At Electronic Intifada, Benjamin Doherty excellently investigated the megaweird San Francisco Pride crèche of Ahmadinejad being sodomized by a nuclear warhead. To summarize what he’s found: something called Iran 180 sponsored the float. It’s a “movement of people and organizations who have come together as a unified voice to demand a 180 by the Iranian government on their pursuit of nuclear weapons and the treatment of their citizens.” As you would expect from that, it’s not a movement at all: discouraged that anti-Iran rallies outside the UN “attract fewer attendees and even less press, the New York Jewish Community Relations Council decided to act and formed a new coalition called Iran 180.” They found the language of human rights instrumental to their cause:
A petition on basic human rights for women, minorities, unions, media, journalists, political opposition, juveniles, and more, helped generate interest from some non-traditional allies such as the NAACP and 100 Hispanic Women.
Not to mention the Korean American Community Empowerment Council and the United Haitian American Society. Most of the groups undoubtedly signed on with no particular idea what they were endorsing, except that it all sounding like a Good Idea. As Ben notes, it’s a fine case of “astroturfing” — “advocacy in support of a political, organizational, or corporate agenda, designed to give the appearance of a ‘grassroots‘ movement” (merci Wikipedia). Two PR firms spearheaded the 2010 launch, one of them a division of Burson-Marsteller, notorious for refurbishing the images of evil dictators and other miscreants.
That scowing, hook-nosed Ahmadinejad puppet is the staple of Iran 180’s street theater. One of the lead groups writes, “The popularity and presence of this puppet made it a useful tool for Iran 180 … The press had a catchy photograph and Iran 180 had a hook” — the latter a Freudian slip, no doubt. Ben found additional photos of the SF Pride float. On the left, Mahmoud drops his pants to let the warhead in; on the right, he fellates it:
They’re obsessed with the Ahmedinejad-is-a-fag theme. Here’s a UN demo with A-jad in red heels (it’s Human Rights Day, December 10, which I never knew also celebrated the fashion-challenged):
And here they’re staging a gay wedding between A-jad and Bashar Assad, under a chuppa, with Qaddafi as witness:
What the hell is the point of all this iconography? Any residual irony is wasted in the case of Assad, who is known for many awful things but not especially for homophobia. Is this supposed to change the minds of gays somehow? I find it hard to imagine any homo stumbling on this touching scene and feeling the urge to blast away those Persian centrifuges, or rain destruction on Damascus.
Surely, instead, he’d think he’d wandered into the long-postponed wedding of Frankenberry and Count Chocula.
The whole bizarre display seems torn from the discredited writings of Raphael Patai, the Israeli-American Orientalist whose dissection of “The Arab Mind” (and, by extension, Middle Eastern masculinity in general) became an ur-text underpinning Abu Ghraib. As Seymour Hersh wrote:
The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. … [Patai’s] book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. “The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,” Patai wrote. … The Patai book, an academic told me, was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged—“one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.”
Putative insults directed at the sexualities of US enemies in the region are legion. There was, and is, for instance, a longstanding rumor that Yasser Arafat was gay and died of AIDS, spread by neoconservatives with glee. Unlike most rumors, it’s possible to pinpoint this one’s source with some precision. Ion Pacepa, chief of foreign intelligence in Ceauşescu’s Romania, defected to the US in 1978, and later composed his memoir, Red Horizons, while under CIA protection. In it, he claimed that secret microphones caught Arafat making love to his male bodyguard while visiting Bucharest. The book is full of wild stories, and this particular propaganda gem had a two-birds usefulness for the US: it impugned not only Arafat for screwing a man, but Ceauşescu (notoriously puritanical) for tolerating it. The CIA called his book “an important and unique contribution to the United States,” and it should be read as such, along with other important and unique fabrications such as the histories of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch.
As I’ve written here about “outing,” deploying anxieties about homosexuality to defame or shame people simply means manipulating — and endorsing — homophobia. This is true whether the object is Ahmadinejad, Assad, or Rick Perry.
On looking at this stuff, though, I have to note what bad propaganda it is. Is Burson- Marsteller (“the world’s biggest PR company,” apparently) any good at what it does? Ben quotes the Guardian on its mind-molding feats: the firm
was employed by the Nigerian government to discredit reports of genocide during the Biafran war, the Argentinian junta after the disappearance of 35,000 civilians, and the Indonesian government after the massacres in East Timor. It also worked to improve the image of the late Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu and the Saudi royal family.
Its corporate clients have included the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979, Union Carbide after the Bhopal gas leak killed up to 15,000 people in India …
Hmm. Nobody much doubts anymore that Nigeria’s, Argentina’s, and Indonesia’s dictators were guilty of murder; while if I remember my 1989 rightly, Ceauşescu and his brand went the way of the Edsel and New Coke. Three Mile Island pretty much ended the nuclear industry in the US — and so on. If I were Ahmadinejad, I would take comfort from this record of ineptitude and sip my Coke Classic in peace of mind.
