murmurs of an impending attack on Iran.

Again, I know it’s too trite and obvious to reiterate that these actions are all being done in the name of fighting the “War Against Terror,” but let me do so anyway.  I don’t think Greenwald goes far enough when he says,

the fact that Terrorism has no fixed meaning does not mean it is inconsequential. The opposite is true. Terrorism is one of the most consequential words in our political lexicon. The term designates Supreme, Unmitigated Evil. Once someone is successfully branded a Terrorist, it means that anything and everything can and should be done to them without constraints.

The advantage of being an Empire is that we codify the terms we like to use in ways that can be deployed against dissenters, agitators, or racial threats. And that’s precisely the beauty of the seeming ambiguity of the word “Terrorist.”

The most recent definition of “terrorism” according to US Code, Title 18, § 2331, states that

 
‘international terrorism’ means activities that involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State

and

“appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce” civilian populations, influence government policies, affect government conduct, or “occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.”

If we substitute “Iran” for the United States in the above definition, it seems fairly easy to apply this definition to the assassination of Mustafa Ahmadi-Roshan. The definition of terrorism as a federal crime, as expressed a decade ago in the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act, was even less artful. Among other things, a terrorist act included injury or death of US nationals outside US boundaries (Sec 808). This definition might have repositioned the murder of Al-Awlaki in a starkly different light. Coincidentally, the PATRIOT Act doesn’t discuss the killing of US nationals outside the confines of the US….by the US.

Legal exegesis is probably best left to (progressive) lawyers, which I am not, and it’s fairly boring outside of a classroom or courtroom, so I’ll stop. But it seems that the definition of terrorism is a little less ambiguous than Greenwald suggests. As we have come to learn especially vividly in the last year, it’s not a terrorist act if a foreign national is murdered, and especially not if the US is doing the murdering.

In many ways, the Patriot Act is not “new” law. Its path was paved by any number of older laws, such as the the 1917 Espionage Act, Executive Order 9066 (signed by Pres. Roosevelt to authorize the internment of migrants and citizens of Japanese descent), 1978 FISA (defanged in 2008), and 1996 Anti-terrorist Act. The ability to circumvent judicial review for “aliens” is also found in various laws over the last decade and before. That circumvention was, again, paved by numerous older laws. See Daniel Kantstroom’s brilliant book, Deportation Nation, for a comprehensive, if turgid, list and discussion of laws that manage, regulated, and criminalized non-“Americans” since the late 1700’s. Nothing new, perhaps.

Still the Patriot Act, at least for those of us born in the last 50 years, felt like a game-changer in terms of highlighting ways to circumvent Constitutional safeguards under the auspices of “fighting” terror. “Terror” became the legalized name for newly visible racial threats (like Muslims, Arabs, Middle Easterners, South Asians), and of course, we know that the echo chamber called the MSM is very useful in furthering the State’s purposes by helping disseminate its propaganda with images, fear-mongering, heightened hysteria-turned cultural-status quo.

Now, let’s be clear: the notion of racial threats have been long associated with some US populations of color; the legalized names for long-standing racial threats (mostly African American men and women) have been articulated along the lines of violent offenders, murderers, rapists, drug addicts, prostitutes, etc.  So, the notion of constitutional reliability has never been a solid concept for the US black population. Today, the reliability of Constitutional rights evaporates for many more folks, some of whom previously depended on being able to slip into the “good” minority category (Legal scholar Karen Engle has an old but great piece on this).

Another (interesting?) point: the racial threat of terror has been conjoined with the threat of the undocumented. It’s not uncoincidental that the war on migrants has revved up within the discourse of the War on Terror. So, while terror was re-instituted in a legal definition in 2001, the war on the undocumented also dovetails with it through the language of “defending the Homeland” (Seriously? We’re resorting to Nazi terminology?), “our” borders, along with the usual nationalist trash about defending our liberty and way of life, etc. As is always the case with fear-mongering, the law eventually becomes invisible, expressed instead through popular and cultural discourses.

Greenwald’s point remains: Terror is an ambiguous term, but its use is anything but ambiguous: it’s a tool of the US Empire and its allies, deployed against those who go against the mainstream national grain either through their express actions (dissent or protest) or through their racial presence.

It is, as I’ve mentioned before, an Empire State of mind. The state’s response to the Occupy protests around the country stunned many people who had accepted the US line that violence is justly and exclusively directed against those who threaten our way of life. They were surprised to see the authoritarian hand of the state brought out in response to their middle-class college- or  law-school-going children, their professional-class neighbors, and even their grandparents. The passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), perhaps coincidentally, now legalizes the arrest of those same college students, professionals, and grandparents without cause. The arrest of your sweet liberal neighbors has been facilitated by the Patriot Act, but also by the expansions of FISA and the widespread collaboration of the telecommunication companies. Revolt, protest, dissent (whether by challenging the banks or by insistently living as an undocumented migrant in order to achieve…what?…political, economic, religious, sexual, security): these have been long-standing terrorist acts, but typically associated with visible racial threats. When your financially secure children, friends, neighbors are being targeted, that should be an important clue that those that the US Empire deems “terrorists” may be scapegoats or targets in a larger ideological struggle over the hearts and minds of Americans.  These random murders and promiscuous state violence are the consequence of unchecked arrogance couple with unrestrained power.

What’s the antidote to Empire? Unchecked arrogance–in the form of uninhibited state power–requires critical scrutiny, oversight and strict (i.e. not Bush-like) judicial accountability. If we have a state that insists that it knows best regardless of public outrage, then it’s time to jump off the righteous “war on terror” bandwagon.