I had the distinct honor of joining the ever-excellent progressive power duo /sibling superhero team John and Molly Knefel of the podcast Radio Dispatch today for a 20-minute chat about "Argo," the Oscar ceremony, and the dangers of imperial mythology and Hollywood propaganda.
You can (and should) listen to the whole show here.
John and Molly also discuss the awfulness of Seth McFarlane's hosting performance, The Onion's deplorable tweet, and the general sexism and misogyny of the entire proceedings.
In other news, my recent post, "Oscar Prints the Legend: Argo's Upcoming Academy Award and the Failure of Truth," has been cross-posted, reposted, linked and referenced all over this internet machine. You can find it on Mondoweiss, PolicyMic, The Political Film Blog, and elsewhere.
I owe this incredible publicity and promotion to a few folks in particular: The Nation's Dave Zirin, The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, Reuters' Anthony De Rosa, the Institute for Public Accuracy's Sam Husseini, and FAIR's Peter Hart.
Two of the best articles I've yet read on the politics and propaganda of this year's top films and the Academy Awards ceremony itself have both been written by Brooklyn-based writer, proud OWSer and musician Willie Osterweil for The American Reader. You should read them immediately:
"State of the Industry: Politically Deployed Cinema at the Oscars," and the post-Oscars follow-up, "State of the Industry (Part II): And the Winner is...the State!"
The Nation's Allison Kilkenny (of my beloved Citizen Radio) has a great piece up entitled, "The Weird Blend of Apolitical Denial and Shameless Propaganda at the Oscars," which you should read...now. Now!
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
I had the distinct honor of joining the ever-excellent progressive power duo /sibling superhero team John and Molly Knefel of the podcast Radio Dispatch today for a 20-minute chat about "Argo," the Oscar ceremony, and the dangers of imperial mythology and Hollywood propaganda.
Saturday, February 23, 2013
One year ago, after his breathtakingly beautiful Iranian drama, "A Separation," won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, writer/director Asghar Farhadi delivered the best acceptance speech of the night.
"[A]t the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians," he said, Iran was finally being honored for "her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics." Farhadi dedicated the Oscar "to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment."
Such grace and eloquence will surely not be on display this Sunday, when Ben Affleck, flanked by his co-producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, takes home the evening's top prize, the Best Picture Oscar, for his critically-acclaimed and heavily decorated paean to the CIA and American innocence, "Argo."
Over the past 12 months, rarely a week - let alone month - went by without new predictions of an ever-imminent Iranian nuclear weapon and ever-looming threats of an American or Israeli military attack. Come October 2012, into the fray marched "Argo," a decontextualized, ahistorical "true story" of Orientalist proportion, subjecting audiences to two hours of American victimization and bearded barbarians, culminating in popped champagne corks and rippling stars-and-stripes celebrating our heroism and triumph and their frustration and defeat. Salon's Andrew O'Hehir aptly described the film as "a propaganda fable," explaining as others have that essentially none of its edge-of-your-seat thrills or most memorable moments ever happened. O'Hehir sums up:
The Americans never resisted the idea of playing a film crew, which is the source of much agitation in the movie. (In fact, the “house guests” chose that cover story themselves, from a group of three options the CIA had prepared.) They were not almost lynched by a mob of crazy Iranians in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, because they never went there. There was no last-minute cancellation, and then un-cancellation, of the group’s tickets by the Carter administration. (The wife of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor had personally gone to the airport and purchased tickets ahead of time, for three different outbound flights.) The group underwent no interrogation at the airport about their imaginary movie, nor were they detained at the gate while a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard telephoned their phony office back in Burbank. There was no last-second chase on the runway of Mehrabad Airport, with wild-eyed, bearded militants with Kalashnikovs trying to shoot out the tires of a Swissair jet.One of the actual diplomats, Mark Lijek, noted that the CIA's fake movie "cover story was never tested and in some ways proved irrelevant to the escape." The departure of the six Americans from Tehran was actually mundane and uneventful. "If asked, we were going to say we were leaving Iran to return when it was safer," Lijek recalled, "But no one ever asked!...The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way. We got on the flight to Zurich and then we were taken to the US ambassador's residence in Berne. It was that straightforward."
Furthermore, Jimmy Carter has even acknowledged that "90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian [while] the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA...Ben Affleck's character in the film was only in Tehran a day and a half and the real hero in my opinion was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process."
Taylor himself recently remarked that "Argo" provides a myopic representation of both Iranians and their revolution, ignoring their "more hospitable side and an intent that they were looking for some degree of justice and hope and that it all wasn't just a violent demonstration for nothing."
"The amusing side," Taylor said, "is the script writer in Hollywood had no idea what he's talking about."
O'Hehir perfectly articulates the film's true crime, its deliberate exploitation of "its basis in history and its mode of detailed realism to create something that is entirely mythological." Not only is it "a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue," but "[i]t’s also a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology."
boasted, "You know, it was such a great story. For one thing, it's a thriller. It's actually comedy with the Hollywood satire. It's a complicated CIA movie, it's a political movie. And it's all true." He told Rolling Stone that, when conceiving his directorial approach, he knew he "absolutely had to preserve the central integrity and truth of the story."
"It's OK to embellish, it's OK to compress, as long as you don't fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened," Affleck has remarked, even going so far as to tell reporters at Argo's BFI London Film Festival premier, "This movie is about this story that took place, and it's true, and I go to pains to contextualize it and to try to be even-handed in a way that just means we're taking a cold, hard look at the facts."
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Affleck went so far as to say, "I tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual. And that's another reason why I tried to be as true to the story as possible -- because I didn't want it to be used by either side. I didn't want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them."
