Iranophobia or: Postmodern racism and the clash of civilizations (Episode I)

Why is the US going to war…again? In the first part of this piece, I set out a framework through which we can approach a psychological understanding of the Iran conflict. In the upcoming second part, I use this framework to shed light on the political and media discourse (including, but not limited to, Fox News) surrounding the conflict and ultimately, the causes of the impending outbreak of all-out war.

“This is the year of reckoning. A year from now, either Iran will be a nuclear weapon state … or we, the West, will have found a way to stop Iran, either by bombing those nuclear facilities, or by choking off their economy.” So said Fox News National Security Analyst KT McFarland on Monday, Jan. 2 during an interview with Bill Hemmer on reports that the Iranian navy has conducted missile tests in the Persian Gulf region. McFarland, a former member of Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council staff, joins a bipartisan chorus of voices from the political and corporate media arenas calling for both a figurative and a literal stranglehold on Iran’s economy, infrastructure, and (so it is hoped) nascent nuclear capabilities. She is, in some dreadful sense, stating the obvious: this year, America resolves to do what’s right, for us and for the world.

The most recent round of threats and otherwise threatening commentary comes in the wake of an assertion by the Iranian government that it will respond to a complete US blockade of its oil ships, signed into law by President Obama as part of the bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act, by blocking the Strait of Hormuz. This development is, to put it bluntly, a huge deal. The claim on Fox is that the US-led movement towards more draconian sanctions have brought about massive inflation and left Iran’s economy teetering on the brink of collapse. This is seen as a promising indication of the moderate devastation economic sanctions can bring; if this is true, which is by no means certain, any suffering incurred by the people of Iran is, as US imperialists are fond of saying, collateral damage in the battle for something much greater than the lives of Iranian citizens: regional hegemony. US interventionism in the Middle East has not been just about control of resources, and commentary to this effect is simplistic and misleading. If it were, there would be no worthwhile reason for the US to push for economic sanctions, which decrease the amount of oil to be obtained through trade. Military power and regime change is and always has been the endgame of the US conflict with Iran, and while it is intricately interwoven with the objectives of trade and profit, it is the colonial mentality itself, and not just the riches that it promises, that lies at the heart of the cultural tendency of the US towards military aggression and domination.

The Strait connects the Arabian Sea in the east to the Persian Gulf in the west, and is considered the single most vital transit point for the global oil industry. No less than 40% of the world’s oil passes through it, and the promise of a blockade by Iran’s navy has rung the alarm bells of the US business elite to a noticeable extent. Our favorite propaganda arm of the corporate class offers a telling barometer: two weeks after the media were alerted to Iran’s threat, more than a third of all global politics videos on Fox News’s website explicitly mention Iran with respect to an ominous-sounding development, like “firing test missiles” or “saber rattling”. In an interview with Jenna Lee on Jan. 2, Michael Singh (of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a neoconservative think-tank) summed up quite nicely the attitude of the movers and shakers driving US foreign policy in West Asia for the past decade: “If Iran were to close the Strait of Hormuz, or attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, that would … serve as a red line because frankly, once you’re engaged in hostilities with Iran, would any US President just stop short after opening the Strait, or would he destroy the nuclear infrastructure as well?” In a rhetorical flourish that is unfortunately typical of hawks on “both sides of the aisle,” Singh presents “only” decimating Iran’s fleet as the under-reactive alternative to what must be done: the rogue nation must be leveled. If we don’t use military force, he asserts, “multiple US Presidents have said, we’re determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. If in fact we turn aside from that, towards, say, containment, I do think it diminishes our credibility around the world and especially in the region.”

It would be easy to dismiss Singh’s projections as the calculated warmongering of the hegemonic elite who comprise the notorious military-industrial complex. No elite, however, manipulates a population in a vacuum: the reality that must be acknowledged is that Americans are, on the whole, quite conservative. I don’t mean by this that they vote Republican, but rather that our entire political spectrum – not just our politicians and media – skews right. US liberals, even many who call themselves “progressives” hold viewpoints and/or support politicians that, elsewhere in the “West,” are considered firmly right-wing. Nowhere is the false dichotomy between Democrats and Republicans, and the conservatism of US liberals, more apparent than in foreign policy. Supposedly “anti-war” Democrats are in reality scared to death of being called “weak” in a country whose electorate is so rabidly militaristic that the list of prominent lawmakers with the nonaggression foreign policy of a Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich is more or less limited to those two men.

