Air Date 10/14/2022
JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: Welcome to this episode of the award-winning Best of the Left Podcast, in which we shall take a look at the women-led protests roiling Iran in response to violent crackdowns from the so-called morality police that have led to deaths of young women demanding rights and freedom.
Clips today are from the PBS NewsHour, What Next, Democracy Now!, On the Media, The Analysis and Factually! with Adam Conover, with an additional members-only clip from Power Corrupts.
And by the way, the midterms are right around the corner, so be sure to check out the show notes for our midterms minute section, highlighting the key races across the country and how to get involved. Today's focus is on how to defend state Governor and Secretary of State races from anti-democracy MAGA extremists. Remember, voting is not enough, so get involved and help get out the vote.
And, stay tuned to the end of the show for my thoughts on why diverse representation in pop culture is important, [00:01:00] and it's not for the reasons I usually hear.
Voices of women inside and outside Iran on the uprising after Mahsa Amini's death - PBS NewsHour - Air Date 10-7-22
AMNA NAWAZ - HOST, PBS NEWSHOUR: For nearly three weeks now, Iranians have marched in the streets to denounce the Islamic regime that has ruled for more than 40 years. Sparked by the killing of a young woman named Mahsa Amini by the so-called morality police, this uprising, led by young women, is now nationwide, even global.
Over the last week, producer Zeba Warsi has been in contact with women both inside and outside Iran. Here are some of their stories.
In an iconic moment lest, schoolgirls in Iran drove out a Basij, an Iranian paramilitary officer, calling him shameless. High school girls are off with their hijabs, singing the protest anthem, demanding freedom. Stunning images from across the country, Iranian youth angry and defiant, despite the regime's brutal [00:02:00] crackdown. Students from Sharif University, one of Iran's most respective, are sometimes called geniuses, chased by the likes of MIT and Stanford. Today, they are being chased by state security forces.
IRANIAN STUDENT: The government wants to control this protest, but I hope, this time, it will be different, and I deeply believe that God with us.
AMNA NAWAZ - HOST, PBS NEWSHOUR: We spoke to several young women inside Iran. We are protecting their identities for their own security.
IRANIAN STUDENT: It is a government problem. We want to be equal with men. We want to wear anything.
AMNA NAWAZ - HOST, PBS NEWSHOUR: They opened up about life under this hard-line regime.
IRANIAN STUDENT: We are on a journey, and, in the road, the headscarf of my sister fell down. After 10 minutes or maybe 15 minutes, my father received a message [00:03:00] on his phone: If you repeat it and if you lose your headscarf, you will have to pay a fine for that. And my father was so angry.
AMNA NAWAZ - HOST, PBS NEWSHOUR: Another young woman spoke to us from her home in Southeast Tehran. We have altered the audio to conceal her identity.
PERSON: The situation is so ridiculously messed up that they are literally checking people's phones. The people that are passing by in the street could be arrested and prosecuted. I have had friends that were arrested. I have had friends that were threatened to stay silent, or they will be prosecuted. I have had friends that had to literally run for their lives from the hands of the cops that right now are trying to suppress them. I want this government gone, because I want to live like a normal human being with human rights, with the rights to express myself without the [00:04:00] fear of literally being killed.
AMNA NAWAZ - HOST, PBS NEWSHOUR: In all our interviews, there is one common message.
IRANIAN STUDENT: Women and men are being killed in the streets. Islamic Republic is not equal to Iran. We are Iran. They are the Islamic Republic.
AMNA NAWAZ - HOST, PBS NEWSHOUR: Human rights groups say that more than 100 protesters have been killed by security forces. Among them is 16-year-old Nika Shahkarami. Her disturbing death created more fear and more outrage.
In a heartbreaking message on Nika's birthday, her mother called her a martyr.
Nasrin Shahkarami, Mother of Nika Shahkarami [through translator]: Today was your birthday, my love. I want to congratulate you on becoming a martyr, Nika. Congratulations on becoming a martyr.
Iranian women who have been forced into exile across the world by the regime's policies poured out their hearts to us in dozens of e-mails.
PERSON: "Every day, it is like waking up to a bottle no matter where we live. It is the 21st century, and other [00:05:00] people do not understand the horror and instability Iranians face on a daily basis."
"You have stolen our peace for four decades. Return Iran to its people. We urge you, leave our people alone."
"For as long as I remember. I wanted to be a boy. I even asked my mom to cut my hair. I wanted to be a boy because girls are not allowed to sing, to dance, to laugh loudly, to be happy, to exist."
"I was walking in the streets of Tehran with my friends. I was arrested for wearing a V-neck T-shirt under my long coat. There was no way out. We had all been abducted by the morality police."
AMNA NAWAZ - HOST, PBS NEWSHOUR: The protests have sparked a global backlash, with millions standing in fierce support, women leaders from every walk of life, from French actresses, to Belgian lawmakers cutting their hair in solidarity. But for the Iranian diaspora, it's brought back haunting memories and sparked fear for family back home.
NAZANIN - IRANIAN WOMAN IN EXILE: I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. [00:06:00] Just remembering all the pain and guilt and everything, just made me emotional. I'm so sorry. Give me a second. And it is still going on. You know, very simple, easy things that is very normal in all parts of the world, it is a no-no thing in Iran for everyone, for young people, for kids. They could be punished for it. It is so painful. And when I remember what we went through, and still — I have two nieces too, young nieces in Iran. And when I feel like they have to go through what I went through, it is very painful.[00:07:00]
What Iranian Protesters Need Now - What Next - Air Date 9-28-22
MARY HARRIS - HOST, WHAT NEXT: The Iranian struggle for women’s rights is more than a century old. And protests over hijab, the modest clothing required of all women in Iran, they’ve been going on since the 1970s. Back then, protests were taking place in the shadow of the Iranian Revolution, since a broad coalition had overthrown the government. It was a shock to some when Islamic fundamentalists took control. Regardless, in 1979, the new supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, began rolling back some of the limited freedom women had previously enjoyed.
GISSOU NIA: It was all very gradual. Every day there was a new announcement about how women would be restricted, either in the public space or at work. Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader at the time, he prohibited women from serving as judges. He announced that women could no longer initiate divorce proceedings. He prohibited women from serving in the [00:08:00] army. The marriage age of women reverted back to nine, which is what it is under Islamic law. And then on March seven, which was on the eve of International Women’s Day on March eight, Khomeini said that women could work outside the home, but that government-employed women should wear hijab to work. And so that’s really how they started to roll this out.
MARY HARRIS - HOST, WHAT NEXT: And was the reaction immediate from women?
GISSOU NIA: Yes. They responded immediately with massive demonstrations and sit-ins.
MARY HARRIS - HOST, WHAT NEXT: It’s interesting because my understanding is that Iranian women are incredibly educated. And so that creates a tension that exists today where women are smart, they’re educated, they know what they’re saying and doing, and yet they’re still restricted.
GISSOU NIA: Yeah, there’s incredibly high rates of literacy in Iran. [00:09:00] It’s a very educated population. You know, we often hear that there are more women graduates from university than there are men in Iran. I should note that there are a lot of restrictions though, different rules that are applied to encourage women to stay at home and thrive in the family sphere and that are not super supportive of them working or taking those skills to the workplace.
MARY HARRIS - HOST, WHAT NEXT: In the last couple of decades, protests have become just a common part of what’s happening in Iran. Protests over elections that are fraudulent. And economic hardships.
So I’m wondering how this current protest movement is different from what you’ve seen in 2009 or in 2017?