For Affleck, these facts apparently don't include understanding why the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun and occupied on November 4, 1979. "There was no rhyme or reason to this action," Affleck has insisted, claiming that the takeover "wasn't about us," that is, the American government (despite the fact that his own film is introduced by a fleeting - though frequently inaccurate1 - review of American complicity in the Shah's dictatorship).
Wrong, Ben. One reason was the fear of another CIA-engineered coup d'etat like the one perpetrated in 1953 from the very same Embassy. Another reason was the admission of the deposed Shah into the United States for medical treatment and asylum rather than extradition to Iran to face charge and trial for his quarter century of crimes against the Iranian people, bankrolled and supported by the U.S. government. One doesn't have to agree with the reasons, of course, but they certainly existed.
Just as George H.W. Bush once bellowed after a U.S. Navy warship blew an Iranian passenger airliner out of the sky over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 Iranian civilians, "I'll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don't care what the facts are." Affleck appears inclined to agree.
If nothing else, "Argo" is an exercise in American exceptionalism - perhaps the most dangerous fiction that permeates our entire society and sense of identity. It reinvents history in order to mine a tale of triumph from an unmitigated defeat. The hostage crisis, which lasted 444 days and destroyed an American presidency, was a failure and an embarrassment for Americans. The United States government and media has spent the last three decades tirelessly exacting revenge on Iran for what happened.
"Argo" recasts revolutionary Iranians as the hapless victims of American cunning and deception. White Americans are hunted, harried and, ultimately courageous and free. Iranians are maniacal, menacing and, in the end, infantile and foolish. The fanatical fundamentalists fail while America wins. USA -1, Iran - 0. Yet, "Argo" obscures the unfortunate truth that, as those six diplomats were boarding a plane bound for Switzerland on January 28, 1980, their 52 compatriots would have to wait an entire year before making it home, not as the result of a daring rescue attempt, but after a diplomatic agreement was reached.
Reflecting on the most troubled episodes in American history is a time-honored cinematic tradition. There's a reason why the best Vietnam movies are full of pain, anger, anguish and war crimes. By contrast, "Argo" is American catharsis porn; pure Hollywood hubris. It is pro-American propaganda devoid of introspection, pathos or humility and meant to assuage our hurt feelings. In "Argo," no lessons are learned by revisiting the consequences of America's support for the Pahlavi monarchy or its creation and training of SAVAK, the Shah's vicious secret police.
On June 11, 1979, months before the hostage crisis began, the New York Times published an article by writer and historian A.J. Langguth which recounted revelations relayed by a former American intelligence official regarding the CIA's close relationship with SAVAK. The agency had "sent an operative to teach interrogation methods to SAVAK" including "instructions in torture, and the techniques were copied from the Nazis." Langguth wrestled with the news, trying to figure out why this had not been widely reported in the media. He came to the following conclusion:
We – and I mean we as Americans – don’t believe it. We can read the accusations, even examine the evidence and find it irrefutable. But, in our hearts, we cannot believe that Americans have gone abroad to spread the use of torture.Similarly, at a time when the CIA is waging an illegal, immoral, unregulated and always expanding drone execution program, the previous administration's CIA kidnappers and torturers are protected from prosecution by the current administration, and leaked State Department cables reveal orders for U.S. diplomats to spy on United Nations officials, it is surreal that such homage is being paid to that very same organization by the so-called liberals of the Tinsel Town elite.
We can believe that public officials with reputations for brilliance can be arrogant, blind or stupid. Anything but evil. And when the cumulative proof becomes overwhelming that our representatives in the C.I.A. or the Agency for International Development police program did in fact teach torture, we excuse ourselves by vilifying the individual men.
Upon winning his Best Director Golden Globe last month, Ben Affleck obsequiously praised the "clandestine service as well as the foreign service that is making sacrifices on behalf of the American people everyday [and] our troops serving over seas, I want to thank them very much," a statement echoed almost identically by co-producer Grant Heslov when "Argo" later won Best Drama.
This comes as no surprise, considering Affleck had previously described "Argo" as "a tribute" to the "extraordinary, honorable people at the CIA" during an interview on Fox News.
The relationship between Hollywood and the military and intelligence arms of the U.S. government have long been cozy. "When the CIA or the Pentagon says, 'We'll help you, if you play ball with us,' that's favoring one form of speech over another. It becomes propaganda," David Robb, author of "Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies" told The Los Angeles Times. "The danger for filmmakers is that their product — entertainment and information — ends up being government spin."
Awarding "Argo" the Best Picture Oscar is like Barack Obama winning a Nobel Peace Prize: an undeserved accolade fawningly bestowed upon a dubious recipient based on a transparent fiction; an award for what never was and never would be and a decision so willfully naïve and grotesque it discredits whatever relevance and prestige the proceedings might still have had.*
So this Sunday night, when "Argo" has won that coveted golden statuette, it will be clear that we have yet again been blinded by the heavy dust of politics and our American mantra of hostility and resentment will continue to inform our decisions, dragging us closer and closer to the abyss.
***** ***** *****
* Yes, in this analogy, the equivalent of Henry Kissinger is obviously 2004's dismal "Crash."
FOOTNOTES & UPDATES:
1 The introduction of "Argo" is a dazzlingly sloppy few minutes of caricatured history of Iran, full of Orientalist images of violent ancient Persians (scimitars and all), which gets many basic facts wrong. In truth, it is shocking this intro made it to release as written and recorded.
Here are some of the problems:
1. The voiceover narration says, "In 1950, the people of Iran elected Mohammad Mossadegh, the secular democrat, Prime Minister. He nationalized British and U.S. petroleum holdings, returning Iran’s oil to its people."
Mossadegh was elected to the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) in 1944. He did not become Prime Minister until April 1951 and was not "elected by the people of Iran." Rather, he was appointed to the position by the representatives of the Majlis.
