World

How Stephen Colbert's Poking Fun at Iranian Culture Helps America Lube the Wheels of War

Laughter at Iran's expense is not quite as harmless as it seems. Cultural judgment helps dehumanize a country, making it easier for a society to go war.

In early July, news came that the Islamic Republic of Iran decided to issue fashion guidelines for men. Unveiling a large poster showing headshots of a half dozen men, in frontal and profile views, the Iranian culture ministry announced that certain haircuts were immodest and violated the Islamic Republic’s national and religious sensibilities. The ban covered gelled spikes and mullets, and the poster showed six acceptable styles, all seemingly ripped from the 1950s (the side part, the comb-back, and even a little flop over the ears are acceptable). Recovering from a beer-imbued long weekend, complete with fireworks, Americans returned to work on Tuesday to find a slew of articles and blog posts on the new restrictions. Even Stephen Colbert got in on the action, declaring that Iran had approved his own hairstyle. Everyone had a good chuckle. 

The reaction seems innocuous – just poking a little fun at what is, on its face, a ridiculous regulation on a whole nation of people thousands of miles away. But laughing at the expense of Iran is not quite as harmless as it seems – not when the U.S. has occupying armies on two sides of Iran’s borders, and a large chunk of the D.C. strategic establishment speaks belligerently about U.S. or Israeli bombing runs on the country of 65 million. There’s something crass about it, actually. The fact that Americans feel free to laugh about Iran in a climate where a former CIA chief tells CNN he thinks attacking Iran “may not be the worst of all possible outcomes” speaks to the likelihood that Americans administer their empire from their unconscious minds. Humor, of course, is a gentle way to convince people – propaganda for the unwitting part of the brain.

In the modern era, humor has worked again and again to dehumanize target countries as a standard part of war propaganda. In a democracy, where support of the population at large is supposedly a prerequisite for attacking another country, jokes are a common means of dehumanizing, demonizing and generally placing the population of the targets of the attack into the category of Other. Empathy plummets; and civilians in the aggressor state find it increasingly difficult to put themselves in the (Islam-approved) shoes of those on the receiving ends of the bombs.

Most troubling is that liberals and progressives – those you might expect, ostensibly, to oppose a U.S. attack on Iran – are just as likely to laugh the country to war as hawks. Maybe more: Hawks in the media, at neocon rags and mainstream outlets alike, take Iran far more seriously. Those liberals snickering about mullets play into the same sort of joking that occurred in the run-up to the Iraq War – dehumanizing the soon-to-be targets. But instead of the Butcher of Baghdad, today’s monsters are the “mad mullahs” in Tehran.

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Recently retired Prof. Hugh Rank, formerly of Governor’s State University, just south of Chicago, has done some of the best work around on "persuasion analysis," which dovetails nicely with studying war propaganda. What, after all, is war propaganda in a democratic society if not a means of persuading the civilian population to support a war and, if you’re lucky, enlist their sons and daughters in the effort? On his Web site on war propaganda, Rank defines war propaganda as “persuasion targeted at an internal audience,” with the emphasis in the original. (Demoralization of an enemy, to Rank, is “psychological warfare.”)

War propaganda breaks down into four categories (here’s Rank’s chart). You downplay things in the public discourse that make you look bad, and play up the good things you do. With regards to the propaganda’s targets, you ignore the other culture’s strong points, and play up its missteps. Intensifying the “bad” characteristics of others, says Rank, gets accomplished through “verbal aggression, words used to stir emotions” – think name-calling.

While Rank is focused on the more serious examples of intensifying the “bad” in others – “horror stories” and “atrocity pictures” – the prevalent use of humor over the past century fits right into this picture. Rank’s examples are used to “invite people to hate others and seek revenge.” Humor accomplishes the first stage of this simply by forcing a society to look at the potential enemies as “others,” at the very least creating an indifference to their fate.