GISSOU NIA: Yeah. In 2009, there was a very organized protest that a lot of people might remember the Green Movement, [00:10:00] but it was still coloring within the lines, the institutional lines of the Islamic Republic.
MARY HARRIS - HOST, WHAT NEXT: What do you mean when you say that?
GISSOU NIA: Well, the big slogans during those protests were, Where is my vote? So ultimately, it was still saying, we believe in this institution and we just want to know why our votes weren’t properly counted, because the issue at the time was the disputed presidential election in June 2009. There was a sense that the election was stolen. And I should note that presidential elections in Iran are neither free nor fair. The candidates are very carefully vetted.
MARY HARRIS - HOST, WHAT NEXT: I think you’ve called it more of a presidential selection than an election.
GISSOU NIA: That is absolutely the correct term. Yes, the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who I think is notorious for a lot of Western audiences, for his very eccentric statements. Here Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner after barely any vote counting. There was a real sense of grievance. People hit the [00:11:00] streets. But that was mostly centered in Tehran, in urban centers. It was very organized and it was centered around the central demand of where is our vote. So ultimately, that’s still buying into the system.
MARY HARRIS - HOST, WHAT NEXT: It was about reforming what currently exists.
GISSOU NIA: Exactly. What we’ve seen since then is completely different to that. So there were nationwide protests that occurred in December 2017 and January 2018. It was very clearly anti-government. Since then, there have been recurring protests and the space in time between which the protests occurred keeps on shortening. So we saw the wide scale protests in November 2019. Initially, that was said to have been sparked by a spike in gas prices that occurred after the state abruptly removed subsidies on gas. But it quickly spread nationwide and quickly spread to being all anti-government slogans, really calling for the downfall of the Islamic Republic.
MARY HARRIS - HOST, WHAT NEXT: It sounds like you’re saying things are getting just [00:12:00] more and more intense and a little bit chaotic even.
GISSOU NIA: The protesters are definitely not as scared and they’re definitely willing to hit the streets and call for what they want. So we saw protests in 2020. We saw protests in 2021. And some of those protests were about other issues like water shortages in particular provinces. There’s been the labor union protests all throughout this time because basically what the state has done is it’s privatized some companies, I mean, some state owned companies have since been sold off to those who are close to the authorities, and those people don’t know how to run a company. And so ultimately, it’s mismanaged, it’s looted for its assets that they then take offshore. And a lot of the laborers are not paid wages. And so we’ve seen recurring protests over not collecting wages.
And now the [00:13:00] differentiating thing about this spate of protests is that it clearly was sparked due to a social demand. And so there are no commentators that can kind of dismiss it as being due to economic concerns or something that’s not really core to the ideology of the Islamic Republic.
MARY HARRIS - HOST, WHAT NEXT: Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve heard it described as hijab is one of the three pillars of Iran, that it’s the hijab, death to Israel, and death to America. And hijab is like the most vulnerable of those three pillars. And that’s what makes these protests important to pay attention to. Would you agree with that?
GISSOU NIA: The mandatory hijab laws are core to the Islamic Republic’s repression of its populace, and it’s only the most visible sign of a much more extensive gender discriminatory legal framework that includes women’s testimony being worth half that of [00:14:00] a man in a court proceeding, that includes very restrictive marriage, divorce, custody, inheritance laws. So there is a very widespread system of discrimination. And I’ll note that it’s not only gender discrimination. The discrimination is against ethnic and religious minorities. It’s against LGBTQ populations, something that’s enshrined in the law.
“Complete Dissatisfaction with the Current Order”: Why Mahsa Amini Protests in Iran Are Not Slowing Down - Democracy Now! - Air Date 10-6-22
NILO TABRIZY: We examined videos that primarily were coming out in the first week, week and a half of the protests. That’s when the internet connection was not as disrupted as what we’re seeing right now. So, we saw multiple things, and I can kind of boil it down into three main visual trends that we saw.
We saw that protesters were targeting symbols of the state. So, we saw protesters tearing down posters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; the founder of the Islamic Republic. We saw protesters attacking police stations and government building complexes.[00:15:00]
And another main thing that we saw, which has been very much the topic of conversation about these protests, was really seeing women in the lead. So that’s everything from the defining images of seeing women burning their hijabs in public to women cutting their hair as a form of protest. And as well, we heard a lot of women-centric slogans. Like you just said, ”Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” that’s very much been at the forefront of these protests.
And as well, something that Dr. Bajoghli has written about, we saw women, really, what it seems like for the first time, putting their bodies in direct confrontation with the police. So, they’re actually going to physically fight them, going up to them, being very bold. This really stood out to us, and we saw that in multiple places across the country.
And the last thing that we saw is just these protests have been so widespread. So we’ve seen solidarity among social class, different regions, different ethnic backgrounds. And something that really stood out to us for that is [00:16:00] we saw protests in religious and traditionally conservative cities that are regime strongholds, like Qom and Mashhad, where we can hear protesters saying, “Death to the Islamic Republic.” And as well, we saw — we could hear the chant, ”Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” which originates from Kurdish. We heard people chanting it in Kurdish in Tehran, so well outside of Kurdistan, which, to us, really showed, you know, the solidarity across the country.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Nilo Tabrizy, if you could also talk about the state symbols that have been attacked during these protests and the significance of those state symbols? And in addition to this main chant, ”Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” — “Woman, Life, Freedom” — there have also been others. What are the ones that have really caught on?
NILO TABRIZY: Sure, absolutely. So, in terms of state symbols, we’ve seen, like I said, tearing down the poster of Khomenei. We’ve seen [00:17:00] protesters tear down pictures of Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader. We’ve seen them tear down posters of Soleimani. And seeing this is just very — you know, it’s a very bold thing to see. There’s so much repression in the state that seeing people tear down these symbols really gives us a visual understanding of what these protests are towards. It seems like they are very much calling for, you know, a complete restructure and a complete dissatisfaction with the current order.
And as well, in terms of the other chants that have caught on, yeah, I mean, the main ones that we kept seeing are ”Zan, Zendegi, Azadi.” We are seeing, you know, “Death to the Islamic Republic,” “Death to Khameini,” really calling for a downfall of the system. Those were the main ones coming through.
And this is something that, you know, perhaps Dr. Bajoghli might have her thoughts on, but something that we saw was these chants are very [00:18:00] much women-centered. So, in 2009, for example, when Neda was killed in the Green Movement protests, she very much became a symbol of state repression. There were chants at that time that chanted her name. This time around, we’re not necessarily hearing “Mahsa,” “Zhina,” her name so much. We’re really hearing ”Zan, Zendegi, Azadi.” And we’re also hearing chants that particularly had male references translated into women-centric references. So, the chant, for example, that we might have heard in previous protests is “I will defend,” you know, “I will seek revenge for my brother”; we’re hearing that “I will seek revenge,” or “I will defend my sister.” So, we’re really hearing that translated into a women-centric chant to reflect the movement.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Narges Bajoghli, your piece for Vanity Fair is headlined “'Woman, Life, Freedom': Iran’s Protests Are a Rebellion for Bodily Autonomy.” In the piece, you make a very [00:19:00] interesting point, which is that Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish girl around whom these protests began, around her death, that her real name, Zhina, a Kurdish name, could not actually officially be registered under Iranian law. So, could you explain why that is, and the significance of these protests beginning around the death of this young Kurdish woman?