Also, the United States did not have petroleum interests in Iran at the time.
2. After briefly describing the 1953 coup, the narrator says Britain and the United States "installed Reza Pahlavi as Shah."
Wow. First, the Shah's name was not Reza Pahlavi. That is his father's (and son's) name. Furthermore, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was not installed as Shah since he had already been Shah of Iran since September 1941, after Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran and forced the abdication of his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi.
During the coup in 1953, the Shah fled to Baghdad, then Rome. After Mossadegh had been forced out, the Shah returned to the Peacock Throne.
This is not difficult information to come by, and yet the screenwriter and director of "Argo" didn't bother looking it up. And guess what? Ben Affleck actually majored in Middle East Studies in college. Unsurprisingly, he didn't graduate.
The rest of the brief intro, while mentioning the torture of SAVAK, omits any mention of its ties to the CIA, glosses over the causes of the revolution, but lingers on the violence that followed. As it ends, the words "Based on a True Story" appear on the screen. The first live action moment we see in "Argo" is of an American flag being burned.
So much for Affleck's insistence that "Argo" is "not a political movie."
Still, as Kevin B. Lee wrote in Slate last month, "This opening may very well be the reason why critics have given the film credit for being insightful and progressive—because nothing that follows comes close, and the rest of the movie actually undoes what this opening achieves."
Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran, the film settles into a retrograde “white Americans in peril” storyline. It recasts those oppressed Iranians as a raging, zombie-like horde, the same dark-faced demons from countless other movies— still a surefire dramatic device for instilling fear in an American audience. After the opening makes a big fuss about how Iranians were victimized for decades, the film marginalizes them from their own story, shunting them into the role of villains. Yet this irony is overshadowed by a larger one: The heroes of the film, the CIA, helped create this mess in the first place. And their triumph is executed through one more ruse at the expense of the ever-dupable Iranians to cap off three decades of deception and manipulation.And brilliantly concludes,
Looking at the runaway success of this film, it seems as if critics and audiences alike lack the historical knowledge to recognize a self-serving perversion of an unflattering past, or the cultural acumen to see the utterly ersatz nature of the enterprise: A cast of stock characters and situations, and a series of increasingly contrived narrow escapes from third world mobs who, predictably, are never quite smart enough to catch up with the Americans. We can delight all we like in this cinematic recycling act, but the fact remains that we are no longer living in a world where we can get away with films like this—not if we want to be in a position to deal with a world that is rising to meet us. The movies we endorse need to rise to the occasion of reflecting a new global reality, using a newer set of storytelling tools than this reheated excuse for a historical geopolitical thriller.Another astute observation comes from Sarah Gillespie, writing in The Palestine Chronicle this past November:
In short, ‘Argo’ ultimately reinforces the binary opposition of a civilized West and a savage Iran. We hear a lot of Farsi in the movie, but only when Farsi is spoken by a Western character is the dialogue given subtitles. Farsi spoken by Iranian characters in the film is merely incomprehensible noise. Here the film accurately mirrors our contemporary reality, in which we inflict our discourse on Iranians, but are incapable of listening to theirs.Nevertheless, in his own comments on the script-writing process during a Hollywood Reporter's Writers Roundtable discussion last November, "Argo" screenwriter Chris Terrio explained that the intention behind the film's brief prologue was to provide context. "This isn't just a generic image of what we think of as the Arab Street," he said, "Angry people who seem to be burning flags for no reason. You needed to understand the source of the rage."
When Terrio was asked about the film's "liberties with factual truth" and how far he and Affleck thought they "could bend the truth to make a story more effective," Terrio hemmed and hawed about presenting "a very complicated situation" and determining "how much information can we present that the audience [will understand]."
"What's the breaking point for that amount of narrative information?," he said rhetorically, before answering, "Although deviating from factual truth...I don't feel like we compromised in any essential thematic way."
While Terrio did not visit Iran during his writing process, he said he "did as much research as I could." this apparently did not involve learning the proper name of the deposed Shah. So where did his information come from? "I spent a bunch of time with Tony Mendez and also bunch of other CIA officers," he said, before revealing what great guys they all are.
Later in the discussion, Terrio even furrowed his brow and pondered a philosophical conundrum. "I'm not sure of the ethical implications of taking real people's lives and trying to make it a nail-biter," he said.
February 25, 2013 - On the heels of Oscar Night's unsurprising coda (made all the more bizarre by the inclusion of Michelle Obama, surrounded by awkward-looking military personnel, presenting the Best Picture to "Argo" from the White House, providing a deeply disturbing governmental imprimatur to the entire proceedings), The Los Angeles Times published a report Monday morning about how "Argo" is being perceived in Iran by Iranians themselves.
The conclusion is clear from the headline: 'Argo's' Oscar gets a thumbs-down in Iran. Journalists Ramin Mostaghim and Patrick J. McDonnell quote several Iranians who have seen the movie, bootlegs of which are widely available, all of whom clearly have a better grasp on, not only the politics, but also the art (or lack thereof) of cinema itself. "The perception that the film portrayed Iranians uniformly as bearded, violent fanatics rankled many who recall that Iran's 1979 revolution had both secular and religious roots -- and ousted a dictatorial monarch, the shah of Iran, reviled as a corrupt and brutal puppet of Washington," Mostaghim and McDonnel explain. Here's what we hear from Iranians themselves:
"I am secular, atheist and not pro-regime but I think the film 'Argo' has distorted history and insulted Iranians," said Hossain, a cafe owner worried about business because of customers' lack of cash in a sanctions-battered economy. "For me, it wasn't even a good thriller."