“We have real social problems with killing in democratic societies,” Dr. Robin Andersen of Fordham University, who also works on persuasion analysis, told me. “In order to justify the killing you've got to take them outside of a human realm.” Andersen noted that part of the propaganda process is to make the internal audience – that which must support a war (or at least be indifferent to it) – lose their “compassion and empathy for the death and suffering” of the others by distancing oneself from the target society. Not every example of humor does this, but Andersen said one that certainly does is mockery.

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During World War I, as casualties mounted (eventually reaching 15 million people), Britain and U.S. needed to find a way to justify continued involvement in the war. “Anytime people noticed the deaths were going up,” said Andersen, “the propaganda went up too. The Germans were demonized.” There were spates of humorous cartoons depicting not just German soldiers, but German citizens, as club-wielding apes.

“To make fun of a country it requires an almost sort of distillation of a country into a form of stereotype and cliché,” said John Feffer, the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Among the examples that yielded the most harmful effects, one need look no further than Nazi Germany before and during World War II. At least three Nazi weekly humor magazines churned out material throughout the war. Sometimes the targets were Brits – Churchill as a gluttonous buffoon – but the most severe mockery (and the most severe consequences) were reserved for Jews. Cartoons continually depicted caricatures of Jews, with big noses and ears, and often with an unnatural and overwhelming desire for money. “Ignorant, lured by gold,” one cartoon from Der Stürmer read. Another called Jews “worms,” because they “creep up on what [they] want.”

Humor as propaganda does not need to focus on society or sectors of society as a whole – often, it can focus squarely on the leadership of a country. Take Kim Jong-il, the enigmatic "supreme leader" of North Korea. No doubt some of the ridicule of Kim comes from his own behavioral quirks. Feffer, an expert on the Korean Peninsula, said Kim’s appearance (short and plump, with poofy hair), his reticence to speak publicly, his film-buff habits (kidnapping actresses and movie directors), and his reported reputation for drinking and good eating make him an easy target. “These habits and predilections contribute to the kind of satirist’s portrait of him,” Feffer told me. “Of course, we have plenty of leaders in the democratic world with similar predilections – Bill Clinton with sex, and Bush with drugs and drink – but they have a team of public relations people who are constantly working to burnish their image.” Kim Jong-il is routinely savaged in political cartoons (see poofy hair) and his name alone – sometimes just a reference to North Korea – has become a punchline on late-night comedy shows.

While the U.S. hasn’t launched an invasion of North Korea yet, other leaders who have drawn the ire of the U.S. – e.g. Panama’s Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein – have not been so lucky, ending up on the wrong end of aggressive U.S. military campaigns to remove them from power.

In Noriega’s case, the propaganda focused on his character. Of course, the issue underlying the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama was not his alleged use of drugs or cross-dressing, but rather what Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s fear that once, according to a treaty, the Panama Canal fell into his hands, the U.S. would be frozen out of this essential waterway. But making Americans see Noriega as a dress-wearing, coke-blowing dictator was low-hanging fruit in the process of making the U.S. public support an invasion. “Many of the most outlandish stories turned out to be fiction,” said Peter Hart, activism director at the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). “You were supposed to be mad enough to want to do something about this guy but still view him as an incompetent boob.” Hart pointed me to an entry from a 1990 issue of Extra!, a magazine published by FAIR:

 Unhappiness with the Pentagon did not keep reporters from promoting the U.S. Army-approved image of Noriega as a comic strip arch-villain. The Southern Command told reporters soon after the invasion that 110 pounds of cocaine were found in Noriega's so-called "witch house," and this played big on TV news and the front pages. When, a month later, the "cocaine" turned out to be tamales (Washington Post, 1/23/90, page A22), the government's deception was a footnote at best. The initial headlines of Noriega as drug-crazed lunatic had served their purpose: to convince the American people that he represented a threat to the Canal.

In another report from the same issue of Extra! picking through a book on Noriega for falsehoods, FAIR pointed to a description of the Panamanian military dictator as diminutive and having a “damp, limp handshake.” A sidebar from the book ran in Newsweek describing Noriega as bisexual, alleging that he would “perfume himself heavily on off hours and wear yellow jump suits with yellow shoes, travel the world with a male pal with whom he was widely rumored to be having a torrid affair, and surround himself with openly gay ambassadors and advisers.”