NARGES BAJOGHLI: Kurds in Iran have been repressed both pre-revolution and post-revolution. A lot of the ethnic minorities in Iran, especially those who live in the border areas, have faced both severe repression, as well as very few resources go into those areas of the country for development, for job opportunities, for all of those things. And many Kurds, as well as some other ethnic minorities in Iran, are not allowed to teach their languages in [00:20:00] schools. And Zhina’s name could not be registered under Iranian law, because under Iranian law only certain Persian and Islamic names can be registered formally. And so they had to register her Persian name, Mahsa, instead of her Kurdish name, Zhina.
It’s significant that this uprising has started over the death of a Kurdish girl who was visiting Tehran. She didn’t live in Tehran; she lived in Saqqez, a town in Iranian Kurdistan. And, you know, these issues over identity and ethnicity have often been sort of faultlines that states have used in Iran to not allow solidarity to take place across the country. And what we see is that a nation rose up in defense of the death of a Kurdish girl, and the central slogan, as Nilo has been mentioning, of this entire uprising is a slogan that originates in Kurdish, comes [00:21:00] from a militant feminist Kurdish background, from Turkey, first of all, and then gets translated into the Kurdish women fighting in Syria against ISIS in 2014 and 2015, and then it travels around, and it comes to Iran. And the reason that it becomes a national cry is because during her funeral you can hear mourners chanting that slogan. It gets captured on video, it circulates on social media, and then it spills out into Persian all across the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor, in your piece in Vanity Fair, you write, “It is only fitting that it’s Iran’s feminist revolution and the country’s young generations that are on the front lines of battles for bodily autonomy and sovereignty. For four decades, Iranian women and queers have borne the brunt of a political system predicated on their subjugation through daily policing and criminalization. They’re now [00:22:00] showing the world — despite the severe repression and potential death they face — how to fight back, like feminists.” Take it from there.
NARGES BAJOGHLI: Yes. So, this is really, at its core, a fight for women and queer folks to have choices over their bodies. So, what’s really important, as Nilo was providing the context, is that the Islamic Republic has implemented laws that are severely restrictive for women since the very beginnings of the 1979 revolution and the start of the state. And what’s significant here about what happened to Amini is that she was caught at the hands of the so-called morality police, which are a police force that are a daily occurrence all across Iran. All women have had some kind of interactions with the morality police, and families, including religious ones, have had some form of [00:23:00] interaction with these police, because their daughters may not be veiling as religiously as the mothers have. And so this is something that women are dealing with every day. When Amini was taken, at first ended up in a coma and later died from the injuries that she sustained, what we are seeing is that the ways in which women in Iran have been resisting every single day against these restrictions over the past 40 years, we now see this as a rupture in collective action. So, it’s not surprising to me that sort of this generation’s and, in our global moment, our generation’s first big feminist uprising, that is militant in style, is taking place in Iran on this level, because Iranian women have over four decades of experience of daily acts of resistance against patriarchical laws [00:24:00] and against partriarchical norms.
And so, as conservative movements are rising across the world, as we see more and more laws that are coming down against women — and, you know, I think it’s worth noting that conservative movements, when they rise, and religious movements, when they rise, first and foremost, they go after the rights of women. And so, right now I think even though traditional media has been very slow to cover this uprising, it’s been internet users all over the world that have made hashtag #MahsaAmini trend. And that’s the reason we’re all having this conversation today. So it’s striking a chord with people all over the world who are, in one way or another, experiencing, either once again or a continuation of, increased patriarchical control over women’s bodies. And so, the protests in Iran are capturing our attention because we’re seeing, in real life, how women are putting their lives on the line and are refusing to comply any longer. You know, power and patriarchy require that we comply. And so, [00:25:00] we’re seeing now young women and women across Iran who are just saying, “I will no longer comply with this.”
'Woman, Life, Freedom' - On the Media - Air Date 9-30-22
On June 20th, 2009, there was another killing that galvanized protests in Iran. And that was the death of 26 year old Neda Agha Soltan, shot by a government sniper on the sidelines of a peaceful protest for fair elections known as the Green Movement. You were at the protests that followed her death. And I just wonder, are there any analogies that we can draw between these two women and the movements they've spawned?
FATEMEH SHAMS: Yes. Back in 2009, Neda Agha Soltan was coming back from her music school with her music teacher and found themselves in the middle of the protests. A seemingly apolitical woman randomly shot. Her eyes rolling towards the camera while she's [00:26:00] dying. And then the video going viral. There is also this element of innocence that you can see in the face of both women killed in cold blood. That has played an extremely important role in mobilizing and triggering the protests. In the case of Mahsa Amini, I would also add that she is not just the middle class Tehrani woman coming back from her music school. She's coming from a border city of the Kurdish province of Iran, one of the most deprived, neglected provinces since the victory of the revolution. Discriminated against for being part of an ethnic minority, for being part of a religious minority. So she's traveling to Tehran with her brother and she is only in the capital city for a few days and coming out of the metro station and suddenly being stopped by the morality police. [00:27:00] These details add to this brutality. Of course, media plays an extremely important role in the George Floyd moment and also in Mahsa Amini moment. The reason that these two are being compared is because they really have become the face of a much more complicated civil rights movement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You suggested that if Neda hadn't been killed brutally, the Green Movement would have gone in a different direction. Same thing if Mahsa's death hadn't been documented – which is why the Internet has been so crucial in all of this.
FATEMEH SHAMS: Absolutely. Over the past 13 years, since the rise of the Green Movement, Iranian citizens have become remarkably smart with their smartphones. They know that recording scenes of violence, scenes of oppression and posting it on the social media will get their [00:28:00] voice out. This is something that did not exist before the rise of the Green Movement. The televisation of the death of Neda of assault on was basically the reason for not just triggering the nationwide protests, but also raising awareness in the international community. And in the past 13 years, every single time that there is an uprising, that there is a riot, normal, ordinary Iranian citizens take up their phones and start filming.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's why the government has worked – in the last more than a decade to really get a grip on it.
FATEMEH SHAMS: When Nedha Solton was killed, they tried for months, in fact, and years to manipulate and distort the story of her killing. They accused that doctor who rushed to Neda's body trying to revive her. They tried to [00:29:00] arrest him. He had to flee the country, accused him of being the agent of the West to go there and assassinate her. Nobody, of course, believed it. And they are doing the exact same thing with the death of my Mahsa Amini. The person who broke that story was Nilufer Hamidi, an Iranian woman journalist who courageously rushed to Castro Hospital in Tehran and interviewed Mahsa's father, took those pictures and broke the story. And she's in custody at the moment. The government panicked and tried to give a distorted image of what happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, I mean, even literally a distorted image, right?
FATEMEH SHAMS: Yeah. So they published this heavily edited CCTV footage in which she collapses suddenly in the middle of the police station and say that she had a health condition and she was not beaten on the head. Two things here that was very [00:30:00] important. One, the brave action of Nilufer Hamidi, the Iranian journalist who went to the hospital, interviewed Mahsa's father, and he said that my daughter, she was a perfectly healthy woman. And these claims that she had brain surgery, she had a heart attack, these are all just lies. Well, Nilufer Hamidi was arrested after that. The second proof that discredits the government's claim was published by BBC Persian, in which a former Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer confirms based on the news that has been leaked out of the system, the cause for Mahsa's death has been several goes on the head. Brain injury, basically.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In both Nedha's and Mahsa's case, the government moved swiftly to crack down on any public display of grief, any memorial or a funeral. What is the significance of that historically?
