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May 30, 2006

I Wish I'd Gone To A School Where They Taught Us Stuff

The Independent in England just published an excerpt (now unfortunately behind a pay wall) from a new book by Mark Bowden called Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam.

If I were teaching a high school class about politics, I'd make them read this on the first day. It explains essentially everything you need to know about how the world works.

First, Bowden gives us the U.S. version of the hostage story:

To Americans, for whom the incident has become little more than an embarrassing footnote, the hostage crisis was an unprovoked crime, carried out by a scruffy band of half-crazy Islamist zealots driven by a senseless hatred of all things American.

Then there's the Iranian version:

For many Iranians, however, the hostage crisis was an unalloyed triumph. Embossed with florid Shia mysticism, the episode has taken on the force of national myth -- an epic story of a small group of devout young gerogangirha (hostage-takers) who, armed with only prayer and purity of heart, stormed the gates of the most evil, potent empire on the planet, booted out the American devils, and secured the success of the mullahs'revolution.

And then, most important, is REALITY:

The young Iranians envisioned having to subdue and confine members of the American mission for perhaps a day or two, but they had no intention of holding them for any length of time...The hostage-takers' immediate goal was to put pressure on the provisional government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. This interim authority had been appointed by Khomeini after the fall of the Shah to preside until a new constitution could be written. Bazargan favoured a Western-style state, but in the eyes of extremists - both Islamists and Marxists - he was watering down the revolution. They saw the provisional government's efforts to re-establish ties with the rest of the world as a sell-out.

The opportunity for radical change appeared to be slipping away. So extremists fanned fears of an American-led countercoup' the plan to seize the embassy grew out of these fears. Khomeini was not informed about the takeover in advance, and by the time it was presented to him it was a fait accompli, and hugely popular. Hundreds of thousands of gleeful Iranians celebrated in the streets around the embassy night and day, burning Carter in effigy and chanting: "Death to America!"Khomeini had little choice but to embrace the brash gerogangirha, and to officially anoint them as national heroes. Bazargan's government resigned two days after the takeover, and the revolution tilted permanently into the arms of the mullahs.

There you have it: the main goal of all political actors, particularly violent right wing ones, is almost always to make themselves more powerful than their rivals in their own country. They are trying to beat their "enemies" on their own "side." However, they always always always claim they're it doing for everyone in their tribe. (Meanwhile, their counterparts on the other "side" make up a mirror image fantasy to make themselves more powerful than their own domestic "enemies.")

Thus, Bush invades Iraq because he thinks it will help him crush the Democrats. Osama bin Laden kills thousands on 9/11 because he thinks it will help him crush his Muslim rivals. But rather than being honest—"I'm doing this because I think it'll really be great for ME!"—Bush, bin Laden and the Iranian mullahs all claim they did it to protect their "people."

This is the most obvious thing in the world. It's Politics 101, what everyone should learn when they're in 3rd grade. What I find peculiar is I went to school for seventeen years yet had to figure it out for myself.

Posted at May 30, 2006 11:06 AM | TrackBack

Well, let's not be too reductionist - there's still quite a large element of scrappy we-beat-the-imperialist-dogs spirit in the Iranian hostage-takers, and there's also a large element of we-are-the-imperialist-dogs in Bush's Iraq adventure. In fact I'd say in the latter case, it predominates. Sticking it to the Democrats is just gravy. There are, after all, many ways to stick it to your rivals, but people aren't generally choosing from the full palette. Ideology matters; you gotta have something fun to do once you've accumulated all that raw power, after all. Like the ayatollahs are doing in Iran even now.

Posted by: saurabh at May 30, 2006 11:38 AM

Ideology matters; you gotta have something fun to do once you've accumulated all that raw power

Do you? I think for humans the mere experience of raw power is generally enough.

That said, I take your point about not being reductionist. As I wrote, I think this explains "essentially everything" you need to know, rather than everything. I'd put it at about 85%. All kinds of weird and interesting things happen in the remaining 15%.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at May 30, 2006 11:42 AM

This is the most obvious thing in the world.

no it's not. there has been a lot of effort put in to make it the least obvious thing in the world. and the way they have done it is to hide it in plain sight, or in this case, people's general fear of the unknown.

the realization that this is the case all over the world is like the one you have when you stare at one of those beautiful stereograms for hours but don't get it, and then one day you casually glance at it and see the sailboat and the dolphin staring back at you.

Posted by: almostinfamous at May 30, 2006 12:34 PM

I still can't see those damn things.

Posted by: BRG at May 30, 2006 01:21 PM

When I look at the patterns of behavior in George Bush,jnr's public life here in Texas, he always put himself in a position to make money off of questionable endeavors(like Harken Energy, or public financing for the Rangers' ballpark)), took profits, then bailed, leaving others to pick up the pieces.

Although I happen to agree with you that his caring about sticking it to the democrats is far more important than the conventional wisdom allows for, I see the Iraq war primarily as a venture capital operation, designed to enrich Haliburton, Lockheed Martin, et al--- with the taxpayers left to pick up the pieces afterwards, as well as whoever gets elected or electronically chosen in '08.

Who knows: maybe the diebold contingent will sweep the dems into power to buy their silence, and dump the war in their laps. Then, reverse their fortunes once and for all in 2010-12.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at May 30, 2006 04:49 PM