What it means to be an American
May 8, 2002
Ever since I started writing for Iranian.com I have had people who hate what
I have to say. There are also, blissfully, many kind and encouraging readers who
make up the majority of the people who respond to my articles. Some essays that I
write I expect immediate and angry reaction against. In fact, well aware of the sharpness
of my pen, if I don't provoke a reaction, I feel like I have failed.
Let me clarify this, because I find that nuance is easily missed by some of our good
readers. While my writings do provoke reaction sometimes, I never pick up the pen
just to agitate. I simply allow my pen without intellectual pretense to express my
feelings and opinions freely. That is the most sacred rule in my book, as a writer,
to follow my pen where it takes me.
Up to now the surest topic to attract the most hate mail and outrage has been the
monarchy and my interpretation of the Pahlavi legacy. From the time I wrote "Diana not",
on the occasion of the death of Leila Pahlavi, I have been a much-loved target of
monarchist hate mail. I also get a share of angry Muslim brothers who dislike my
feminism and criticism of the Islamic Republic [The
first stone]. But not until I published an anti-Israeli article [Today,
I am a Palestinian] have I encountered this kind of abuse.
The emails I received regarding this latest article have been mostly supportive from
the largely Iranian readership that this netzine enjoys. I did receive my share of
"why don't you go to Palestine and blow yourself up!" email. Again, those
were expected and I usually answered with a curt, "Well if there was
a Palestinian state maybe I would go and not have to blow myself up!" But what
was unexpected and shocking and went beyond anything I have ever, so far, experienced
were the phone calls I have received the past few of days.
Last Saturday night the phone rang and I answered. The voice of a woman asked me
if I was Setareh Sabety. Like a fool, I answered yes. You see, where I live I have
very little social life and a phone call from someone who pronounces my name like
an Iranian has always, up to now, been a very a welcomed occurrence. Anyway, the
person hung up as soon as I said yes to her question. This of course upset me a little
especially because subsequently I got several calls into the wee hours of the night
all of which hung up as soon as I said hello. I joked with my husband that I hope
the Mossad has better targets with which to busy itself than an opinionated mom like
I did not think much of the incident and went about
my routine on Sunday. Then in the afternoon, as I was talking to my husband the phone
rang. My husband answered and passed it to me saying it sounded like one of my friends.
When I said hello a woman's voice started yelling at me about how I promote the killing
of innocent women and children in Israel.
I asked her, very politely, if she could please give me her name. She would not and
kept going on and on about what an evil person I must be to have written such an
article. I kept telling her, dear lady, you have found my number, called my home
on a day when school is out, and don't you think you should have the decency to give
me your name before I answer your accusations?
She then told me that because I write for a public website I am a public person and
even though I have an unpublished number she has the right to dig it up, call me,
and yell abuse. She told me that she would send my article around to so many people
that I would not have a reputation left. She told me I would lose my job (I do not
have one. Unless you call substitute teaching at my kids school a job!) She told
me that I would never be able to get a job with the PhD I am getting (she did not
know that I am ten years late doing it anyway.) That I have ruined my career (what
of soccer mom?) -- that the greatest of American sins!
I hung up on her once but she called back and continued with the monologue. She told
me she would send the article to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. That
is when I stopped her with an ability to reach a forbidding octave with my voice
that has served me well before. I told her, "Look lady, I am exercising my right
to free speech. I am in a long line of American malcontents from Thoreau to Mohammad
Ali and I will have the police arrest you for harassment if you call again."
It is funny how American the threat to use the law is and how wonderfully it works.
People's passions die instantaneously in this land of lawyers and litigations, at
the slightest allusion to a suit. So I hung up and the angry woman did not call back.
But the whole incident and all the email asking me to leave the country, made me
think about being an American and what it means. I remembered one person whose name
kept popping in my head like a light bulb that illuminates the flow of reason: Henry
When I first came to the United States, the year Carter got elected to the presidency,
I attended Concord Academy in Concord, Mass. There near the famous Walden Pond, I
learned about Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862), who was an essayist, writer and thinker
with a prophetic passion for the environment and an equal love for justice and individual
freedom. He had taught and ran Concord Academy for some time and was a local hero.
So my introduction to life in America went hand in hand with my introduction to Thoreau.
His essay on civil disobedience gave me, fresh out of a pompous dictatorship, the
goose bumps the first time I read it. It spoke with simple eloquence of the need
for individual conviction to stand strong in the face of a government that does not
But it had been a long time since I had read any Thoreau
and the angry caller had done me the great favor of making me go and find that piece
of writing and re-read it. I would like to thank the lady if she is reading this
for having brought me back to Thoreau. I knew when I wrote the article and I am now
convinced that my stance is in keeping with a very long and solid American and democratic
tradition of opposing the government when it goes against your moral principals.
Henry David Thoreau was not a Muslim nor from the Middle East, but he would have
refused to pay taxes to this government because of its support of the Israeli military
campaign and occupation of Palestinian territory just like he refused to pay taxes
in protest to slavery and in opposition to the Mexican war. He would have sided with
me on this issue because he believed that it was morally required of a citizen to
oppose a government that acts unjustly.
He would have asked once again but in the context of American support of Israel ,
"How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I
answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant
recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government
also." Just substitute slave's "government" to "government who
supports state sponsored murder and terror in Israel", and you will see how
niftily it works.
Even if he did not agree with me he would defend my right to express my discontent
towards my government because he believed that, "there will never be a really
free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a
higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived,
and treats him accordingly."
Now calling people on Sunday, at home, whose opinion you do not share, to tell them
they will never "get a job in this town again" is hardly a democratic gesture,
now is it? Should my job prospects have anything to do with my political opinions?
I don't think any democratic minded person would answer that with an affirmative.
Thoreau, certainly, would have not.
Thoreau, also, was not quiet a pacifist even though
he was a great influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. his own taste was for
fiery abolitionist like John Brown, who picked up arms and began a campaign to fight
the south that ended with his and his followers' entrapment in Harpers Ferry, West
Virginia. Thoreau wrote several essays and a eulogy about Brown and his courage and
the importance of one spirited individual's voice to a democracy. He defended Brown
when his contemporaries deemed him a terrorist and when the government executed him.
To Thoreau, Brown was a martyr for justice. His willingness to die, to self-destruct
because of the cause of abolition of slavery made him an American hero in the eyes
of his eulogist.
Thoreau was not a turn-the-other-cheek kind of political philosopher. He was in awe
of John Brown not because he was a pacifist like Luther King, and not because he
fought an outside enemy but because "he had the courage to face his country
herself, when she was in the wrong." John Brown was no pacifist he was a freedom
fighter to some and a terrorist to others.
For writings and brief biography of Henry David Thoreau go to: walden.org