FATEMEH SHAMS: [00:31:00] Yes. And Thursday, the woman journalist, Elahe Mohammadi, who went to Massa's funeral and covered the funeral, has been also arrested. During the 1980s where there was mass executions of the political prisoners. The bodies were not even given back to the families. They were all dumped in mass graves. It happened in 2009, Neda's funeral and other people who were killed in those days and also during the 2021 protests. In the build up to the 1979 revolution, when the revolutionary protesters were in the streets marching against the monarchy, when one or two protesters were getting killed in a city the 40th day anniversary of their death, protesters of another major city would actually take to the streets. Then other two [00:32:00] protesters would get killed. And the same pattern and the same chain of protests would happen across the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Every 40th day.
FATEMEH SHAMS: Exactly. Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow.
FATEMEH SHAMS: We saw in 1979. Streets were the main scene where the revolutionary movement actually managed to succeed at the end. The government is very well aware of the fact that if they let the streets to be filled by the protesters, there is a potential for another revolution, because what we have right now is a revolutionary movement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You really think so? There was wave after wave of violent repression since the protests against the fraudulent elections in 2009, the Green Movement. Back then, you were a writer and activist, a student at Tehran University. You took part in the protests before fleeing the country. In a recent piece in the AP. You claimed that this time is [00:33:00] different. But why? How?
FATEMEH SHAMS: So I tell you why. One of the main features of any revolution is when there is a fundamental shift in the norms and values of the people who live under a given government. What we see today in the streets of Iran is basically the manifestation of that fundamental shift. Over the past 44 years, there have been, as you mentioned, and rightly so, there have been a chain of riots, protests and economic and political grievance. But in neither of these protests, we see this fundamental shift, but also action against the state. People come to the street and make bonfires with veils. That is a red line, not just a political and religious taboo. It's also a cultural taboo. At no time, Iranian women actually took to the streets to [00:34:00] burn what they consider to be the symbol of oppression.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you've said that it's really not about hijab.
FATEMEH SHAMS: This is about compulsory hijab. This is about gaining control and ownership over women's body. This is in the heart of this revolutionary episode. Because the Iranian women and men who are protesting today know that the Islamic Republic is not ready for that transformation. The current president gave an interview about the ongoing protests, saying that our values have not changed, that the treatment of women should change, but our values are still the same. And when he says that the values are still the same, it means the values of the protesters is completely in contrast with the values of the government. And that's exactly what a revolution looks like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You, among many people, have [00:35:00] observed that women are in the forefront of the current protests, more visible than they were 13 years ago, as organizers, leaders and symbols as they publicly burn their hijabs and pay for that political expression in blood. You also say that the new generation of young women have a different imagination altogether from your generation, that even in your imagination, you didn't see a day where we could make bonfires with veils.
FATEMEH SHAMS: My generation was born and raised during the most oppressive decade after the revolution under extreme political and economic pressures. Also during the postwar decade, in the 1990s, where Iran was coming out of an eight year bloody war and the death of the state patriarch. There was the rise of the reformist movement in mid 1990s and then at the end of the [00:36:00] 1990s we had to also face this agonizing terror and fear of murder of secular intellectuals and writers. So for us, life was a matter of basic and minimum survival. We could not even imagine a day that basic rights would be at the forefront of a social movement. Then the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, came to power. There was hope for change. But the woman's right was always the follow up. The follow up of a revolution, the after effects of the revolution, the after effects of a social movement. But this revolutionary episode is also about a generational change. It's about those children who were born during the 2000s. This generation is different. You know, they are much more exposed to the outside world through technologies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Things that an earlier [00:37:00] generation of women and men tolerated as just a part of life is no longer tolerable.
FATEMEH SHAMS: Exactly. Their symbols and their ideas and their belief and their norms is entirely different. And I think they found the courage to take to the streets and the people of my generation, those who are trying to understand what's going on right now, all of us are just taken by surprise and we really just hit our heart in respect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of correspondents from Western news organizations aren't there because it is so very dangerous. Who is directing the story really for us and how is it getting out and what are we getting wrong?
FATEMEH SHAMS: You know, the way that this story has been framed in the Western media is that, first of all, I think one point [00:38:00] should be that abolition of the compulsory hijab is at the heart of this movement. The far right media in the West have framed this as an attack on Islam. They are framing the story in a way that could potentially harm those who live in the West as Muslims and especially veiled Muslim women who feel threatened by the ongoing protests in Iran. What should be clarified here in the Western media is that this is not an attack on Islam. This is not an attack on hijab as a belief. What is fought for here is freedom of choice, not the hijab itself. There are millions of women in Iran who believe in a hijab, who observe hijab. And if this movement is successful, they will still continue to live with hijab. And none of those people who are in the street have any problem with this. Iran is a [00:39:00] muslim society and in the past couple of weeks we see that mothers are coming out with their daughters in the street. A veiled mother with their daughter without a scarf. So this is, you know, a shared cause. This is a shared pain. This is about suppression and oppression of women and stripping them of their basic rights. So I think that this has to be clarified in the media in the West and frame this story in a way that Muslim women in the West also feel comfortable to stand in solidarity with their sisters inside Iran in order to get their rights back from the government.
Anti-Regime Protests and the Devastating Effects of US Sanctions in Iran - theAnalysis.news - Air Date 10-5-22
TALIA BARONCELLI - HOST, THEANALYSIS.NEWS: I’ve seen some voices on the left arguing that these protests can’t possibly be organic if they’re exclusively focusing on human rights or women’s rights, and that they somehow detract from the history of US intervention and repression and history of Western coups in the region. So I’m wondering how we could walk and [00:40:00] chew gum at the same time and acknowledge the fact that these protests are organic and there is a ground solid support for changing some things in Iran, and people are suffering from the sanctions and from other Western political restrictions. Maybe we could speak about that as well.
ASSAL RAD: Yeah, of course. I’ve been attacked by some leftists. Not everybody. There are a lot of people that I know on the left who are very much in solidarity with the protests. I’ve also gotten attacks that, by showing solidarity with the Iranian women, by posting about these protests, I am somehow supporting an imperialist takeover of Iran. That is extraordinarily frustrating for so many reasons.
First of all, I’m very outspoken about my views on US imperialism; that’s one issue. There are other issues. Have [00:41:00] sanctions devastated the Iranian economy, creating pressure on ordinary people from the middle to the working class? Yes, there’s no doubt about that. Is the intention of sanctions as a policy, very often, to foment unrest and instability in countries? Yes. Did sanctions force women to wear a hijab? No. Did sanctions create the morality police? No. Did sanctions create an atmosphere in Iran where those who wield power can use violence against their own citizens with impunity? No. Those are all the responsibilities of Iranian officials.
I think there’s a problem on both sides when you try to undermine legitimate grievances, legitimate issues that affect human rights. And so, on the other side, on the flip side... so I take issue with people on the left who make this argument. You’re completely just undermining their agency as if these people are not [00:42:00] out there knowingly risking their lives for– for what? They’re doing it for themselves. They’re doing it for their country and their cause. They’re doing it for their freedom and their future. That’s not solidarity. We should be able to show solidarity in every situation.
On the flip side, you have appropriating these protests for the advancement of exactly what we’re talking about, which is people saying things like, “see, sanctions were the best idea. That’s what we said. We were right.” To me, the problem with that is we use human rights language to talk about what’s going on right now. This is centered around human rights: the right of any individual for their own autonomy, for their own freedom, women’s rights, the right to expression, and the right to protest. All of this is framed in human rights language, but so is the language about sanctions. That’s the thing that’s so frustrating. If you were for human rights, [00:43:00] you can’t selectively do that because human rights language also was used to frame why sanctions were problematic, why sanctions are, when they’re broad-based and unilateral when they’re nationwide, and how it adversely impacts civilian populations. Collective punishment is against international law.
