I’m psyched about the Iran peace deal.
Maybe you’re not. I can accept that. Reasonable minds may disagree.
I’ve been reading about the particulars. Maybe you have too. Is the verification regime going to be effective? Will the imminent lifting of the arms embargo (from Russia and China) encourage Iran to project its power even more aggressively throughout the region, promoting terrorist groups like Hezbollah?
These are complicated questions. But for my purposes here, I don’t want to get into the weeds, and for that I hope I may be forgiven.
What I’m quibbling with today is a meme, not a contract provision. That meme was emblemized by a cartoon I saw featured recently on realclearpolitics.com. The cartoon depicts an impossibly stick-skinny, big-eared, insubstantial-looking President Obama shaking hands with a much larger, more imposing bearded ayatollah in a robe. Obama is saying, “We will trust you.” The ayatollah is saying, “Death to America.”
I’ll come back to this in a second.
The Meaning of “Ignorant”
When I was 15 I had a job busing tables and washing dishes at a restaurant in South Florida. One of the cooks, Chuck, was 29 years old, though he could easily have passed for 45. His face and demeanor were ravaged by hard living, though he occasionally showed a lively spirit, such as when he used the cook’s microphone (which was there so that cooks could briskly announce “Order up, Kathy!”) to serenade the restaurant with country ballads like “Since I Met You Baby.” He sang well actually.
I used to get on Chuck’s nerves in various ways which I won’t go into here. Often he’d lash out and call me dumb, which didn’t faze me. I knew I had problems but I was confident that stupidity wasn’t one of them.
One late night after our shift ended, Chuck, in a détente mood, invited me to come by his place to share a beer or a joint or something. He lived in some cruddy apartment in a sketchy section of Dania, FL, and as we sat across from each other at his little kitchen table he looked at me earnestly and apologized for calling me dumb all the time. He said, “I know you’re a smart kid, but you’re ignorant!”
I retorted, “Ignorant of what? I may know some things you don’t. I’m sure you know lots of things I don’t. So? Everybody’s ignorant of something.”
Chuck exhaustedly shook his head, the features in that worn face of his straining as he pulled together his thoughts. “Well, that’s not what I mean. To me, ignorant is when you have a brain but you don’t use it.”
I’m pretty sure I never visited with Chuck again and I certainly have no idea what became of him. If he’s alive today, he’s only in his early seventies, but somehow I doubt he’s still with us, poor Chuck. At the time, though I never consciously thought about it, I implicitly understood the elemental difference between our respective situations. Regardless of whatever troubles I had, I knew I’d go on to college, and I would eventually have the opportunity to choose my destiny. Chuck, on the other hand, would never attain anything much better than that greasy cook’s job. For me, the restaurant was a temporary way station; for him it was his station in life.
Nonetheless, when he pronounced his definition of ignorance, it changed my life forever. I recognized that in his mildly inebriated, coarse, and primitive way, he was really trying to tell me something.
And I got it. Simply having a good brain isn’t enough—you have to exercise it.
In a nutshell, that’s how I feel about my country. Hundreds of millions of people with plenty of native intelligence to whom it simply never occurs to use their brains. Because if most Americans used their brains, that cartoon I mentioned earlier—and the meme it expresses—would be extremely marginal stuff, not mainstream.
Do you know what a meme is? I won’t hold you as ignorant if you don’t, but “meme” is an important word. A meme is a sort of basic idea, or image, or thought, or way of looking at things, which catches hold in a culture.
Urbandictionary.com describes a meme as “a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable.” Urbandictionary.com also offers the following definition:
an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture …
The meme that’s really bugging me at the moment is the following thought progression:
Obama is a weak leader who can be taken advantage of by “tougher” heads of state around the world. In the case of Iran, the rulers are ruthless and conniving and they have hoodwinked Obama by playing on his naïve desire to “trust” them. Thus the so-called peace deal is a triumph of evil cunning over Obama’s lack of moral courage.
Okay. Set aside the reality that Obama didn’t go in there and negotiate on his own. He didn’t sit down mano a mano with some unscrupulous but charming mullah and get fleeced. The United States was represented by an extensive negotiating team of seasoned State Department diplomats, as well as nuclear experts.
Set aside the fact that on our side of the table we also had high-ranking officials from Britain, Germany, France, China, and Russia. (Is Putin a wimp too?)
Forget all that for the moment and let’s just look critically for a second at this whole issue of “trust.”
Minimal Historical Memory
Rule 1 for using your brain: Be reasonably informed about things if you’re going to profess an opinion about them.
It is an established, well-documented fact that our CIA engineered a coup of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, and reinstalled the western-friendly but domestically brutal Shah (who was eventually overthrown in 1979 by the Islamic fundamentalist minions of the Ayatollah Khomeni). True, that was over 60 years ago, but maybe, just maybe, there remain some hard feelings in the collective Iranian psyche … perhaps even some distrust of the U.S.
I’m no Mideast scholar but I am aware of this historical fact and I believe all Americans should be. I’m a realist too though. I reluctantly accept that Americans generally don’t know much history. As a culture, we are very “Zen,” very present-moment.
