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Imperialism is alive
By way of a lesson for Iranian filmmakers

By Khashayar Pakravan
May 23, 2001
The Iranian

Jafar Panahi's recent encounter with the U.S. immigration functionaries seems to have shocked him. He is shocked because he didn't know the nature of the U.S. government?! In The Circle, Panahi wants to show the plight of women in Iran. To whom? Iranians, or the world? I would like to argue that it is the responsibility of the artist to see the impact of his/her actions.

To evaluate whether one's artistic work is sound or not, one has to sum-up all its effects. The consequences of this fundamental consideration go beyond art. Indeed any act: scientific, journalistic, business, etc, should be subject to such consideration. One should always take into account the consequences of one's action to see if it serves the good, that is, promotes life, or is against life and stifles it. To take into account the net effect of one's action is very important and sometimes difficult. For instance, showing an anti-Nazi movie might turn out to be pro-fascist! Let us see how:

Imagine Martin Heidegger, the famous German philosopher, to be giving a public lecture in 1941 about Plato's racism, or the violence of subjectivity, while some kilometers away, the Nazis are killing Gypsies in concentration camps. Now, certainly, talking against racism seems to be a very responsible thing to do. But when you add up the total effects of Heidegger's act, we see that in fact it was a very irresponsible, or more accurately, downright racist and violent! Why?

To pretend to be talking against racism, while at same time, not talking against the blatant racist violence that is going on is to contribute to that violence. Let me give you a really simple and pedantic example: imagine two children playing by a river; one of them has a cold and the other one decides to go swimming, but he is not a good swimmer and starts to drown. At this time, you arrive on the scene. Now, would you go to get an aspirin for the child who has a cold, or try to rescue the one who is drowning? As obvious as the right thing to do is, it is the other option that most governments, mass media, writers, intellectuals and artists take!

In the Bosnian war, the European governments and the United States did not prevent the racist Serbs from committing genocide against Muslims. In fact they actually helped the Serbs by pretending to be impartial, whereby effectively preventing the Bosnian Muslims to arm and defend themselves.

The logical conclusion of this policy of clinical moral neutrality was Canadian UN Gen. Lewis Mackenzie's grotesque claims that Bosnians, Serbs and Croats were equally guilty of war crimes- though 92% of the victims were Bosnian Muslims. And the horrifying refusal of Dutch UN troops to prevent Serbs from murdering 8,000 Muslim civilians at Sbrenica - lest Dutch "impartiality" be compromised. (Toronto Sun, 1996/11/6)

That is, by pretending to be impartial, they in fact contributed to the genocide.

This was just the context of my example. The focus of it is the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. April 12, 1994, and an address given by the then United States' Representative to the United Nations, Madeleine K. Albright about the U.S. role in the destruction of European Jewry. She says: "We are the inheritors of a nation that did too little, too late to stop the Holocaust-and that liberated Buchenwald. We are a nation that has been hesitant to get involved directly in Bosnia--and that has done more than any other nation to inspire hope"

This is 1994 when the genocide of Bosnian Muslims is still going on. What makes this very hypocritical gesture even more hypocritical and "evil" is the motto that is uttered around such remembrances: "Never again," or as that sissy hypocrite Ellie Wiesel says: "we must not forget." Perhaps they mean "Never again should it happen to the Jews." In that case, forget about all those Gypsies, communists, and handicapped who were also murdered, fifty million altogether, over twenty million of which were Russians

And if it means "Never again should it happen to any people," then what is the meaning of this gesture when at the same time such atrocities ARE happening: Bosnia, Rwanda, Tamile, Palestine, Chechnya, Guatemala, the Kurds... What does it mean to pretend to remember when that very act contributes to forgetting?

Well, it means the powers that be are more sophisticated now. They try not to control their people by guns, but by shaping their opinions through mass media, art, films, Hollywood. Remember The Crying Game, where you were made to have sympathy for a transvestite, at the same time that you were made to believe IRA is a ruthless organization, where no mention of British atrocities in Northern Ireland is made?

Also remember, Back to the Future, where the racist Spielberg makes "the Libyans" the enemy and the bad guys. To identify a group of people based on their nationality or race and to attribute a negative or positive characteristic to them is racism. However, to identify a group based on cultural characteristics and to attribute a negative or positive characteristic to that cultural characteristic, is not racism. Of course, the attribute could be wrong, but still, it is not racism.

Theodor Adorno calls such generalizations, "Identity Thinking." The evil is in reducing / identifying a thing to its attributes. For example, if I say, "Iranians are shy," that is racism, although perhaps harmless. But if I say "Iranian culture promotes shyness," it is not racism, but is wrong. And if I say, "The culture of most Iranians promotes shyness," it could be true.

This issue of harmfulness of a racist act is very important. There are many racist acts which are committed. We should focus on those which are most harmful to the general good. In fact, we should have a hierarchy of such acts, based on importance, and then start from the top.

If an African-American radio announcer makes a racist remark against Whites, he has to be reminded, that such utterances won't solve any problems, and are "bad" solutions. If George Clooney in the Peacemaker utters racist remarks against Iranians, he, other actors, the director, and the producers, should be taken to court. Why? Because the racist violence that is already being exerted against the African-Americans and other minorities, is far bigger than the consequences of that radio announcer's remarks.

Have you also noticed that when Israel, United States' agent in the Middle East, commits more atrocities than usual that even pro-Israeli newspapers and media cannot ignore, the following night you see a barrage of movies and television programs about the Nazis and the Second World War?! Same thing is at work here: Remind people of the fascism of the Nazis, so they forget the fascism of the Western world against the "Third World."

Let us be careful and understand what fascism means. "Fascism" comes from the Latin fascis meaning "bunch," or "bundle." So, fascists are those who bundle together, privileging each other and excluding those who are not like them. They could go as far as calling themselves the "chosen people" -- "Remember that the German people are the chosen of God," said Kasier Wilhelm II.

Many people might consider themselves the "chosen people." If these "people" are identified by race, then this belief is racism. But again, the very important question is whose racism creates the most violence? The racial slur of the radio announcer, or the vilifying of Arabs and Iranians by Hollywood, and the American mass media during the war of U.S. against Iraq? As Foucault said: Act locally, but think globally. That is, take into account the total effects of your action.

To do such comparisons, one should first be able to understand the violence one is considering. And here, I am afraid, most intellectuals and artists fail. And I strongly believe, this failure is not because of lack of intellectual rigor or depth. It is very easy to see that the emperor has no clothes. What is lacking is courage, is honesty, is spirit.

If Abbas Kiarostami, as Johnoton Rosenbaum reported, likes to get publicity even when it means The New York Times falsely accuses Iranian censors for delaying the arrival of Taste of Cherry to the Cannes Film Festival, it is his ego which is at work: "Actually, I like to have this kind of interpretation in conversations and dialogue around my films"

At last year's San Francisco Film Festival (April 2000), Kiarostami dedicated his award to Behrouz Vosooghi, my childhood hero. Did he not know that Reza Motori has descended so low as to play the role of a so-called terrorist in Terror in Beverly Hills? As I remember, Reza Motori ends his life in a garbage truck. Half-witted bibaaki (fearlessness -- not courage) ends in garbage. All those "artists" and "writers" who don't understand imperialism, or are not courageous enough, would let their grudge or ego, end them in garbage.

Of course, nowadays, the term "imperialism" is considered passe for some people. Even the anti-globalization movement calls it Globalization. But for Derrida, Edward Said, Habermas, Spivak, and for that truly courageous intellectual Noam Chomsky, imperialism is alive and more than any other time, in need of analysis and attention.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Khashayar Pakravan


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