There has to be some way of talking about these things with some level of consistency. I think on both sides, there have been problematic takes, and that’s why I’ve tried to emphasize listening to what Iranians are saying. The Iranians are not talking about sanctions right now. That’s not their current issue. We should very easily be able to get behind and have solidarity with people who are demanding their most basic rights. It should not be a controversial take.
TALIA BARONCELLI - HOST, THEANALYSIS.NEWS: Yeah, if the West really cared so [00:44:00] much about human rights in Iran, then they wouldn’t have imposed sanctions during the COVID 19 pandemic, which cut off so many necessary humanitarian supplies, medicine, or other things to Iran. There is a bit of a double standard there.
ASSAL RAD: Well, you have a campaign– Israeli women standing with Iranian women. While that is positive, I’m sure there are women in Israel, there are Israeli women who very genuinely stand with Iranian women and who may even stand with Palestinian women. The function of a state that itself carries out human rights abuses and then uses this as a way to differentiate itself. That’s what I’m saying. There’s just so much disingenuous in the way some of the support is coming in too. Let’s just apply these things to everyone. Human [00:45:00] rights are extremely important, but they’re not only important in Iran. They are just as important in Iran as they are everywhere else. They are equally important in every context, in every situation.
TALIA BARONCELLI - HOST, THEANALYSIS.NEWS: Well, that’s also one of the negative aspects of social media where everyone’s trying to virtue signal and put themselves out there and make themselves somehow part of whatever is going on to draw attention to themselves. So yeah, you definitely see people basically posting about what’s going on in Iran for their own personal gain or to gain media attention.
ASSAL RAD: You have US politicians who are quite literally stripping women of their rights in the United States as we speak, tweeting about women’s rights in Iran. I’m not comparing the two situations. Women in the US have a great deal more autonomy and rights than they do in Iran. I’m not paralleling that concept, but you can imagine as an American woman listening to what is happening in this country and listening to politicians who are [00:46:00] actively seeking the policies that have just undone decades of women’s rights in the US it’s not a small deal. It’s still a very big deal, especially for the lives that it’s going to impact in the US it’s a women’s rights issue. It’s a global issue.
It is frustrating to see this... yeah, it’s like almost like double speak. I agree with you here, but then why don’t you agree when it’s our own population? It’s our own thing. So yeah, you see this across-the-board; people using this in various ways to fit their... to your point, just to get clicks or to get likes, so to speak.
What’s Happening in Iran and Why? with Reza Aslan - Factually! with Adam Conover - Air Date 9-28-22
ADAM CONOVER - HOST, FACTUALLY!: Let's just talk about Iranian political history a little bit in relation to the United States, 'cause we hear little bits and snippets about it. We have what we see on the American news. But whenever I dip into Iranian history myself, which I only do every so often, it's a fascinating history, isn't it?
REZA ASLAN: Yeah. I mean, look, [00:47:00] Iran, if you talk about Iranian history, you're talking about 2,500 years of history here. I mean, this goes back thousands of years to one of the earliest and most successful empires in the world. And an empire that was responsible for some of the greatest innovations in human rights and religious freedoms that we all take for granted nowadays.
And so this is an ancient, ancient civilization. But in some ways that's kind of the problem with Iran right now is that, when you have this incredible legacy, this history, like "we used to own the fucking world and now, we're not allowed to have nuclear weapons? But North Korea has nuclear weapons and they're shit." There's this incredible sense of frustrated pride, that navigate so much of what Iran does on the international stage, right?
Iranians think of themselves like this mighty civilization that just doesn't get any [00:48:00] respect. It sounds weird to say, 'cause it's not usually how we think about foreign policy in the way that governments make decisions, but a lot of what Iran does on the national stage is promulgated by this notion that we should be taken more seriously than we actually are. And, I get it. I get it. I have that same chip on my shoulder. I was like, Take me seriously, goddamn it!
ADAM CONOVER - HOST, FACTUALLY!: Yeah. And a lot of nations do. I mean, when you think about North Korea also wants to be taken seriously very deeply. That seems to be a common complex for a lot of nations. But Iran specifically. In the United States, we see it as the exemplar of theocratic autocracy, where it's run by religious leaders who are very controlling of the population. But there's a strange dichotomy there, because also I know that the population is very highly educated, right? Very, very cosmopolitan in a lot of ways. And that the country itself has been through what, three or four different systems of government over the last hundred years? And a number of those were quite liberal, right?
REZA ASLAN: Yeah. Well, as a matter of fact, this is a country that over the 20th century at least, has had three [00:49:00] massive democratic revolutions. The first Democratic revolution in the entire Middle East, in 1906 was in Iran. This is actually the background for the book you were talking about. They had another revolution, a democratic revolution in 1953. And even in 1979, it's funny 'cause we talk about the '79 revolution as the "Islamic Revolution," but that's just post revolutionary propaganda. This was the largest anti-imperialist revolution of the 20th century. It brought together religious groups, certainly, but intellectuals and progressives, men, women, Jews, Christians. I mean, it was by some estimates -- I've seen sociologists talk about this -- it was the largest popular movement, in terms of percentage of population, in the entire 20th century.
It's just that, as some people may be aware of, revolutions don't always turn out the way they're supposed to, you know. It's all very easy to get everyone to agree that [00:50:00] this guy's gotta go . But then when he goes, you know, then --
ADAM CONOVER - HOST, FACTUALLY!: Who should be in charge? Everyone raises their hand.
REZA ASLAN: Everyone's like, "Us, us, us!"
And it just so happens that in all three of these revolutions, the revolution in 1906, the revolution in 1953, and the revolution of 1979, it was outsiders -- Russian, British, and Americans -- who essentially interfered in the post revolution in order to get theirs and ended up fucking things up. I mean, I don't know how else to put it.
ADAM CONOVER - HOST, FACTUALLY!: It was the US that fuck things up in the 1979 Revolution, is that right?
REZA ASLAN: Yeah. So in 1979, the Shah, which is the king of Iran, and we've had Shahs again going back 2,500 years, the Shah of Iran who was America's greatest ally, America's best friend, in the seventies, bought all our shit, bought whatever we made, the Shah would buy billions of dollars worth of military equipment -- by the way, which no [00:51:00] Iranian knew how to even use; you're talking about advanced jets and weaponry that was just sitting on tarmacs collecting dust, 'cause the Shah thought, Oh, just buy all this stuff up, never actually figured out how to use any of it. It was one of the bigger jokes of the '79 revolution is that revolutionaries all had all this advanced equipment, but no idea how to actually use it against the war with Iraq.
But in the post revolutionary turmoil, the chaos that occurred, there was a lot of wrangling going on about who was going to run Iran. There was a provisional government there, a democratically-elected bunch of technocrats, you know, who had this provisional government in place trying desperately to maintain relations with the world. And then two things basically fucked everything up.
One was the hostage crisis, which is its own other crazy story that we can get into about like how that happened and all that stuff. The hostage crisis was a [00:52:00] two-day peaceful sit-in by a bunch of engineering students that very quickly got co-opted by Khomeini and the religious groups. It was referred to as the Second Revolution, and used to bring down the provisional government and to give Khomeini power, but that was just one part of it.
