Crazy America

Edward Said

On 20 January 1981 the 52 Americans held prisoner in the US Embassy for 444 days finally left Iran. A few days later they arrived in the United States to be greeted by the country’s genuine happiness at seeing them back. The ‘hostage return’, as it was to be called, became a week-long media event. There were many, frequently intrusive and maudlin hours of live TV coverage, as the ‘returnees’ were transported to Algeria, then to Germany, then to West Point, to Washington, and then at last to their various home towns; most American newspapers and national weeklies ran supplements on the return, ranging from learned analyses of how the final agreement between Iran and the United States was arrived at, and what it involved, to celebrations of American heroism and Iranian barbarism; interspersed were personal stories of the hostage ordeal, often embroidered by enterprising journalists, and what seemed an alarmingly available number of psychiatrists eager to explain what the hostages were really going through. Insofar as there was serious discussion of the past and of the future, discussion that went beyond the level of the yellow ribbons designated as symbolic of Iranian captivity, the new Administration set the tone, and determined the limits. Analysis of the past was focused on whether or not the US should have made (and ought to honour) the agreement with Iran. On 31 January 1981 the New Republic predictably attacked ‘the ransom’, and the Carter Administration for giving in to terrorists; then it condemned the whole ‘legally controvertible proposition’ of dealing with Iranian demands, as well as the use of Algeria as an intermediary, which is ‘well practised at giving refuge to terrorists and laundering the ransoms they bring’. Discussion of the future was constrained by the Reagan Administration’s declared war on terrorism: this, not human rights, was to be the main new priority of US policy, even to the extent of supporting ‘moderately repressive regimes’ if they happen to be allies.

Accordingly, Peter Stuart reported in the Christian Science Monitor of 29 January that Congressional hearings were likely to be scheduled on the ‘terms of the hostage release agreement...treatment of the hostages...embassy security’ and – as a kind of afterthought – ‘future US-Iran relations’. Very much in keeping with the narrowly focused range of problems explored by the media during the crisis (with few exceptions), there was no careful scrutiny of what the Iranian trauma has meant, what it suggests about the future, what might be learned from it. The London Sunday Times reported on 26 January that before he left office President Carter advised the State Department to ‘focus all public attention on building up a wave of resentment against the Iranians’. Whether or not this was true, it appeared at least to be plausible, since no public official, and few columnists and journalists, were interested in re-evaluating the long American history of intervention in Iran and other parts of the Islamic world. There was much talk of stationing forces in the Middle East: conversely, when the Islamic summit was held in Taif during the last week in January, the US media all but ignored it.

Ideas about retribution and loud assertions about American force were accompanied by a symphonic elaboration of the hostages’ ordeal and triumphant return. The victims were directly transmuted into heroes (understandably upsetting various Veterans’ and former POW groups), and symbols of freedom, their captors into subhuman beasts. To this end the New York Times said editorially on 22 January, ‘Let there be rage and revulsion in those first hours of release,’ and then, having reflected for a while, came up with the following questions on 28 January: ‘What should have been done? Mining harbours, or landing marines, or dropping a few bombs might frighten rational foes. But was Iran – is Iran – rational?’ Certainly, as Fred Halliday wrote in the Los Angeles Times on 25 January, there was much to be critical of in Iran, religion and unceasing revolutionary turmoil having proved themselves incapable of providing a modern state with the kind of day-to-day decisions likely to benefit the population at large. Internationally, Iran was isolated and vulnerable. And certainly it was just as clear that the students at the Embassy had not been gentle with their prisoners. Yet not even the 52 themselves went as far as saying that they had been tortured or systematically brutalised: this emerges in the transcript of their news conference at West Point (see the New York Times, 28 January), where Elizabeth Swift says quite explicitly that Newsweek lied about what she said, inventing a story about torture (much amplified by the media) that had nothing to do with the facts.

It was the leap from a specific experience – unpleasant, anguished, miserably long in duration – to huge generalisations about Iran and Islam which the hostage return licensed in the media and the culture at large. The political dynamics of a complex historical experience were effaced: there occurred an extraordinary amnesia. We were back to the old basics. Iran was reduced to ‘fundamentalist screwballs’ by Bob Ingle in the Atlanta Constitution on 23 January; Claire Sterling in the Washington Post of 23 January argued that the Iran story was an aspect of ‘Fright Decade I’, the war against civilisation by terrorists. For Bill Green on the same page of the Post, ‘the Iranian obscenity’ raised the possibility that the ‘freedom of the press’ which presented news about Iran might be ‘perverted into a weapon aimed directly at the heart of American nationalism and self-esteem’.