"I did not enjoy seeing my fellow countrymen and women insulted," said Farzaneh Haji, an educated homemaker and fan of romantic movies who was 18 at the time of the revolution. "The men then were not all bearded and fanatical. To be anti-American was a fashionable idea among young people across the board. Even non-bearded and U.S.-educated men and women were against American imperialism."
"As an action film or thriller, the film was good, but it was not believable, especially the way the six Americans escaped from the airport," said Farshid Farivar, 49, a Hollywood devotee, as he stretched his legs in an office where he does promotional work. "At any rate, it was an average film and did not deserve an Oscar."The piece ends with the reporters speaking with Abbas Abdi, one of the revolutionary students who planned the seizure of the American Embassy in 1979 and who spent some time in prison a decade ago for criticisms of the Iranian government:
In a brief telephone interview on Monday, Abdi said the Oscars had plummeted to the feeble level of Iran's own Fajr Film Festival, not exactly one of the luminaries on the international movie awards circuit.An Associated Press report also quotes some Iranians about their views on the film. Mohammad Amin Sharifi, a self-described cinephile in Tehran, said, "In my opinion, it's a nice movie from technical aspects and it was on the scale of Hollywood movies, but I don't think it was worth a nomination for Oscar and other awards."
"The Oscars are now vulgar and have standards as low as our own film festival," he said. "The Oscars deserve 'Argo' and 'Argo' deserves the Oscars."
USA Today also has an Oscar follow-up entitled, "Tourists see a different Iran reality than 'Argo' image," which details the warmth, generosity and hospitality of Iranians experienced by travelers when visiting Iran.
Robert Parry over at Consortiumnews has posted an excellent article on "Argo" in which he writes that the film has "largely draw[n] its narrative in black and white, with strong propaganda overtones, feeding into the current hostility between the United States and Iran over its nuclear program."
Further, Parry notes, "Despite a brief documentary-style opening referencing the 1953 coup and the dictatorial rule of the Shah of Iran until 1979, Argo quickly descended into a formulaic tale of sympathetic CIA officers trying to outwit nasty Iranian revolutionaries, complete with a totally made-up thriller escape at the end."
He concludes, "Argo confirms to many average Americans the unreasonableness of Iranians, who are portrayed as both evil and inept. If negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program collapse, this propaganda image of the Iranians could help tilt the balance of U.S. public opinion toward war."
February 26, 2013 - Canada's leading newspaper the Globe and Mail has published an interview with former Canadian Ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, the man who was primarily responsible for the hiding and rescue of the six American diplomats whose story is told in "Argo."
On the fake Hollywood film concoction that is essentially the entire point of "Argo" and lends the movie its "amazing story" status, Taylor explains that the CIA actually complicated matters by getting involved. He explains:
While the CIA did finally settle on the Hollywood cover idea, Taylor intended for the six Americans to leave on their own as part of a wave of Canadians departing in the normal course of international travel. “I was cutting back the staff,” he recalls. “[The Americans] would just be Canadians going through, some on business, some going back after temporarily serving at the embassy.” Sometime before the date of departure, the CIA decided it wanted to send in two agents to travel with the escapees. “Tony and one other officer came in, then went out. I think they were at the airport and monitored their [departure]. Because there was no interrogation at the airport.”Regarding the forged documentation attributed to CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck's character) in the film, Taylor says:
“The documentation was totally prepared in Ottawa.” That included passports, business cards, credit cards and other ephemera (receipts from restaurants in Toronto, Montreal etc.) that would help establish the legitimacy of the six Americans as a Canadian film crew. After one Farsi-speaking member of Taylor’s staff discovered an error in the documents, more passports were issued by Ottawa and couriered via diplomatic pouch to Tehran.Chris Terrio's Oscar-winning script lays the tension on thick towards the end of "Argo" when it is revealed that the Canadian Embassy is going to be shut down, thereby leaving the American diplomats with nowhere to hide, thus amplifying the immediacy and urgency of the impending escape. But Taylor throws a bucket a freezing water on this particular twist of the tale, declaring, "It's inconceivable that Canada would have closed the embassy while U.S. diplomats were still there. It wouldn't even have occurred to us."
After the diplomats left Iran, the embassy was indeed closed down. Even after reopening in 1988, Canada and Iran still didn't exchange ambassadors for another eight years. The embassy was again shuttered, and Iranian diplomats were expelled from their own mission in Ottawa, in September 2012 at the behest of neoconservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In response, James George, who preceded Ken Taylor as Canadian ambassador to Iran, called the move "stupid." Other former ambassadors expressed concern and condemnation. Taylor himself said on Canadian television shortly after the announcement, "I really can't see the rationale of this move. It's a very bold stroke to sever diplomatic relations and close the embassy within five days."
In a USA Today article published the day before the Academy Awards, Ken Taylor reiterated his frustration with the film. The report also quotes Jimmy Carter, speaking at Canada's Queen's University in November, saying he was "taken aback by [the film's] distortion of what happened because almost everything that was heroic, or courageous or innovative was done by Canada and not the United States."
Incidentally, here is news report from CBC which followed the events depicted in "Argo":
The truth, however, could not be more different. The British did give their American colleagues sanctuary. Far from being cowards, the Brits were heroes. Many of the British diplomats then stationed in Iran are still alive — and they’re fuming. ‘When I first heard about this film, I was really quite annoyed,’ says Sir John Graham, 86, who was in Tehran at the time of the crisis. Sir John is understandably concerned that Argo will become accepted as the definitive history of what happened.Walters goes on the tell the tale of how the American diplomats (all six were not yet together at the time), upon leaving the U.S. Embassy, found the British mission surrounded by its own crowd of protesters. The Americans actually all stayed in their own apartments that night and were supposed to be picked up by British officials the next day. The Brits got lost on their way to the rendezvous point, but eventually met up with the Americans, taking them to a British residential compound that was still secure, "offered them a house of their own, fed them a warm meal, [and] even prepared cocktails." They spent the night there. After that, the American diplomats stayed in various residences in Tehran, often times separately, for a few days before eventually seeking long-term refuge with Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. The Daily Mail article adds, "Many of the British embassy staff from that time have seen Argo. ‘It does not bear all that much relation to the facts,’ observes Sir David Miers drily. 'It is not a true story.' Ben Affleck has acknowledged the film casts Britain in a bad light. ‘But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone,’ he said." 'Well, except the Iranians', he totally forgot to add. ***** UPDATE IV: March 2, 2013 - A very condemnatory and, in many ways, challenging review of "Argo," posted on Iranian.com, makes the following observation about the film's employment of dehumanizing imagery which, up until now, I've seen nowhere else.