The second part of it, which is something that Americans never talk about, is the fact that the United States, with American money, American weapons, and American intelligence urged Saddam Hussein to invade Iran, right after the revolution, because it was the perfect plan, right? Oh, no revolution. It may not go our way. We have these anti-American religious radicals about to take over. Why don't we get Saddam to bomb them and see what happens? And what happened was an eight year war that killed millions of people on both sides, with one side being almost fully funded, supported, weaponized, by the United States.
ADAM CONOVER - HOST, FACTUALLY!: That's Iraq, which [00:53:00] we later then go to war with. A decade later, a decade and change. Yeah.
REZA ASLAN: Yeah. I mean, look, the Republican, Guard in Iraq during that war were fighting Americans with weapons that we gave them to fight Iranians. I mean, that's like the quintessential American foreign policy right there, right?
ADAM CONOVER - HOST, FACTUALLY!: These stories, when the United States does stuff -- and this, by the way, is like there's just one nation. You look at Latin America, you look at places all across the world, you'll see the US meddling in terrible ways with other gov -- toppling democratically-elected governments, things like that. These stories are all part of public record. You can go look 'em up on Wikipedia. They're all right there. And for some reason, they never make any impact on the American psyche about our own government. You know what I mean? There's, there's always a couple people at the protest waving leaflets, like "Look at what they did in Latin America!" or in Iran.
REZA ASLAN: I'm like, Go home hippie.
ADAM CONOVER - HOST, FACTUALLY!: Yeah. For some reason it's never part of our national conversation about like, "Yeah, we did some weird shit and things went really bad and that's why we end [00:54:00] up in these wars over and over again, and things go that badly.
REZA ASLAN: I think it's funny that the American and Iranian situation is complicated, I think, by the fact that they were such close allies for so many decades.
ADAM CONOVER - HOST, FACTUALLY!: The Shah was our boy. This is like the Shah was our friend in this strange area. Yeah. Yeah. But we don't understand, Here's our guy.
REZA ASLAN: Now, nowadays we talk about how Israel is our closest ally in the Middle East, but I mean, Iran was the Israel of the time.
And so I think in a lot of ways to think about what has gone wrong in the Iranian-American relationship over the last 40 years, it's like, you gotta think about it as like a married couple that went through a really bad divorce. You know what I'm saying?
ADAM CONOVER - HOST, FACTUALLY!: And now they just fucking hate each other. Yeah.
REZA ASLAN: The guy cheated on her in front of her. That's how Americans think of the hostage crisis. It was so embarrassing, you know? It was such a national disgrace for the United States. 444 days in which these 52 Americans were being held hostage by what looked to [00:55:00] us like a bunch of 20-year-old crazy fanatics. What are these backwards people doing? We're the greatest, you know, country in the world. We have the most powerful military. We have the most powerful government. We're the richest country in the world. And these fanatics have basically got us over a barrel. It was incredibly embarrassing and it created this real sense of, I think, anger and hatred in the American psyche that I know it's been 40 something years, but we still haven't gotten over. We just haven't gotten over it.
Revolutions - Power Corrupts - Air Date 4-2-20
CHRISTIAN CARYL: I would define an uprising as a popular movement or rebellion that simply—it can even be by a group, a very powerful group of society, not even representing all of society—that overthrows an existing regime, or it's like a big protest movement typically. So even though there was an uprising, actually, the only thing that changed was the guy at the top.
Now for me, a revolution is something much more [00:56:00] fundamental than that. A revolution, for me, is an uprising that really does away with the old system. So that's the distinction I would make. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 is a really good example of a revolution that fundamentally changes the organization of society.
BRIAN KLAAS - HOST, POWER CORRUPTS: And that's where we're going to start in Iran, but not in 1979. Instead, to understand what happened in 1979, we need to go back a bit further, to the early 1950s.
ARCHIVE CLIP: Their mission fruitless. The Anglo-Iranian Oil delegation led by Mr. Jackson returns to London as Persia gives the company's employees one week to decide whether to stay and work for Persia.
Almost immediately at the outset, we were asked to accept the Persian law as it stands. I replied that we could not do that, that we would recognize a form of nationalization, provided we could work out a satisfactory agreement [00:57:00] under a form of nationalization.
BRIAN KLAAS - HOST, POWER CORRUPTS: Since 1941, Iran had been ruled by its shah.
CHRISTIAN CARYL: One of the interesting things about the shah is that he had this very, very famous domineering father who was a classic authoritarian leader, and didn't seem to have a very high opinion of his son, so his son was constantly struggling with these feelings of inferiority.
BRIAN KLAAS - HOST, POWER CORRUPTS: But in 1951 a would be political reformer named Mohamed Mosaddegh became Prime Minister. Riding a wave of nationalism, Mosaddegh pledged to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the precursor to the company that we now know as BP. The British Oil company operating in Iran was extremely profitable, it was a key pillar of the UK economy. Mosaddegh's pledge to take control of the oil fields was certainly not welcome news in London.
The US government initially wanted to stay out of the dispute, seeing little upside to getting entangled in what [00:58:00] seemed to be a conflict between Iran and Britain, but then the UK insinuated that Mosaddegh wasn't just nationalizing the oil, he was also secretly tilting toward the Soviet Union. Suddenly a British problem became perceived as an American one too.
On December 3rd, 1952, a secret memo was produced of a conversation between the Brits and the Americans with the subject line, "British proposal to organize a coup d'état in Iran." Intelligence agencies in the Transatlantic Alliance sprung to action and hatched a plan called Operation Ajax. In June, 1953, a man named Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, slipped into Iran under the alias of James Lockridge. He was given a clear objective, to overthrow Mosaddegh and to install a pro London, Pro Washington puppet government in his place.
Bags of [00:59:00] cash in tow, roosevelt began orchestrating a systematic campaign to provoke a coup. The CIA art group began producing anit-Mosaddegh cartoons. Newspaper editors and media officials were paid off. With one editor receiving the startling sum of $45,000 to play ball. By the CIA's own estimation in the weeks and months preceding the implementation of Operation Ajax, they controlled or held sway with 80% of Iranian media outlets.
By his own account, roosevelt nearly blew the mission's cover on multiple occasions explaining, "Oh Roosevelt!" when he missed shots during regular tennis matches held at the Turkish embassy. When asked to explain why a man named Lockridge had developed such a strange curse phrase, he coolly replied that any self-respecting Republican would do the same given the hideous presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In the first attempt to launch Operation Ajax, the spies blew it. [01:00:00] Their attempted coup actually backfired. Mosaddegh foiled the plot and the pro British shah was forced to flee to Rome. Once the CIA found out about the operations failure, they told Roosevelt quote, "If you're in a jam, get out so you don't get killed. But if you're not in a jam, go ahead and do what you have to do." Roosevelt decided to work his way out of the jam.
First, he distributed $50,000 to buy the participation of an unruly ragtag mob to pose as Mosaddegh supporters. The idea was to make them behave badly, creating public backlash against Mosaddegh. Other people joined the paid protesters and the mob got out of control, just as the CIA had hoped. Riots began, public opinion began to turn. Then the CIA engineered a counter protest, another [01:01:00] ragtag group of people who would take to the streets to demand the return of the shah. Agents, with the help of Iranian fixers, had identified low income street performers and athletes to be the protest vanguard. Broad chested weightlifters marched alongside acrobats and jugglers, many wielded clubs, others wielded knives. Some, the jugglers in particular, performed tossing pins into the air while the mob danced around them. At the edges of the mob, thugs waved 10 rial notes to onlookers. The ranks quickly swelled to thousand. Marching as they chanted, "long lived the shah," and it worked.