There were some journalists, however, who were genuinely reflective. H.D.S. Greenway acknowledged in the Boston Globe on 21 January that ‘there was damage done to US interests by the American obsession with the hostage crisis to the exclusion of other, pressing issues.’ He was able to arrive at one clear conclusion: ‘The realities of a pluralistic world will not change and the new Administration will be bound by the practical limits of power in the late 20th century.’ Writing in the Globe on the same day, Steven Erlanger praised Carter for having defused the crisis, and thereby succeeded in making the debate conducive to ‘less passion and more reason’. On 31 January, the New Republic censured ‘the ever-accommoding Globe’ – in other words, Iran was best treated as an aberration in the process of rebuilding American power and of fighting Communism. Indeed, this essentially militant line was elevated to the rank of quasi-official American ideology. In ‘The Purposes of American Power’ (Foreign Affairs, Winter 1980-81), Robert Tucker claims to be steering a new course between proponents of ‘resurgent America’ and ‘isolationism’. Yet for the Persian Gulf and Central America he proposes a policy of frank interventionism, since, he says, the US can ‘allow’ neither changes in internal order there nor the spread of Soviet influence. In either event, it would be up to the US to decide what constitutes allowable and non-allowable changes. A like-minded colleague, Richard Pipes of Harvard, suggested that the new Administration reclassify the world into two simple camps: pro-Communist nations and anti-Communist nations.

If the return to the Cold War seems on one level to entail a new assertiveness, it has also encouraged a renaissance of self-delusion. Enemies include anyone who has asked the West to consider its past, not so much for reasons of guilt as in the service of self-awareness: such people were simply to be ignored. A symbolically powerful instance of this took place during the West Point press conference. A person in the audience declared that it was ‘the height of hypocrisy for the United States Government to talk about torture’ when the US had abetted the mutilation of Iranians during the Pahlevi era. Bruce Laingen, the United States’ senior diplomat in Iran, said twice that he had not heard the question, then moved rapidly to the more congenial subject of Iranian brutality and American innocence.

No expert, media personality or government official seemed to wonder what might have happened if a small fraction of the time spent on isolating, dramatising, covering the unlawful Embassy seizure and the hostage return had been spent exposing oppression and brutality during the ex-Shah’s regime. What was wrong with using the vast information-gathering apparatus to inform the justifiably anxious public about what was really taking place in Iran? Did the alternatives have to be limited either to stirring up patriotic feelings or to fuelling a kind of mass anger at crazy Iran?

These are not idle questions, now that this lamentably exaggerated episode is over. It will be beneficial as well as practical for Americans in particular, Westerners in general, to puzzle out the changing configurations in world politics. Is ‘Islam’ going to be confined to the role of terroristic oil-supplier? Are journals and investigations to focus on ‘who lost Iran?’, or will debate and reflection be better employed discussing topics more suited to world community and peaceful development?

Hints of how the media, for example, might reasonably use their enormous capability for public information were to be found in the three-hour special, ‘The Secret Negotiations’, twice transmitted by ABC Television on 22 and 28 January. In exposing the various methods used to free the hostages, the broadcasts put forth an impressive amount of unknown material, and there were moments when unconscious and deep-seated attitudes were suddenly illuminated. One such moment occurred when Christian Bourguet described his meeting in late March 1980 with Jimmy Carter at the White House. Bourguet, a French lawyer with ties to the Iranians, acted as an intermediary between the US and Iran; he had come to Washington because, despite an arrangement worked out with the Panamanians to arrest the ex-Shah, the deposed ruler had left suddenly for Egypt. So they were back to square one. Bourguet said:

  At a given moment he spoke of the hostages, saying: ‘You understand that these are Americans. These are innocents.’ I said to him; ‘Yes, Mr President, I understand that you say they are innocent. But I believe you have to understand that for the Iranians they aren’t innocent. Even if personally none of them has committed an act, they are not innocent because they are diplomats who represent a country that has done a number of things in Iran. You must understand that it is not against their person that the action is being taken. Of course, you can see that. They have not been harmed. They have not been hurt. No attempt has been made to kill them. You must understand that it is a symbol, that it is on the plane of symbols that we have to think about this matter.’

In fact, Carter seems to have viewed the Embassy seizure in symbolic terms, but he had his own frame of reference. To him, Americans were by definition innocent and in a sense outside history: Iran’s grievances against the US, he would say on another occasion, were ancient history. What mattered now was that Iranians were terrorists, and perhaps had always potentially been a terrorist nation. Indeed, anyone who disliked America and held it captive was dangerous and sick: beyond rationality, beyond humanity, beyond common decency.