Affleck’s lead character imagines a film production as pretext for his mission while watching a TV episode of Planet of the Apes. Really? Apes? Because those hirsute, irrational, enraged Persians are essentially mutinous primates, breaking out of their assigned cages and capturing their legitimately superior Caucasoid human handlers, right?!?
Affleck would claim that the make-up artist John Chambers, who designed Mendez’ Hollywood cover, also worked on Planet of the Apes, hence that TV reference. Yet watch that scene again – one of armed, dark-hued, stern, uniformed apes guarding and walking Americans along a mountain ledge into captivity – and you’ll sense how the film subtly programs audiences to subconsciously view “the enemy”.[Quick nerd note: In "Argo," Affleck's character is actually watching a scene from the 1973 movie, "The Battle for the Planet of the Apes," not the short-lived 1974 TV series.] ***** UPDATE V: March 5, 2013 - Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the Islamic Republic of Iran's first president, has written a fascinating article for the Christian Science Monitor about "Argo" and its misrepresentation of history, namely the impression given by the film that the Iranian government has wholly supportive of the Embassy takeover and subsequent hostage-taking. "Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan’s entire administration was against the occupation," Bani-Sadr explains, continuing, "Indeed, in the early days there was no talk of hostage-taking. The occupation was initially regarded as a short-term protest against the shah’s admittance to the United States, as the memory of the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadegh was still fresh in public memory. But as the event began to play a more important role in domestic Iranian and American foreign politics, the protest was transformed into a hostage-taking that lasted for 444 days and had catastrophic consequences for Iran, the US, and international politics." Despite vociferously opposing the continued occupation, Bani-Sadr was voted into office by an huge margin. In fact, "96 percent of votes in that election were given to candidates who were against it," he writes. "Hence, the movie misrepresents the Iranian government’s stand in regard to hostage-taking. It also completely misrepresents Iranians by portraying us as irrational people consumed by aggressive emotion, in contrast to the 'Western' Americans, who were, as Edward Said once wrote, constructed as 'rational, peaceful, liberal, logical' ... etc.." Bani-Sadr explains that he has "a deeper concern about the way the film legitimizes clandestine CIA operations." "[B]y falsifying, misrepresenting, and taking critical facts out of context, it delivers a pro-CIA message at the cost of both the Iranian people and Iranian history. It does not help people understand that rather than being emblematic of the 1979 revolution, the hostage-taking enabled the forces of dictatorship we see today to overpower democratic struggles against the occupation of the US Embassy and all forms of violence in society." ***** UPDATE VI: March 21, 2013 - Months after its theatrical release last autumn and its award-winning run this past winter, "Argo" is still pissing people off. Who now? New Zealand. Early on in the film, the audience is told how the six American diplomats found refuge at the Canadian ambassador's house after leaving the Embassy: "The six of them went out a back exit. Brits turned them away. Kiwis turned them away. Canadians took them in," explains Bryan Cranston's character Jack O'Donnell tells Affleck's Mendez. This off-hand reference to New Zealand touched a nerve. The Associated Press reports today that the New Zealand "Parliament has expressed its dismay, passing a motion stating that Affleck, who also directed the film, 'saw fit to mislead the world about what actually happened.'" The article continues:
In fact, a U.S. State Department document dated Feb. 6, 1980, says "four Embassies — Canadians, British, Swedish and New Zealand — were involved in their protection and escape." The document was posted online last fall by the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum.
And published interviews indicate diplomats from Britain and New Zealand did help by briefly sheltering the Americans, visiting them and bringing them food, even driving them to the airport when they left.
Yet those interviews also indicate that both countries considered it too risky to shelter the Americans for long. That left the Canadians shouldering the biggest risk by taking them in.
Lawmaker Winston Peters, who brought last week's uncontested motion before Parliament, said New Zealanders are unfairly portrayed as "a bunch of cowards," an impression that would be given to millions who watch the movie.
"It's a diabolical misrepresentation of the acts of courage and bravery, done at significant risk to themselves, by New Zealand diplomats," he said.*****
Friday, February 22, 2013
On February 17, 2013, The New York Times published a fascinating and, quite frankly, damning map depicting the United States’ retrograde attitude toward paid maternity leave in comparison to the rest of the world.
In simple terms, the United States is a global outlier: the only industrialized country not to mandate even a single day of paid maternity leave to its working mothers. While this has been known and publicized for quite some time now (here is a very similar report from National Geographic back in 2007 which was also picked up by the Times), periodic reminders are indeed welcome.
As the report demonstrates, in contrast to the United States, Iran’s official policies regarding maternity leave and many other maternal rights are notably progressive. (On the other hand, Iran’s abortion laws, while liberalizing, still have a way to go.) This may come as quite a shock to American readers given the usual media coverage on Iran. The Islamic Republic is perhaps the single most demonized and vilified nation in American politics and media today, depicted almost exclusively as a bastion of medieval barbarity and misogynistic backwardness.