As Al-Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi puts it, rather than actually being the “party of peace,” Democrats are “always for a different war.” Democratic foreign policy, he says, revolves around the notion of an alternate, more rational imperialism: “We’re for killing some people, but not these people.” Instead of decrying the invasion of Afghanistan as an arrogant outburst of retaliatory bloodlust, Senator Obama promised during his campaign to up the ante in the bipartisan “good war.” He protected Bush administration criminals from any sort of prosecution, choosing to “look forward, not backwards,” and regards the invasion of Iraq not as a moral transgression against Iraqis (regardless of who lied to who about WMDs), but as a strategic blunder that turned out to be awfully inconvenient for our European allies. Now, it seems that both parties have decided on a common target: Iranians.

This is as undeniable a proof as one is likely to find that ideology is alive and well in the mainstream discourse of the 21st century. Ideology, we will recall, is not characterized by truth-value (how true/justified a belief is), but by its necessary role in mediating our interaction with ourselves and others. “The opposite of ideology,” says Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, “is not how things really are.” Rather, drawing on Marx, Zizek says that ideology is what you do, not what you “know.” The subject of our postmodern era acts out ideology despite the knowledge that the ideas themselves are “illusory.” Our belief in ideas is thus staged before it is even acknowledged by the subject, a sort of “belief before belief”: ”They know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still, they are doing it.”

For Zizek, ideology operates on three levels. The first is the level of doctrine, which conceals its own vested interest: for example, John Locke, as a theorist of liberalism, sets out a doctrine that conceals the vested interest of revolutionary Americans in their struggle against the British colonial power. The second level is that of belief, in which material apparati are constructed and maintained, that demonstrate and generate belief in the doctrine: for liberalism, the institutions of democratic elections, a free press, the free market, and so on. The third is ritual: the individual’s internalization of doctrine and experience thereof as “spontaneous,” as a reflection of identity, as in the statement, “I am free.” Zizek explains the tension caused by the expression of ideology via language in terms of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage, in which the infant (with necessarily imperfect motor function) first recognizes herself as “self” in the mirror, and fails to reconcile cognitively the complete image she sees with her own helpless bodily experience. Language functions on this level, mediating our interaction with society. In the case of “I am American,” or “I am free,” the difference between the subject of enunciation (the corporeal “I” which references “itself”) and the subject of the enunciated (the linguistic “I” which is referenced) creates a split between the “Real” body and the “Symbolic” self that can never be made identical.

Previously, we discussed how media interpellation constitutes the viewer as the subject of ideology. Fox isn’t brainwashing, I wrote, because the only real brainwashing is culture at large. That is to say that the subject of ideology is always-already constituted by the interaction of society with the psychology of the individual: Fox News and Republicans (or CNN and Democrats etc.) have no power in a cultural vacuum. Rather, they draw on and manipulate the identity and worldview (sense of “self” and “other”) preexisting in the subject of media representation or political influence. Identity, bigotry, oppression, struggle, compromise—all of these phenomena are “illusions” in that they are fabrications of ideology, but they are also our shared symbols for relating to each other and the world. They are the only social reality that exists, and none of them are created out of thin air when Sean Hannity or Obama addresses “America” and talks about the direction in which “we” as a country are headed.

For Zizek, racism, too, is alive and well in our “post-ideological” era. It is no longer the realm of ignorance, as in “I know that Judeo-Christian civilization is superior to Islamic civilization,” but rather, it is a psychological tendency towards a disavowal of the cynicism at work in “I know that all cultures are equal, but I act as if Judeo-Christian civilization is superior to Islamic civilization.” The role of racism in society, Zizek claims, has always been one of fantasy, in which the ethnic other is blamed for the degeneration of society. Fantasy is the way we paper over the cracks of inconsistency between our identity, that is, how we think of ourselves, and how things actually seem to be in society, which Zizek calls the “big Other.” Following Marx, he attributes the recent shift towards ethnic nationalism to globalization and the resulting conflict of cultural fantasies. There are two basic racist fantasies: one, that accuses the other of trying to take our fantasies away from us, and one, that fears the unfamiliar fantasies of the other. Thus, the ethnic other is either trying to “steal our jobs”/“take our freedom” or “mooch off of”/“infiltrate” our society.

The subject of racism, therefore, is a straw-person premised in fantasy, the defense mechanism aimed at neutralizing the impression of the fragmentation and imperfection of our own society. Take, for example, a recent Megyn Kelly interview with the iconic Donald Trump, who asserted somewhat comically that his (ultimately aborted) GOP debate would focus on “what the other people aren’t talking about, what Obama hasn’t been talking about – that is, what the outside world is doing to this country.” This concern for the infection of national purity from without is the central tenet of fascism, but it is most dangerous today in the hands of a country that paradoxically considers itself immune to fascist tendencies because it killed fascists in war. Americans have a particularly troubling relationship to this fantasy in that they, unlike most other nations, currently possess the military capabilities to act as world police, doling out justice (with much the same standard of racial nondiscrimination as actual police) to the always completely synchronous benefit of (foremost) the US and (of course) the world.

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