ARCHIVE CLIP: The rioters freed those taken prisoner earlier and stormed the house of Mosaddegh. The Foreign Minister Fatini gets through. First reports that he was torn to pieces have not been confirmed. Meanwhile, the mob flopped the streets demanding the return of a shah. Mosaddegh and his government were swept from power in favor of General Zahedi, [01:02:00] the man appointed by the shah in the first place.
BRIAN KLAAS - HOST, POWER CORRUPTS: The shah returned from Rome. He replaced Mosaddegh with a loyal general. London and Washington were happy. But for decades, the Western role in those events was not acknowledged. Most of the documents relating to the 1953 coup d'état were only declassified in 2017.
Fast forward now to the 1960s and 1970s, when Iran was under the totalitarian control of the shah, who was also trying to rapidly modernize the country. But all those efforts would be upended in the 1979 revolution. We're going to turn back to Christian to guide us through this one, and he's just the man to do it because he wrote an incredible book about 1979 called Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, and it's a fantastic read.
CHRISTIAN CARYL: So what happened in 1979 was in many ways the model of a classic, revolutionary situation. What you had in Iran was a [01:03:00] very underdeveloped country with a very traditional society, and in the 1960s and 70s, for a whole variety of reasons, the shah of Iran, who had absolute power over the country. Decided to embark on a program of really radical modernization. He sent hundreds of thousands of students to other countries to get educations, and he wanted to turn his country almost overnight into this magnificent example of modern economy with car manufacturing plants, and universities, and advanced media and art and all of this stuff.
Guess what happened. It was. In many ways, still a very, very traditional society and this program led to complete turmoil in society. People were flooding into shanty towns to find jobs. Students were getting all kinds of crazy, radical ideas from overseas, and what you had then was an entire population that was really [01:04:00] disoriented and confused.
BRIAN KLAAS - HOST, POWER CORRUPTS: That disorientation was made worse due to a fall in oil prices.
CHRISTIAN CARYL: You had this very, very, intense nationalism and very, very intense religious feeling, all competing for people's hearts and minds. And on top of all that, the shah's government was very, very authoritarian, very, very tough. And so, even as people became more discontented, the more the state cracked down on them for it. Finally, the people rose up and there was a very long series of protests and violent uprisings in various Iranian cities.
Over time, the state found it harder and harder to respond, and then finally, the shah, who by this time was also sick with cancer and becoming indecisive and unsure of himself, decided to give up. And [01:05:00] the military, which until then, it was really the only thing holding the state together, stopped suppressing the uprisings, and so the government fell. The whole system of government Iran fell overnight.
BRIAN KLAAS - HOST, POWER CORRUPTS: The revolution was being led remotely by an Ayatollah exiled in Paris.
CHRISTIAN CARYL: Ayatollah Khomeini was absolutely sure of himself. He believed 100% in his revolutionary idea, partly because he was a religious man and his revolutionary idea was very much about bringing clerical rule to Iran, a very radical new kind of clerical rule. And there is, throughout Khomeini's career, absolutely no scintilla of self doubt or hesitation. The man knew exactly what he wanted. He could be quite flexible tactically if it meant diluting people about his ultimate goals. He was very, very good at [01:06:00] telling people what they wanted to hear at certain moments, but it's very, very clear he always knew what he wanted, and that was a very, very rigorous form of clerical rule over Iran.
BRIAN KLAAS - HOST, POWER CORRUPTS: And as protests grew and the revolution gained steam, the regime began to splinter, which is a key feature of successful revolutions.
CHRISTIAN CARYL: One of the main things that all scholars or analysts of revolutions look for is the defection of key groups from the regime. I think one of the key moments in Iran was when some of the Air Force, who were very much a part of the shah system, made it clear they were not going along anymore. When key parts of the military showed that they were no longer supporting the shah, but I think when it became clear that large chunks of the middle class had deserted the shah, I think that was a key [01:07:00] indicator that something very fundamental was going on. So we tend to look for key groups that are pillars of the regime, that defect, that leave.
BRIAN KLAAS - HOST, POWER CORRUPTS: One of the things that Christian has learned over the years about revolutions is that they're hard to predict before they happen, but that even after they are underway, everything's in flux. Different factions emerge. Everything can change in an instant, and you never know how it's going to end until it ends.
Final comments on the beneficial discomfort of diversity
JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: We've just heard clips today starting with the PBS NewsHour highlighting the voices of women in the protest in Iran. What Next? explained the history of Iran rolling back rights for women. Democracy Now! looked at why the protests are so focused on support for women and the LGBTQ community. On the Media looked at the generational change evident in the new protests. The Analysis looked at some alternate perspectives and criticisms from the left. And Factually with Adam Conover discussed the history of Iran and their relationship [01:08:00] with the U.S.
That's what everybody heard, but members also heard bonus clips from Power Corrupts, which dove into the history of the CIA-sponsored coup in Iran. To hear that and have all of our bonus content delivered seamlessly to the new members-only podcast feed that you'll receive, sign up to support the show at bestoftheleft.com/support, or shoot me an email requesting a financial hardship membership, because we don't let a lack of funds stand in the way of hearing more information.
And now I have a few thoughts that are related to gender and queer rights, though from a very different perspective than we've been discussing so far today. Also, it's gonna take me a little while to get to my point. So strap in, and to start, I am sure that smarter and better informed people than I have made a point similar to mine, but in a better way than I am going to. So apologies upfront for any missteps, and if you can point me in the right direction to a better way to say this, then please do.
And now for context, [01:09:00] because I love context, I have a couple of examples of a fascinating ability that most of us have. The first is this: Do you think that you can tell the difference between a person smiling genuinely and a person forcing a fake smile, even doing a really good job of forcing a fake smile? Most can, I think, and it is amazing because it's really hard to pinpoint the difference, but we still just sort of know. I heard once that a genuine smile engages facial muscles that are literally impossible to activate consciously. So when we fake a smile, we are not able to engage every normal smile muscle, which is part of the reason why other people can tell. But the difference is so small that to be able to notice the difference and to be able to do it basically unconsciously is amazing.
Here's a second example. Totally different. The other day, Amanda and I were watching a show that includes a Native American character, and Amanda wondered out loud if the [01:10:00] actor playing the Native person was of Native ancestry himself. She thought he looked at least partly East Asian, and I could definitely see what she meant by that. So we looked him up and it turned out that he is of mixed race, including Mexican Native from the Sonoran Desert area that spans Arizona and Mexico, but then also Taiwanese and Japanese. So she was right to have seen some East Asian in this person, but my point has nothing to do with this actor or even genetics or ethnicity. My point is that the brain is a supercomputer for pattern recognition. We do this so automatically that we rarely appreciate it, but imagine the computing power it takes to be able to look at a person and make an educated guess about where in the world their ancestry comes from, when the differences could literally be fractions of millimeters in the size and shape of facial features, [01:11:00] or incredibly slight differences in skin tone or whatever other physical attributes we may have been picking up on and not even realizing it, just like the difference between real and fake smiles. And then on top of all of that, to be able to see evidence of ethnicities within a mixed race person, all from just seeing them in a television screen for a few minutes. Really, it is a truly amazing thing that we are able to do and it just goes to show how incredibly sensitive we are to even the smallest details when it comes to recognizing human features that fit into our brain's pattern recognition machine.
