I bought the fancy new pair of soccer shoes under the illusion that they could improve my miserable game. The owner of the sports shop knew his craft well, so I walked out of his store with the shoes, a new soccer ball, a special pump for the ball, a set of knee pads, sports socks, goalie gloves, and even a shiny referee whistle. Don’t laugh, I was just a young lad in Tehran. Having lived in the U.S. for so long now, the only sales tricks that still work on me are heated steering wheel options and extended warranties on sunglasses. O.K. so I’m a sucker in America too, but still there’s a difference: in the U.S. it’s much easier to return merchandize.
The first time I played a game in those new soccer shoes, the bottoms became unglued, so I took the shoes back and asked for a new pair or a refund. The shop owner, who clearly remembered me from just a week ago, rudely pointed me to the door saying he had no refund or warranty policy. Here I finally did something smart: I went crying home to Daddy! A wimpy thing to do for an American child, but the rules are different in Iran. After chewing me out for paying too much, Daddy and a couple of his assistants showed up at the store in Daddy’s chauffeur driven government car. Daddy let the shop owner know who he was and who he knew, then gave the guy a choice between a refund and a bureaucratic sodomizing. Consumer protection Iranian style!
If you had asked me in my first few years in the U.S. why it’s easier to return merchandize in America, I would have said it was because American businessmen are more honest than Iranians businessmen. It took time and experience to realize that if it weren’t for the law, the American would be just as likely to take advantage of a customer as the Iranian. America’s secret was that Dad’s pull in Iranian society was somehow translated into law in American society, extending the same level of protection to everyone, granting every citizen the dignity of equal power.
But why didn’t the same kind of laws take root in Iran? Surely the Iranian shopkeeper was shrewd enough to know that what happened between us had nothing to do with who was right, because the spoiled kid could have frivolously demanded a refund on a perfectly good pair of shoes and still Daddy and his entourage could have bullied a refund out of him. In other words, in the long run parties on all sides have an interest in eliminating unfairness. We would all be better off to sign a country-wide contract granting each of us equal power. Under this contract, consumer laws would evolve where spoiled kids would get what they paid for and shopkeepers could flip off well-connected daddies. What puzzled me was why didn’t Iranians make this happen in several thousand years whereas Americans got it right almost immediately. The problem, I thought, wasn’t the individual but our society. I had gone from blaming Iranian businessmen to blaming our cultural mindset, a mindset that forbids power-sharing and therefore social justice.
My verdict on our culture didn’t last long, however. In fact, my harsh view of Iranian society has been softening in lock-step with the relentless erosion of citizens rights in America. Watching this slow motion American disaster over the last few decades I have come to realize that social contracts don’t work unless all parties involved can enforce their rights without a contract. To institute equality, we have to be equals to begin with! The chicken and egg paradox is only resolved by a spontaneously appearing chicken or a spontaneously appearing egg. So, somehow, through spontaneous historical accidents, Americans must have found themselves in a social Garden of Eden where political power grew on trees. It’s easy to guess how this came about. America was a huge land, virtually emptied of its native inhabitants, and the little guy was needed to build a country. The little guy had rights simply because it was a little guys’ market. Later, the little guy wasn’t as useful and things started to look bad for him, but communist revolutions around the world forced those who had come to power in America to bribe the little guy with good pay and civil rights. Now that the communist threat has safely abated, the powerless American is about to step into the same shoes as the powerless Iranian. Americans have run out of lucky power freebies, and from now on they must solve the same problems of social justice that have defeated Iranians for millennia.
If democracy and law make a lasting rebound in the U.S. through the wisdom and efforts of her population, I’ll go back to bashing Iranian culture for our political lot in life. If not, we Iranians have a lot to teach Americans about how to live meaningful lives in the absence of freedom. The first lesson is free just to avoid a refund: more poetry, fewer sports channels.
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