The Noriega example also illustrates the perils of dissenting from the pervasive mockery of someone the U.S. government has deemed an enemy. Sarah York who, as a 10-year-old in the late-'80s, struck up a letter exchange with Noriega, eventually going for a week to visit Panama as a guest of the general. The story is retold by the principles in an episode of the radio show "This American Life." York was herself labeled a propaganda tool of the Panamanian government – a 10-year-old called names by newspapers and radio hosts. One such host, she says, brought her to tears live on air by asking if she knew that “Noriega rapes girls her age.” These allegations were unfounded, as were other charges against Noriega, including the extent of his involvement in drug trafficking (a principle justification for the U.S. invasion). York, now grown, married and with children, shrugs at the suggestion that this childhood episode pressed her into her current life off the grid in the northern Wisconsin woods. But the reporter notes that there is no ambiguity in her new life, “no room for misinterpretation” – no accusations, no mockery.

The most recent U.S. propaganda success came with Iraq. But the joke campaign started way before George W. Bush and his neocon Middle East advisers even got into office. One joke from the 1990s set up Hussein as a misogynist, and while acknowledging Bill Clinton’s own sexual appetites, painted them as obviously lesser than Hussein’s. The same Web site goes after Iraqi civilians, depicting them as a society used to war with a set of jokes labeled: “SIGNS IRAQ IS GETTING USED TO THE BOMBINGS.” One such sign reads: “Students anxiously listen to the radio each morning to listen for school closings.” Never mind that school in the early days of Shock and Awe was strictly out of the question: What’s wrong with alluding to the fact that hundreds of Iraqi children are eagerly awaiting bombings to get out of classes? Who cares that their schools, their country, and their lives, are being shattered?

***

Iran, on the other hand, is a propaganda success in waiting. President Barack Obama still seems hesitant to attack Iran, despite his capitulation to escalating measures like sanctions which are unlikely to stop Iran’s nuclear advance (correctly) and, therefore, represent only a checklist item on the neocon roadmap to war. Likely due to both his character (Obama the thoughtful, sober president) and his reluctance to start another Mid-East war, the administration is less engaged in demonization and mockery of Iran than the Bush cohort was in their rhetorical strikes against Iraq.

Nonetheless, a widespread network of hawks in the D.C. establishment – from think-tanks to press commentators – continue to use mockery and especially dehumanizing language in Iran. Just one recurring theme – Iran’s “mad mullahs” – yields nearly 40,000 hits on Google. Many of them come from right-wing sites, but the language sometimes filters into mainstream publications or television. Neither conservative nor mainstream outlets acknowledge that the slur "mad mullahs" casts a wide net over those "mullahs" who might be disengaged from politics (as many Shi’a clerics are for academic theological reasons) or those involved in reform politics. Mad mullahs encompasses even those religious leaders intimately involved in the opposition Green Movement, a cause célèbre among anti-regime types stateside.

During the 2008 campaign, it was John McCain who let the war jokes fly. One would think that if any Republican hawk would understand the gravity of going to war on the whimsy of a few belligerent ideologues, it would be McCain, who spent five and half years in a Vietnamese prison camp. That experience informed the isolationism in McCain’s early political career. But after his failed presidential run in 2000, McCain drifted even further into the orbit of neoconservatives – the prime movers and shakers behind the Iraq war, and today, those who press most ardently for military strikes on Iran. It was toward the latter end that McCain, asked about Iran on the stump, let loose a laugh line, parodying the Beach Boys song "Barbara Ann": “You know that old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran? [Sings:] Bomb bomb bomb….”