As seen in the diagram above, Iran doesn't just have some paid maternity leave, it has one of the most substantial paid benefits policies on the planet for new mothers, setting it apart from the rest of the region and placing it on par with – if not far in advance of – labor laws in much of Europe.
A 2009 study in the International Breastfeeding Journal found that after six months paid maternity leave, Iranian working mothers are given the option to reduce their work by one hour per day in an effort to promote breastfeeding for children up to 2 years old. The study concluded, “In comparison to many European Union countries, Iran showed a favorable situation in terms of breastfeeding rates and promotion of breastfeeding.”
On February 20, just three days after The New York Times published this map, the Majlis (Iranian parliament) approved a new family planning bill which, although unfortunately eliminating a number of beneficial birth control programs, actually increased paid maternity leave for mothers from six to nine months, and created an obligatory two-week paid leave for fathers.
In an official move to roll back the strict population control efforts of previous decades, the Iranian press reported,“Previous restrictions around having a fourth child have also been dropped from the act, and now such children will be afforded insurance and their mothers will receive the same amount of leave as any other mother.”
These benefits outshine most other developing nations. For instance, mothers in India get 12 paid weeks while Brazilian law mandates six months. Turkey stipulates only a 16-week paid leave at 70% pay with an optional six-month unpaid extension, and allows new mothers the ability to “request breaks in the working day amounting to 1 hour 30 minutes per day for breastfeeding” for up to a year.
In the United Arab Emirates, private businesses are required to provide roughly 45 days maternity leave at full-pay followed by the same amount of time at half-pay. The public sector offers slightly better benefits with 60 days at full salary. All working mothers in the UAE may extend their leave up to an additional 100 days with no pay.
Of course, all of these figures seem unfathomably generous and humanitarian when compared to the United States, which literally stands alone with a begrudging 12-weeks unpaid leave. How’s that for American exceptionalism?
Sunday, February 17, 2013
In anticipation of renewed talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the nuclear-armed permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States - plus Germany) being held later this month in Almaty, Kazakhstan, anonymous Western officials have revealed a new "plan to offer to ease sanctions barring trade in gold and other precious metals with Iran in return for Iranian steps to shut down the nation's newly expanded Fordow uranium enrichment plant."
First, recall that the reason Iran has resorted to a gold-for-oil barter system in the first place is because of the myriad unilateral sanctions implemented by the United States and the European Union that ban all cash-based trade for Iranian gas and petroleum. Then remember that the Fordow enrichment plant is a legally safeguarded facility that former IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei described as "nothing to be worried about." The IAEA has consistently confirmed that "all nuclear material in the [Fordow] facility remains under the Agency's containment and surveillance," an assessment that to date, remains to be true. But obviously the fact that it is nearly invulnerable to military attack is all that really matters.
So, basically, the proposal is for Iran to voluntarily shutter and dismantle the only enrichment facility the United States can't destroy at will (and cease its concomitant enrichment of uranium to levels necessary for cancer treatment and research) in exchange for maintaining the annoying sanctions-evading trade loophole with which they already have to cope.
Even the unnamed officials who leaked the news to Reuters "acknowledged that it represents a relatively modest update to proposals that the six major powers put forward last year." Beyond this, the Western demand to close Fordow is a non-starter, as Iranian officials have often noted.
Yet, incredibly, such an offer is even more patronizing and ridiculous than it seems. Before explaining why, a quick review of the various sanctions against Iran may be in order.
Four rounds of increasingly stringent United Nations Security Council sanctions were imposed on Iran between 2006 to 2010. These were known as "targeted sanctions" and mostly affected the sale of nuclear and missile technology. The last U.N. sanctions resolution was the harshest, essentially making it easier for countries that wanted to to ban their countries companies from working with the Iranian energy industry, authorizing trade credits and shipping insurance, and conducting financial transactions with Iranian banks. But no country was forced to ban such interactions with Iran.
No new U.N. sanctions have been imposed since then. In the intervening years, the oft-repeated phrase "crippling sanctions" refers to unilateral U.S. and E.U. sanctions.
These newer sanctions - enacted through Congressional resolutions and Presidential executive orders - are primarily trade sanctions and sometimes authorize the seizing of personal assets of certain Iranian officials and the blacklisting of private and state companies. Sanctions on Iranian banks - namely the Obama's February 2012 executive order regarding Central Bank of Iran and others - have had the most detrimental effects to the Iranian economy and people. These sanctions freeze international transactions, seize assets (ie. steal money) and prevent oil and cargo shipping - basically, in many cases, Iran isn't able to pay for goods and services and its banks can't process revenue from its energy sector. As a result, Iran has resorted to an international barter system to keep its economy going. Still, while medicines and food for example aren't explicitly prevented from being shipped to Iran, these sanctions make it extremely difficult for Iran to actually pay for the goods it needs.
The result is the collective punishment of a civilian population of over 70 million Iranians. As the Woodrow Wilson Center's Siamak Namazi recently concluded in a report on the effects of the Western sanctions regime, "Washington and Brussels' stated intention that sanctions 'pressure the Iranian government…without contributing to the suffering of the ordinary [Iranians],' as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once put it, is not being reflected by the reality on the ground."
"There is no mistaking that the scarcity of medicine and medical equipment in Iran started with the
tightening up of sanctions" due to the "overwhelming obstacles [placed] in the way of humanitarian trade," Namazi wrote.
The United States has also bullied the E.U. into forcing the international financial transaction clearinghouse SWIFT to expel Iran, making it nearly impossible for dozens of Iranian banks to do business with the rest of the world. American and European sanctions are effectively set up to punish not only Iran, but also other countries that continue to do business with Iran, thereby forcing most of the world not to trade with Iran (a better term would be "embargo).
So, which of these sanctions are to be lifted under the new P5+1 offer to Iran in exchange for closing Fordow?