HOWEVER … we don’t need to go all the way back to 1953 for a reasonable, albeit minimal, historical perspective. Nearly all adult Americans are old enough to remember the lead-up to our 2003 Iraq war, and to remember – during that time period – President George W. Bush’s (in)famous characterization of Iran as one of the three “axes of evil” in the world (along with Iraq and North Korea).
So when we hear Iranian clerics describe America as “the great Satan” and so on, is it really so different?
Actually, it is very different. Because our crazy words, unlike theirs (insofar as they pertain to the U.S.), have been backed by breathtakingly crazy actions.
Getting the Questions Right
Rule 2 for using your brain: Consider – and, whenever possible, ask — the obvious questions. Even when no one else—including, perhaps, the entire U.S. press corps– is asking them. Especially when no one else is asking them.
Never assume that a question is unimportant or not legitimate just because no one else is voicing it.
Here’s another historical tidbit that I don’t expect – though could reasonably wish – Americans to recall: Iran was vehemently and vociferously opposed to our 2003 invasion of Iraq. They issued multiple apocalyptic condemnations of the whole idea. Yet I cannot recall anyone in our press asking – much less explaining or speculating – why Iran was so opposed.
More history: At their historic 1972 meeting, noting that the U.S. and China had a common interest in curbing Soviet expansionism, President Richard Nixon allegedly quoted an ancient proverb to Chairman Mao: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Apparently Iran wasn’t feeling that logic in late 2002 and early 2003. Though they’d been at war off and on with Iraq for decades, and though the Shia-Sunni blood hatred ran bone deep with their neighboring state, Iran did not deem it good news that America was about to shock and awe Baghdad. Did anybody wonder why not?
Maybe Iran’s leadership could see the inevitable result of our invasion—a power vacuum and a chaos that would pose a far greater threat to them than even Saddam Hussein. And looking at it from today’s perspective, I imagine they would prefer living next to Saddam rather than ISIL.
Or maybe they simply did not trust the United States at all. They knew Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. So what was the American government’s true motive for this “pre-emptive” war? And would Iran, Iraq’s neighboring “axis of evil,” be next?
Circling Back to the “Trust” Meme
The fact is: America can, and has, posed an existential threat to Iran. Iran cannot, and has not, posed an existential threat to the USA.
We have wreaked havoc on their country with the 1953 coup, the 2003 Iraq War, and our heavy military support of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. (What, you didn’t know? don’t remember? It was no secret.)
Iran has taken American hostages, said atrocious things, armed the Shiite rebels in Yemen, and sponsored terrorism in the region.
But of our two countries, who is actually a larger threat to whom? And for whom would trust constitute a greater risk?
Which country’s actions, towards the other, have been more reckless, violent, insidious, undermining, and ruthless?
Which country can more rationally view the other as a big evil monster that cannot be trusted?
Which country “projects its power” in the Middle East more extensively, overall?
I know what my own answers are to the above questions, though again, I suppose reasonable minds may disagree. Nonetheless:
Rule Number 3 for Using Your Brain: Don’t settle in with familiar, comfortable memes. Question memes. Question frames. The Iran deal has largely been framed in terms of whether, given Iran’s historical record, they are worthy of trust. Is that a proper frame? Should that be the primary frame?
Rule Number 4 for Using Your Brain: Draw connections for yourself.
For example, I drew a connection between our invasion of Iraq and the subsequent Iranian election of Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, arguably the most toxic Middle East leader so far this century (not counting ISIL or Quaida leadership). I also drew a connection between President Obama’s conciliatory language toward Iran in Cairo and the subsequent Iranian election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate. Maybe those connections are imaginary; maybe they don’t truly reflect the political evolution of Iran. Maybe there hasn’t even really been any political evolution in Iran (as many would argue) since the clerics (ayatollahs) have still been in control all along.
But at least I’m using my brain, right? Thinking about these things. Not waiting for the blinkered mainstream punditry to interpret everything. Not keeping my brain on hold until somebody tells me what to think.
Some Memes Are Good
There are plenty of memes I agree with. One is The Iraq War was a monstrously bad idea. That’s a pretty powerful meme, and you know it’s really taken hold when even Jeb Bush can’t resist it anymore.
In fact, lots of great memes out there are gaining steam. Marriage equality is one. Rape, in any form, is morally atrocious and completely intolerable in a civilized society. That’s another healthy meme, I think.
Then again, some common memes are highly questionable. The United States is the world’s great moral force is one of those, in my opinion. I love my country and I’m grateful to live here; nonetheless I would dispute that meme. Christianity is what’s normal is another. No offense, Christian friends. I just don’t think any particular religion should be equated with normalcy in an open secular society, even if the majority of that society’s citizens adhere to that faith. Taxes are bad is, to my mind, a braindead meme. It shuts off thought.
In my personal life, I live by certain memes, many of which are questionable. Life is about pursuing and realizing my desires. That one guides me most of the time, and I scarcely even notice it. But if I use my brain, at least I know why I do what I do, and why I think as I think.
I believe that if our country—in the sense of the body politic—used its brains—that is, applied critical reflective thinking as a matter of course, as a habit, as a reflex—we’d have a saner national dialogue, a saner foreign policy, and a saner domestic situation.
So that’s all I have to say about that. Use your brains, America. It’s fun.