Carter’s inability to connect what some foreigners felt about America’s long-standing support for local dictators with what was happening to the Americans held unlawfully in Teheran is extraordinarily symptomatic. Even if one completely opposes the hostage-taking, and even if one has only positive feelings about the hostages’ return, there are alarming lessons to be learned from what seems like an official national obliviousness to certain realities. All relationships between people and foreign countries involve two sides. Nothing at all enjoins ‘us’ to like or approve of ‘them’, but we must at least recognise a. that ‘they’ are there, and b. that so far as ‘they’ are concerned, ‘we’ are what ‘we’ are, plus what ‘they’ have experienced and known of us. This is not a matter of innocence or guilt, nor of patriotism and treason. Neither side commands reality in a manner comprehensive enough to allow them to disregard the other. Unless, of course, ‘we’ believe it to be the case, as Americans, that whereas the other side is ontologically guilty, ‘we’ are innocent.

Consider now the confidential cable sent from Teheran by Bruce Laingen to Secretary of State Vance on 13 August 1979: a document entirely consistent with Carter’s attitudes in his conversations with Bourguet. It was published on the New York Times Op-Ed page of 27 January 1981, perhaps to help the nation focus on what Iranians are really like, perhaps only as an ironic footnote to the recently ended crisis. Yet what Laingen offers is not a scientific account of the ‘Persian psyche’ he discusses, despite his pretence of calm objectivity and expert knowledge of the culture. Instead, the text is an ideological statement designed. I think, to turn ‘Persia’ into a timeless, acutely disturbing essence, thereby to enhance the superior morality and national sanity of the American half of the negotiations. Thus each assertion about ‘Persia’ adds damaging evidence to the profile, while shielding ‘America’ from scrutiny.

This self-blinding is accomplished rhetorically in two ways that are worth looking at closely. First, history is eliminated unilaterally: ‘the effects of the Iranian revolution’ are set aside in the interests of the ‘relatively constant...cultural and psychological qualities’ underlying ‘the Persian psyche’. Hence modern Iran becomes ageless Persia. The unscientific version of this operation has Italians becoming dagoes, Jews yids, Blacks niggers, etc. (How much more refreshingly honest is the street-fighter compared to the polite diplomat!) Second, the ‘Persian’ national character is portrayed with reference only to the Iranians’ imagined (i.e. paranoid sense of) reality. Laingen allows Iranians neither the privilege of having experienced real treachery and suffering, nor the right to have arrived at a view of the United States based on what, to Iranians, the US actually did in Iran. On the other hand, he is not saying here that the US did not do anything in Iran: it only means that the US is entitled to do what it pleases, without irrelevant complaints or reactions from Iranians. The only thing that counts for Laingen in Iran is the constant ‘Persian psyche’ which overrides all other realities.

Most readers of the Laingen message will accept, as doubtless he does too, that one should not reduce other people or societies to such a simple and stereotypical core. We do not today allow that public discourse should treat Blacks and Jews that way, just as we would (and do) laugh off Iranian portrayals of America as the Great Satan. Too simple, too ideological, too racist. But for this particular enemy, Persia, the reduction serves, as it does when the New Republic’s Martin Peretz reproduces a page of manifestly racist prose (7 February 1981) by a 17th-century Englishman on ‘The Turk’, calls it a ‘classic’ for students of Middle Eastern culture, and then says it tells us how Moslems behave. One wonders how Peretz would react if a page of 17th-century prose on ‘The Jew’ were printed today as a guide for understanding ‘Jewish’ behaviour. The question is what purpose such documents as Laingen’s or Peretz’s serve if they neither teach one anything about Islam or Iran nor, given the tension between the US and Iran after the Revolution, help to guide Western actions there.

Laingen’s argument is that no matter what happens, there is a ‘Persian proclivity’ to resist ‘the very concept of a rational (from the Western point of view) negotiating process’. We can be rational: Persians cannot be. Why? Because, he says, they are overridingly egoistical, reality for them is malevolent, the ‘bazaar mentality’ urges immediate advantage over long-term gain, the omnipotent god of Islam makes it impossible for them to understand causality, for them words and reality are not connected to each other. In sum, according to the five lessons he abstracts from his analysis, Laingen’s ‘Persian’ is an unreliable negotiator, having neither a sense of ‘the other side’ nor a capacity for trust or good will, or character enough to carry out what his words promise.