So what happens when we see something that doesn't fit our established pattern? That's where the uncanny valley comes in. This is a concept that generally describes non-human entities that are sort of humanoid. Basically as an object, like a robot or an animated character is made to look more and more human, [01:12:00] the warmer we as humans feel toward them until they hit the uncanny valley. And about a decade ago, computer animation and films and video games hit the uncanny valley and characters stopped looking like cartoons and started looking more like real humans, except they were humans with something wrong with them. And audiences responded with reflexive revulsion, and then animation continued to get better, and now they can make extremely lifelike animated people that don't cause revulsion, they've climbed out of the uncanny valley and are now on the other side. And here's how Wikipedia describes the idea: " The concept suggests that humanoid objects that imperfectly resemble actual human beings provoke uncanny or strangely familiar feelings of uneasiness and revulsion in observers".
Now, in my examples so far I've been talking about fake smiles and [01:13:00] mixed races, and for most people at least, neither of those things would ever cause an uncanny valley sort of response. Fake smiles have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, so there's nothing new there. However, mixed races are more interesting a little bit because, uh, you know, up until a few hundred years ago, there probably weren't that many mixed race people in general and your chance of stumbling upon one was even lower, and so you could imagine that coming across a mixed race person would sort of be triggering for someone's uncanny valley reflexive uneasiness sensation. Just because that mixed race person wouldn't fit any pattern that the onlooker was used to.
But to be clear, this isn't an intellectual response. This isn't a racist response. It's purely emotional and reflexive based on our brain's function and pattern recognition. What we decide to do about that emotional reaction is what becomes our intellectual [01:14:00] reaction.
And now finally, let's bring this around to gender. We've all been raised in a world built on the presumption of a gender binary. And this is changing. It's becoming less and less right now for the youth, but for the most part, this is the world we've grown up in, and this means that the patterns in our brains have been trained to recognize a very limited two gender system of humanity, which means that when we see someone who doesn't fit our gender pattern recognition perfectly, someone who identifies as non-binary, dresses in and androgynous fashion, for instance, it often sets off our uncanny valley discomfort alarm. And again, this isn't an intellectual or conscious judgment, it's a reflexive emotional response based on our brain's wiring and highly sensitive pattern recognition system.
And I feel like this is the place, maybe, that [01:15:00] a lot of people would stop their analysis. Up to this point, this could be seen as an intellectual or scientific explanation of an excuse for bigotry. Can you just hear someone saying something like, "See? You make me feel uncomfortable, and there's a scientific explanation why, so there's nothing wrong with me and you're just gonna have to get used to". Right? You can, you can imagine that. But this is not where my thoughts end. Now, I know I'm a couple of years late, but I'm catching up on season three of Star Trek Discovery, the season in which they introduce sort of famously a trans character and a non-binary character who are in a relationship with each other. And as I watched, I realized that this was probably the season of Star Trek that, you know, kicked up all the controversy about how the show had gone woke and made a group of people very mad. Hopefully it's obvious that I didn't get mad in that way, but I didn't have a totally neutral or positive reaction either, and it took [01:16:00] some deep thinking and discussion to figure out what my reaction was exactly, the result of which is everything I've been talking about today.
What I think I felt was the sensations of discomfort or uneasiness that arise when one's pattern recognition system is presented with something it wasn't expecting, which tells me that context matters, too, right? There's a difference between seeing a trans or non-binary person at a pride parade versus on a network television show, and I think our highly sensitive pattern recognition system takes all that into account and the fact is there haven't been trans and non-binary people in a show like Star Trek before. That's why it was a famous event, so I literally wasn't expecting it.
So I think that even though I intellectually fully support the representation of trans and non-binary people on television, I still managed to viscerally feel the discomfort that others did[01:17:00] and sort of hold that feeling at arm's length and look at it and examine it and ponder it. And I also thought that it would be valuable to be honest about this reaction I had and tell this story because to me it shows that discomfort and bigotry are not the same thing and actually come from different places and I think it's beneficial for everyone to understand that phenomenon and how it works, regardless of which side of the issue you are approaching this topic from.
Finally, here's my takeaway. For all the conversations I've heard over the years about the importance of diverse representation in media, I've almost always heard it framed from the perspective of the marginalized group. It's good to depict female presidents and CEOs so that little girls can see themselves in positions of power. It's good to have gay couples on television to show gay kids that normal romance is possible for them too, et cetera, et cetera. This is all true, obviously. [01:18:00] But that framing puts people like me in the position of feeling altruistic in my support for diverse representation, right? Like, my support of diversity is something that doesn't affect me, but helps other people. As though the calculation, in the case of Star Trek Discovery, is that good feelings for trans and non-binary viewers is being traded for the uneasy feelings of cisgender folks, so then the debate just becomes whether that's a fair trade to make. So then people say, you know, Oh, why are you doing this thing with my show that makes me uncomfortable just for the sake of this tiny minority of people.
So I've concluded that this is a terrible frame that leads to a nonsense discussion. And here's the frame that I think is better. Diversity in representation, whether that be in gender or any other aspect, isn't just for the marginalized groups. It's for [01:19:00] everyone, because our pattern recognition systems that signal us what in the world fits our preexisting patterns and what doesn't, by sending us those feelings of uneasiness and revulsion, are flexible and can be reprogrammed through exposure. Seeing something you're not used to over and over again is the quickest way to rewire your brain into seeing that thing as normal to the point that it simply stops sending those pattern-not-recognized-does-not-compute sort of signals that make us feel uncomfortable because you will have established a new pattern and it is now just a pattern you recognize.
I think it's great that members of marginalized communities get good and fuzzy feelings from seeing themselves represented in popular media and all of the benefits that stem from that, but it may be arguably more important for all the members of the dominant group to be exposed to that diverse [01:20:00] representation, just for the sake of normalizing that diversity in their heads. So many of us have been wired from birth to exclude the existence of entire groups of people from our conception of normal, and so their very existence triggers and uneasiness in us that doesn't come from bigotry, but from a pre-intellectual function of the brain, that is actually a very beneficial function of the brain, but it's being used sort of incidentally in this case to perpetuate bigotry.
So if you find yourself in a discussion about representation in pop culture that makes people uncomfortable, I would argue that the discomfort isn't a trade off. The discomfort is the point. Not because there's a desire to inflict discomfort on people, but because it is by going through that discomfort rather than avoiding it, that we make the world a better place by rewiring our collective perception [01:21:00] of normalcy.
I truly hope that this idea is received in the way it was intended, and that the comparison with the uncanny valley does not land wrong. So, just to super super clarify, if you're a member of a marginalized group, the comparison with the uncanny valley is not that your existence, if it makes people uncomfortable, means that there is something wrong with you in the same way that there is something wrong with a robot or a badly drawn animated person. That is not the comparison. The comparison is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you and your existence, but what is being triggered in people's minds is akin to the effect that happens with the uncanny valley. But it doesn't have to be that way for long, and it won't be that way for long. With exposure, with diverse representation, we will collectively rewire our brains so that those feelings of [01:22:00] uneasiness and discomfort will subside and eventually go away entirely.
That's my point, but I absolutely understand how what I'm saying and the comparison that I'm making can be misconstrued, maybe intentionally or unintentionally, to further denigrate members of marginalized communities. And I just wanna be clear that is absolutely not at all what I'm saying. And as I said, if you have thoughts on how to say this in a better way, please point me in that direction.
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So, coming to you from far outside the conventional wisdom of Washington, D.C., my name is Jay, and this has been the Best of the Life podcast, coming to you twice weekly thanks entirely to the members and donors to the show from bestoftheleft.com.