Even the liberal and progressive press and blogosphere is not immune from demonizing the religious culture of Iran. Take the October 8, 2007, cover of the New Yorker, where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was shown on the toilet with a neighbor tapping his foot – a signal for gay cruising à la the Larry Craig scandal. The cover cartoon was riffing on an assertion Ahmadinejad made at an appearance at Columbia University that there are no gay people in Iran. Only, Ahmadinejad never made that assertion. Despite this ABC News headline that blares, “No Gays, No Oppression of Women in Iran,” if you scroll down to the actual piece, Ahmadinejad is actually quoted as saying: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like you have in your country.” (I speak Farsi, and that’s accurate.) The difference is subtle, and no sane person defends Iranian treatment of gays, but the statement remains true, that in Iran, there are not gay people in the same way that there are here in the U.S. – it is, after all, a conservative Muslim culture. Nonetheless, what better way to poke fun at a homophobe than to declare: "That guy is sooooo gay!"

The latest knee-slapper – regulated hairdos -- is just another rather meaningless cultural quirk. Strict adherence to Islamic codes of modesty, according to hard-line clerics in Iran, means no long hair. When the story broke in the West, many liberal blogs – rather than chalking the story up to a conservative culture – used it in a condescending tone, making light of the ban on mullets. Gawker called it “a move of government oppression we can sort of get behind.” Iphelgix at FireDogLake expressed the same sentiment, adding:

 Now if only they instituted democratic reform, moved towards a non-secular society, protected women’s rights, protected reasonable freedoms for their citizenry and generally stopped being such an oppressive dick toward their own populace I might even consider moving there!

Daily Kos blogger "Bill in Portland Maine" even went so far, in a note that ended with a similar quip about mullets, to make light of the Iranian government’s having recently decided not to stone a woman for adultery: “Always remember: ‘Stoning in June, corn high soon. Stoning any time after, and you're just throwing money down the ol' shafter.’”

"It comes from all sides of the political spectrum,” Feffer of FPIF told me. With North Korea progressives were presented with an opportunity to burnish their “universalist” credentials – essentially saying, “We don't only criticize right-wing dictatorships, but we also criticize left-wing dictatorships and make fun of them as well.”

While not blaming Obama directly for the dehumanization campaign, FAIR's Hart points out that Iran has clearly been declared an enemy of the U.S., and “when the U.S. government declares enemies, it's a little difficult for people to push back against that.”

Hart is not surprised that some liberals and progressives are suckers for poking fun at potential bomb targets: “Politically these things don't always cut cleanly,” he told me. “If you can convince people who are nominally liberal about the need to invade Iraq and write in support of that idea, then why couldn't you get them to write about Iran.”

 ***

It’s not a tiny leap from poking fun at a people to bombing them – but it’s not too far off either. Both are predicated on making a group of foreigners solidly "the other." And what better way to do this than pointing out differences and laughing at them. It’s a form of cultural judgment: "You can’t have long hair, and therefore are not as good as us." The same paradigm applies to burkas and headscarves, or, if you were in Pueblo, Colorado, perhaps, the ban on letting dandelions grow. Yes, that’s right, we have our own silly regulations, but you won’t hear about those. This isn’t about U.S., it’s about THEM. It’s what John Dolan, in a 2006 essay on cultural relativism for this Web site, derided as “the cozy simplicity of cheering for your tribe and sneering at all others”:

That's the reality of those "moral absolutes" right-wingers proclaim as the grounding of decent behavior: the absolute right to hack to death anyone who doesn't share your tribe's religion, table manners or musical taste. 

[…W]hile Rush Limbaugh brags about how we're going to bring the culture of Missouri to Baghdad, his opponents in the Ivy Leagues and Berkeley were by no means in a position to say that this was a grotesquely provincial, wrong-headed enterprise.

They simply wanted it done in a kinder, gentler manner.

With even liberals guffawing away, it’s no surprise that humor as war propaganda seems to not ruffle anyone’s feathers. “I think political discourse has shifted rather substantially in the past four decades,” said Feffer. “We live in an irony-soaked environment. This was originally a purely American approach, but has, because of television (and the Internet) become a more general part of politics.”

While, 20 years ago, a satirical news show could only survive as a five-minute weekly segment on a comedy show ("Saturday Night Live"), today there are two stand-alone daily half-hour programs dedicated to skewering the news. Everything these days, says Feffer, is “essentially material for stand-up comedy.”

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