The elegance of this modest proposal is that literally everything imputed to the Persian or Muslim, without any evidence at all, can be applied to ‘the American’, that quasi-fictional, unnamed author behind the message. Who but ‘the American’ denies history and reality in saying unilaterally that these don’t mean anything to the ‘Persian’? Now play the following parlour game: find a major Judaeo-Christian cultural and social equivalent for the traits which Laingen ascribes to ‘the Persian’. Overriding egoism? Rousseau. Malevolence of reality? Kafka. Omnipotence of God? Old and New Testaments. Lack of causal sense? Beckett. Bazaar mentality? The New York Stock Exchange. The confusion between words and reality? Austin and Searle. But few people would construct a portrait of the essential West using only Christopher Lasch on narcissism, the words of a fundamentalist preacher, Plato’s Cratylus, an advertising jingle or two, and (as an instance of the West’s inability to believe in a stable or beneficent reality) Ovid’s Metamorphoses laced with choice verses from Leviticus.

Laingen’s message is a functional equivalent of such a portrait. In a different context, it would appear to be a caricature at best, a crude, not particularly damaging attack at worst. It is not even effective as a bit of psywar, since it reveals the writer’s weaknesses more than his opponent’s. It shows, for example, that the author is extremely nervous about his opposite number; and that he cannot see others except as a mirror-image of himself. Where is his capacity for understanding the Iranian point of view, or for that matter the Islamic Revolution itself, which one supposed had been the causal result of intolerable Persian tyranny and the need for overthrowing it?

As for good will and trust in the rationality of the negotiating process, even if the events of 1953 were not mentioned, much could be said about the attempted army coup against the Revolution, directly encouraged by the US’s General Huyser in late January 1979. Then, too, there was the action of various US banks (unusually compliant in bending the rules to suit the Shah) who during 1979 were prepared to cancel Iranian loans contracted in 1977 on the grounds that Iran had not paid the interest on time: Le Monde’s Eric Rouleau reported on 25-26 November 1979 that he had seen proof that Iran had actually paid the interest ahead of time. No wonder ‘the Persian’ assumes his opposite number is an adversary. He is an adversary, and an insecure one at that: Laingen says it plainly.

Let us, however, concede that fairness is not the issue, but accuracy. The US man on the spot is advising Washington. What does he rely on? A handful of Orientalist clichés that could have been taken verbatim from Sir Alfred Lyall’s description of the Eastern mind, or from Lord Cromer’s account of dealing with the natives in Egypt. If, according to Laingen, Ibrahim Yazdi, the Foreign Minister of Iran, resists the idea that ‘Iranian behaviour has consequences on the perception of Iran in the United States,’ which US decision-maker was prepared to accept in advance that US behaviour had consequences on the perception of the US in Iran? Why was the Shah admitted to America? Do ‘we’, like the Persians, have an ‘aversion to accepting responsibility for one’s own action’.

Laingen’s message is the product of uninformed, unintelligent power, and certainly adds little to one’s understanding of other societies. As an instance of how we might confront the world, it does not inspire confidence. As an inadvertent American self-portrait it is frankly insulting. What use is it then? It tells us how US representatives, and with them a good part of the Orientalist Establishment, created a reality that corresponded neither to ‘our’ world nor to Iran’s. But if it does not also demonstrate that such misrepresentations had better be thrown away for ever, then Americans are in for more international troubles, and, alas, their innocence will again be uselessly offended.

Granted that Iran and the US have undergone wrenching unpleasantness, and granted, too, that the Embassy seizure turned out to be an index of an over-all Iranian lapse into unproductive, retrogressive chaos. Still, there is no need complacently to glean insufficient wisdom from recent history. The fact is that change is taking place in ‘Islam’ much as it is taking place in ‘the West’. The mode and pace are different, but some dangers and some uncertainties are similar. As rallying cries for their constituencies, ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ (or ‘America’) provide incitements more than insight. As equal and opposite reactions to the disorientations of new actualities, ‘Islam’ and ‘The West’ can turn analysis into simple polemic, experience into fantasy. Respect for the concrete detail of human experience, understanding that arises from viewing the Other compassionately, knowledge gained and diffused through moral and intellectual honesty: surely these are better, if not easier, goals at present than confrontation and reductive hostility. And if in the process we can dispose finally of both the residual hatred and the offensive generality of labels like ‘the Moslem’, ‘the Persian’, ‘the Turk’, ‘the Arab’ or ‘the Westerner’, then so much the better.