The answer is none of them.
On July 31, 2012, Barack Obama signed an executive order which, among other things, authorized the U.S. Treasury Department to sanction anyone who transfers not only cash, but also gold or other precious metals, to Iranian institutions. A few months later, it became clear that a massive gold-for-oil trade had been established between Iran and Turkey. Turkey, a member of NATO, receives 18% of its natural gas and 51% of its oil from Iran and has long been lending the Islamic Republic banking assistance and facilitating trade deals with developing nations such India, much to the chagrin of the United States.
On February 6, 2013, the Treasury sanctions signed last July went into effect. The provisions of the order "significantly increase economic pressure on Iran by restricting Iran's repatriation of oil revenue" by "effectively 'locking up' Iranian oil revenue overseas," "sharply restrict[ing] Iran's use of this revenue for bilateral trade and severely limits Iran's ability to move funds across jurisdictions." As a result, Reuters reported on Friday February 15, gold exports from Turkey to Iran have stopped.
"You could say that the United States has achieved its aim," an anonymous Western diplomat told the wire service. "If Turkey is going to continue energy imports from Iran, there is no other way to go than trading sanction-free goods."
Such news puts the alleged P5+1 proposal to lift sanctions on the gold trade - leaked on the same day as the Reuters report - in proper perspective.
The potential easing of sanctions which have now been in effect for less than two weeks in return for closing the Fordow plant - a U.S. demand since Iran announced the facility to the IAEA in September 2009 - is patently absurd. Not only is the move clearly more of a boon to U.S. ally Turkey and good friend India than it is a gesture of goodwill toward Iran, it comes at a time when European courts are striking down unilateral sanctions on Iranian banks as illegal and Iranian impressive scientific and technological progress demonstrate the impotence and futility of the U.S.-led sanctions effort.
If the new round of negotiations in Almaty are to be productive, the P5+1 should take a more serious approach to diplomacy, because if this offer is any indication, Iran won't be taking their proposals very seriously. Nor should it.
February 18, 2013 - A report in today's Financial Times appears to vindicate my contention that the lifting of limitations on gold-for-oil trade has far more to do with Turkey than it does Iran.
FT's Gideon Rachman writes, "The idea may have been designed to help Western allies – notably Turkey –as much as to alleviate Iran’s economic isolation." With Turkey’s oil and gas purchases from Iran rapidly plummeting, with a long term mutual pipeline deal, "few reserves of its own," and the Syrian civil war's continuing violence, "Turkey’s situation amounts to more than just a passing concern to the US and its allies."
This "explains why the US and its allies might be interested in taking a step back on the gold sanctions that target Iran and, almost as explicitly, Turkey," Rachman concludes. "What it doesn't do is show how the latest trial balloon would add up to a compelling offer for the Islamic Republic."
Earlier today, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Rahim Mehmanparast responded to the alleged offer. "Lately they have said 'Shut down Fordow, stop enrichment, we will allow gold transactions.' They want to take away the rights of a nation in exchange for allowing trade in gold," he said, adding, "We are ready for negotiations, negotiations that have a logical approach which officially recognizes our rights completely. Of course steps must be concurrent and of equal weight."
Saturday, February 16, 2013
The State of the Union Address is as high-profile political theater as one can imagine. Some speeches are well-crafted, others not so much. Some enjoin citizens and politicians alike to unite in a worthy cause; sometimes it's an hour or so of lies, hypocrisy and warmongering.
With all the soaring rhetoric, certain statements and turns of phrase become the stuff of legend (the good kind and the very bad war criminal kind): just think about George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" nonsense, Richard Nixon's " "We must replace the discredited president" Freudian slip, or FDR's Four Freedoms.
In honor of Tuesdays' address, here are 18 (perhaps) lesser remembered statements made in past State of the Union Addresses. But, just for fun, they are presented here without attribution to their speaker. See if you can tell who said it...then check the answer key at the bottom.
Hint: Ignore the photos. They won't help you guess.
"Americans resort to force only when we must. We have never been aggressors. We have always struggled to defend freedom and democracy. We have no territorial ambitions. We occupy no countries. We build no walls to lock people in. Americans build the future."
"Let us say to the democracies: 'We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our resources and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world. We shall send you, in ever-increasing numbers, ships, planes, tanks, guns. This is our purpose and our pledge.'"
"For the black American, the Indian, the Mexican-American, and for those others in our land who have not had an equal chance, the Nation at last has begun to confront the need to press open the door of full and equal opportunity, and of human dignity."
"America will always stand firm for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance."
"There can be no such thing as Fortress America. If ever we were reduced to the isolation implied by that term, we would occupy a prison, not a fortress."
"We believe in the eventual return of sovereign rights and self-government to all peoples who have been deprived of them by force...We shall approve no territorial changes in any friendly part of the world unless they accord with the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned...We believe that all peoples who are prepared for self-government should be permitted to choose their own form of government by their own freely expressed choice, without interference from any foreign source. That is true in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, as well as in the Western Hemisphere...In some cases it may be impossible to prevent forceful imposition of such a government. But the United States will not recognize any such government."
"Three times as many lobbyists are in the streets and corridors of Washington as were here 20 years ago...As the new Congress opened its doors, lobbyists were still doing business as usual; the gifts, the trips, all the things that people are concerned about haven't stopped...So tonight I ask you to just stop taking the lobbyists' perks. Just stop...We should require lobbyists to tell the people for whom they work what they're spending, what they want. We should also curb the role of big money in elections by capping the cost of campaigns and limiting the influence of PACs."
"Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."
And the presidents were...