Nicolae on trial: I demand to speak to the Grand National Assembly and Burson-Marsteller right now
The Ahmadinejad puppet clearly derives from old anti-Semitic imagery. But the point of Nazi propaganda was to frighten people. (Jeffrey Herf’s study of wartime anti-semitic posters is a thoroughly disturbing guide.) The Jew appeared as monstrous threat, individuality always dissolving in collective, conspiratorial menace:
“The Jew: Inciter of the War, Prolonger of the War.” 1943 Nazi poster, from Jeffrey Herf, “The Jewish Enemy”
It’s horrific, but it worked, a gross demonology that actually did incite and prolong the war. It wouldn’t have occurred to them to depict the Jew as schlemiel. This Ahmadinejad — sexually passive, his pants down, generally pathetic — has nothing threatening about him. There is no great propaganda value in portraying the dictator of Iran as Woody Allen. Even when he tries to scare, the effect is unconvincing:
Such is the dreaded Mad Bomber, the feared Hitler of the Gulf, and the worst he can do is wave one of Dorothy’s ruby slippers at you? Even in the unmanly corridors of the Arab Mind (how many times have we been told in the last decade that “Showing the sole of your shoe has long been an insult in Arab culture”?) this guy is considerably less alarming than Imelda Marcos.
This failure points, I think, to a larger and partly disabling ideological contradiction in our world of post-colonial wars. It’s a point often made that the Nazis brought back colonial methods — of disenfranchisment, dispossession, and murder — to the European homeland. Yet in order to do so, in order to overcome the moral and material barriers to such a slaughter on nearby soil, they needed to conjure a threat more comprehensive and capable than the colonial Other, generally shown as impotent, backward, and helpless minus the mission civilisatrice. They needed the tropes of far-reaching conspiratorial power, the Enemy within, that came from anti-Semitic paranoia. Only that kind of fearsome, concocted foe could gin up a comfort-fattened populace to the hardships of total war — not to mention the horrors of mass murder.
That ’70s Paranoia: Big Mullah, Little White Man
In the interminable battles with brown people that constitute American foreign policy at the start of the millenium, though, these tropes aren’t functional. Brown people, after all, are born schlemiels and born bottoms; so intrinsic to the West is the contempt for their competence and capacities that it’s hard to impute the requisite menace to them. The late 20th century saw various attempts to elevate the Arab or the Ayatollah to the power and dignity of World Enemy, based mainly on the conspiratorial connection with oil; these sinister plotters kept hatching destructive cabals in clandestine secret hideouts, like Tora Bora, OPEC, or the UN. But those enemies, like Ahmadeinejad, kept lapsing back into their appointed role in the Western imagination, as buffoon. The propaganda around the last Gulf War was illustrative of the contradiction. On the one hand, Colin Powell and Tony Blair and the rest assured us that Saddam Hussein was a universal monster who put everybody in jeopardy, with poised weapons forty minutes’ flight from Paddington. On the other, keeping up support for the war meant promising this would be an easy kill; the poor joker couldn’t possibly hold out in his bunker for more than a week, and we’d be welcomed with flowers while opponents withered like kudzu in the desert. Memorably, neither was true.
It’s quite telling that, although there’s a bomb on the Ahmadeinejad float, the droopy A-jad isn’t the one wielding it. Instead, he’s the one raped by it. Iran, in the imagery, is the party getting nuked.
How strange … or is it? Could this be a last Freudian slip in Iran 180’s unconscious repertory? After all: the one universally known but unspeakable secret in the current furor over Iran’s nuclear program is: there’s already one nuclear power in the region. Günter Grass presumed to mention this fact in a recent poem, and got hit by the intellectual equivalent of Desert Storm for his presumption (though the controversy did contribute to investigations of how Germany furnishes Israel with submarines to carry its nuclear arsenal).
After Ben published his piece, Iran 180 posted, miraculously, an apology on its Facebook page.
In June 2011, Iran180 participated in the San Francisco Pride Parade … The performance mocked the Iranian regime’s homophobia and was intended to raise awareness of the continued persecution of the LGBTQ community in Iran. As our followers know, drawing attention to the plight of Iran’s LGBTQ community is a priority for us. While the float was largely well received by onlookers, there were elements of the performance that unfortunately crossed the line and were clearly inappropriate. For that we sincerely apologize and have taken steps to ensure that this will not happen again.
But what line, exactly, did they cross? Is this an unlikely acknowledgement that rape and racism are bad? Or are they recognizing that, inadvertently, they gave too much away?