By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
ere is a clue why, despite billions spent by Washington on its global public relations campaign, the image of "ugly Americans" still persists in many part of the world, particularly the Muslim world. Just look at the vicious demonization of Iran and everything Iranian in Hollywood, the US media and, of course, the political rhetoric of American politicians.
A distasteful odor of hate ideology, repelling rational thought, is discernible everywhere, with Iran-bashing in vogue and evincing the darker side of US political culture, ie, the imperialist, xenophobic, intolerant and repressive sentiment of politicians and media pundits toward Iran.
Thus, whereas the enlightened Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton takes her opponent, Barack Obama, to task for ruling out a tactical nuclear strike on Iran, insisting that all options must be "on the table", her Republican rival, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, has penned an article in the "influential" Foreign Affairs suggesting that as president he would consider a tactical nuclear strike on Iran. He writes: "The theocrats ruling Iran need to understand that we can wield the stick as well as the carrot, by undermining popular support for their regime, damaging the Iranian economy, weakening Iran's military, and, should all else fail, destroying its nuclear infrastructure."
And that is exactly what the US military planners are cooking up, per a recent report in the London Sunday Times, namely the decimation of the "entire Iranian military" and the "select" targeting of some 1,200 sites.
Such incendiary rhetoric, infecting the discourse of right-wing European politicians as well, has been a good sell to the gullible US public, but not to the more sophisticated Europeans, who have expressed their opposition to any war on Iran in a recent opinion poll.
Unfortunately, in the United States, the tight interplay between government policy and what the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas refers to as "public opinion formation" simply means that a systematic media campaign to demonize and even to dehumanize the Iranians, as part and parcel of a brewing "politics of exterminism" vis-a-vis Iran, has been raging unabated, often led by pro-Israel Jewish pundits such as Michael Ledeen and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, both enthusiastic advocates of "bomb Iran".
But other than several Iran-bashing motion pictures by the Hollywood "culture industry",  perhaps the most flagrant, and ugliest, manifestation of this phenomenon in US politics and media has appeared in that vital compartment of opinion-making we call political cartoons. Notwithstanding the recent controversies swirling about European cartoons denigrating Islam's Prophet, or a German cartoon showing the Iranian soccer team dressed as suicide bombers, the right-wing American cartoonists have been making their own contribution - by depicting Iranians variously as dogs, beasts and, in the case of one published last week, by Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Michael Ramirez as cockroaches.  (Ramirez' syndicated work has a subscription/distribution base of about 400 publications through Copley News Service.)
The latter recalls a similarly insensitive cartoon that appeared in a Tehran daily last year depicting an Azeri-speaking cockroach, which led to huge protests by Iran's Azeri minority. That cartoon was denounced by the government's cabinet ministers as "an offense to the Iranian people as a whole".
Sure, cartoons take a satirical look at news and gossip, and political cartoons add humor to an otherwise sterile topic, but they also serve as propaganda instruments, particularly in times of (and leading up to) war and (international) crisis. The editors of the Columbus Dispatch, which published the Ramirez cartoon, defended it as "freedom of expression" and dismissed a letter sent by the Council on American-Islamic Relations comparing it to Nazi cartoons.
In his reply, the newspaper's editor wondered aloud why the council was silent about Iran's cartoon contest on the Holocaust (which, as it turned out, was shunned by all of Iran's dailies). However, the council's record, available on the Internet, shows that it did denounce that cartoon contest and sent a letter to Iran stating: "Now it is the time for responsible people of all faiths to avoid inflammatory actions that are clearly designed to incite hatred." The letter also stated: "One cannot demand responsible behavior from others while at the same time acting irresponsibly."
Comparison to Nazi propaganda
Sadly, there are strong resemblances between the current anti-Iran propaganda in the US media and that of the Third Reich. As a case in point, the cartoon by Ramirez mentioned above is analogous to the Nazi propaganda film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), which showed maps of Europe teeming with rats and included the following script: "Whenever rats appear they bring ruin ... just like the Jews among human beings."
This recalls what sociologist Ervin Goffman has referred to as media's "framing" ability, ie, "labeling" the hostile other, in the Nazi case the Jews and in the current case the Iranians, as sub-human candidates for extermination, subjected first to a combined intense animosity and ritual humiliation through shame and ridicule.
Indeed, it is axiomatic that extreme prejudice, propagated through a gratuitously offensive media campaign, goes hand in hand with war fever. Political cartoons mirror political discourses, and pro-US-administration cartoonists such as Ramirez are now helping with the media mob lynching of Iran. That the mainstream US media publish such extremely offensive and racist visual images of Iran and Iranians, worthy of the notorious Nazi paper Der Stuermer, speaks volumes about the obscene anti-Iran climate sweeping the US today.
Some may see this simply as just a matter of poor taste, or stooping to new low levels, but the appearance of such cartoons in hundreds of US newspapers, almost on a weekly basis, indeed reminds us of the Nazi analogy, that is, how in the Nazi era the task of the art was to shape the population's attitude by carrying political messages with set negative stereotypes promoting a politics of eradicating the "enemy" in part with the help of cartoons' symbolism and metonymy, ie, the trope, in which one word or image is used in place of another that suggests it.
Of course, the comparison to Nazi propaganda has its own limitations, and the US and European cartoon wars on Iran have transpired in the context of Western democracies and what Habermas refers to as "pathologies of mass media". To add to Habermas' insights on manufacturing consensus and "friendly fascism", the Iran-bashing cartoons are symptomatic of a political pathology rooted in US irrationalism, the same irrationalism that, 60-plus years after dropping the bombs on Japan, still refuses to apologize for such nuclear barbarism, or that bestowed a medal on Captain William C Rogers III, the US naval commander of the USS Vincennes who shot down Iran Air Flight 655 with 290 civilian passengers aboard on July 3, 1988. (Rogers remained in command of the Vincennes until May 27, 1989, and in 1990 president George H W Bush awarded him the Legion of Merit medal for his tenure as commanding officer of the Vincennes and made no mention of the downing of the Iranian airliner.)
Until and unless Americans confront the roots of their irrationalism, rooted in their unique history, their exceptional wealth and power, their stupefying intellectual discourses, such as clashing civilizations and/or "end of history" and the like reflecting the age-old problem of America's intellectual paucity, and their fears of losing their grip on the post-Cold War unipolar moment, this problem will surely be aggravated in the years to come.
In conclusion, a question: What is the antidote to this pathology? The answer is an alternative vision of America's role and responsibility in the world, together with an accented focus on a pedagogy of tolerance, listening, reciprocity,  dialogue and intercultural and interfaith understanding. That is wishful thinking, however, as long as the war drums against Iran are getting louder and louder.
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