 John F. Kennedy, January 30, 1961
 George H.W. Bush, January 29, 1991
 Thomas Jefferson, October 17, 1803
 Ronald Reagan, January 25, 1984
 Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 6, 1941
 William McKinley, December 6, 1897
 George Washington, December 8, 1790
 Richard Nixon, January 22, 1971
 Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862
 George W. Bush, January 29, 2002
 Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 9, 1959
 Barack Obama, January 24, 2012
 Ulysses S. Grant, December 7, 1874
 Harry S. Truman, January 21, 1946
 Gerald Ford, January 12, 1977
 Bill Clinton, January 24, 1995
 Woodrow Wilson, December 2, 1919
 Jimmy Carter, January 23, 1980
Friday, February 15, 2013
Furthermore, "Muftah is committed to fostering free and open debate about regional issues by featuring articles from diverse (sometimes conflicting) perspectives and working with a large and eclectic group of writers that include academics, practitioners, activists, and members of the MENA diasporas."
I am both honored and humbled to join Muftah's incredible team of writers and editors (not to mention its Board of Advisors), whose credentials, credibility and insight are matched only by their generosity, openness and dedication to truth and justice.
Please check Muftah frequently for impressive analysis and commentary on politics, art, culture and activism; add it to your bookmarks, Facebook, RSS feed, and Twitter.
Below is my first post for Muftah.
In Iran, Sanctions Speak Louder Than Words
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in early February 2013, Vice President Joe Biden made headlines by reaffirming the Obama administration’s willingness to hold bilateral negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran over its nuclear program and other issues.
While holding fast to the Western narrative about Iran’s “illicit and destabilizing” nuclear project, Biden stated that the U.S. government “would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership,” provided it “is serious” and the talks would be “real and tangible.”
Biden also noted, “there is still space for diplomacy, backed by pressure, to succeed. The ball is in the government of Iran’s court.” These statements apparently refer to artificial deadlines placed upon such talks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The initial response from Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who was also attending the conference, appeared positive. Salehi said that Iran was open to direct talks and that Biden’s remarks were “a step forward.” The foreign minister also noted that such an offer, when coupled with “the threatening rhetoric that everything is on the table” (read: a military attack on Iran to ostensibly prevent it from building nuclear weapons that the U.S. intelligence community continues to affirm it is not building and Iran consistently says it does not want), might not be completely genuine. Still, he said, there was “no red line for bilateral negotiations” if the American offer was indeed sincere.
Mainstream media in the West exploded just days later when Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei poured cold water on the prospect of bilateral talks. “You are pointing the gun at Iran and say either negotiate or we will shoot,” Khamenei said of the United States. “But you should know that pressure and negotiations are not compatible and our nation will not be intimidated by these threats.” This analogy of gunpoint diplomacy was later echoed by both Salehi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Talk is meaningful if it is based on goodwill, equal standing and when both sides do not want to apply tricks,” added Khamenei. “Talk as a tactic, a gesture of superpower, is only a deceptive move.”
Such goodwill is clearly in short supply between the United States and Iran.
Khamenei’s reaction to Biden’s conditional offer was widely viewed as evidence of Iranian obstinacy and unwillingness to engage substantively over the nature of its nuclear program – this, notwithstanding the fact that multilateral talks between Iran and the P5+1 (Russia, China, France, Britain, the United States, and Germany) will resume in Kazakhstan at the end of this month.
At least one crucial detail was routinely excluded from commentary related to Khamenei’s statements: the ongoing U.S.-led economic war against Iran. Just one day before Khamenei’s speech, U.S. Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen announced that the United States was “expand[ing] the scope of sanctionable transactions with the Central Bank of Iran and designated Iranian financial institutions by restricting Iran’s ability to use oil revenue held in foreign financial institutions as well as preventing repatriation of those funds to Iran.”
These actions were taken despite the fact that such measures are well known to produce shortages of medicine and medical supplies that severely impact Iran’s civilian population while leaving its government relatively unscathed.
Meanwhile, European Union courts have been striking down EU-imposed sanctions on Iranian banking institutions as illegitimate and illegal. Nevertheless, just this week, the U.S. State Department levied still more sanctions on Iran.
While the United States clearly wishes civilian suffering will turn the Iranian population against its own leadership, a recent Gallup poll reaffirmed what many already knew: Iranians blame the United States, not their own government, for their hardship and deprivation.
“The new round of sanctions,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast declared, “are designed to put pressure on the nation and to create a gap between the (Iranian) nation and government” by attempting “to create tension, crisis and instability.”
Khamenei himself has frequently and consistently pointed out the futility of accepting an offer to negotiate when under threat, siege, sanction and sabotage. In March 2009, he noted that such offers are duplicitous. “If you go on with the slogan of discussion and pressure, saying that you will negotiate with Iran, and at the same time impose pressure, threats, and changes, then our nation will not like such words,” Khamenei said.
The following year, in August 2010, he reiterated this position. “In spite of all these measures, the Americans shout the slogan of negotiations. They impose unilateral sanctions, issue resolutions and make military threats, but at the same time they propose negotiations,” he explained, adding that “negotiations that are conducted under threats and pressures are not in fact negotiations.”
This is not just an Iranian conclusion. Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, recently lamented that “in the last three administrations, we have been unwilling to put on the table a negotiating position that has a chance to succeed,” and added, “No country can negotiate seriously when it is under military threat, facing sanctions that only help to strengthen the regime domestically, and with no serious proposals on the ‘plus’ side. Ironically, those who most talk about going to war with Iran also tend to be those who most oppose the U.S.' dealing directly with Iran and putting a realistic set of proposals on the table.”
While some informed commentators continue to hold out hope for a détente, without clear American acknowledgement of Iran’s inalienable right to a domestic nuclear enrichment industry and the cessation of criminal collective punishment against the Iranian population, it remains difficult to imagine this happening any time soon.
Originally posted at Muftah.org.