Us and the Americans
February 22, 2000
What I want to write about is quite pedestrian: the universality of
humanity as demonstrated by the absurdity and exhilaration of the game
of politics. Elections are a vivid tableau in which a society is distilled
and displayed; these particular elections so much more so.
Religious piety -- or lack thereof -- determines so much in these elections,
and the candidates know this. Some wear their religion on their sleeves,
some choose to flaunt it more privately, more quietly, in an almost underhanded
way. Some of the candidates cater openly to virulent fundamentalist groups
who cannot bear the idea of a society where free association between people
-men and women in particular -- are not at some level regulated by the
state. Having fought in a war has its own cache. There are whispers of
corruption and cronyism and certainly of nepotism. There are dynastic connections
between candidates past and present. The candidates' position on various
nationalistic symbols such as flags and anthems is scrutinized in detail.
Voter turnout matters, and the candidates HAVE TO, HAVE TO, HAVE TO appeal
to women and young voters in order to win.
I am not speaking of the Iranian elections. It's the concurrence of
the parliamentary elections in Iran with the U.S. presidential primaries
in South Carolina that fascinates me these days. There are uncanny similarities
between Iran and South Carolina: between ecstatic Shi'a Islam and evangelical
Christianity, in the extent and character of the candidates' engagement
with and response to various nationalist symbols (the Confederate flag
or the pre-IRI national anthem of Iran), in the way relations between men
and women matter (in South Carolina as regulated by the racist Bob Jones
University which has forbidden inter-racial marriages, in Iran as regulated
by the vice police), in the universality of a vaguely articulated notion
of "character" as determined by the virile service in the military
during a war (much more present in South Carolina than in Iran), in the
way that family connections seem to pace the way for some candidates to
run for office, and last but not least, the importance of the role of women
and young voters in determining the outcome of the elections.
What I want to say, based on this quick sketch of similarities, is simple.
We are so much alike, we the Americans, and we the Iranians. Our governmental
institutions may be vastly different; as our economies and our military
capabilities are; but as a people, here and there, we are the same. We
both play the politics of identity; religion and faith are so infinitely
important to us. Sometimes we reflect one another in a mirror: one state
is ostensibly secular; the other state ostensibly religious. But the former
is constantly wrestling with how to fit the piety of a profoundly religious
populace within the constitutional framework of the separation of church
and state, while the latter is now run by technocrats wearing clerical
gear and protecting their (and their constituencies') interests through
any means possible, including most importantly the ideological use of
Our societies are also remarkably similar: seduced by ecstatic spiritualism,
somewhat superstitious, with a sometimes-contentious coexistence between
the vast number of ethnic groups that compose the nations. We both have
an inflated sense of our own superiority as a chosen with a sense of mission,
and we both believe that we are destined to affect the universe around
us, to lead it, to change it, to irrevocably shape it in our own image.
We are similar in other ways too, some trivial and others not so. Titanic
is the best-watched film in both our countries; Baywatch has a devote
audience of young men in both countries; Danielle Steele romance novels
sells like hot-cakes, and Celine Dion is as big a star in Iran as she is
here in the United States. Both countries have their share of coffee-swilling
urban intellectuals, reasonably cynical, existentially anguished, profoundly
disappointed in humanity in general, or their countrymen in particular.
And both our societies breed large number of enterprising entrepreneurs,
clever or committed or simply opportunistic, who want to change the world,
or at least the economy or politics of Iran or the U.S. We both have our
poverty and squalor and we both have our nonchalant moneyed classes who
flaunt their wealth tastelessly and live the good life heedless of the
suffering of the others. What does that say about us, the people of the
United States and the people of Iran, about our tastes, about our politics,
about who we are and how we live and what we believe and where we are going?
I would like to propose that we are alike everywhere; that our environments
may be different, our states unlike, our economies distinct, our histories
disparate, and yet, as a people we are alike. Nothing distinguishes us.
We are no better nor worse than the other, no more or less advanced, no
more or less cultured, no more or less personally or culturally susceptible
to democracy, or to piety or to promiscuity. We are no more nor less peaceful
or warlike, we are no more nor less cosmopolitan or backwards, no more
nor less hospitable or hostile to the world. Love and hate are the same
in both places, as are anger, or pain or laughter.
That a moderately free election in Iran suddenly begins to resemble
the equivalent affair in the United States -- albeit the U.S. South which
is a wildly distinct polity in itself -- should only serve to remind us
that whatever passport or label we carry, whatever language or culture
or memories we claim as our birthright, whichever elections in which we
vote, we are the same everywhere.
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