WWIII memes betray our lack of empathy — and knowledge of history

Opinion by Emily Wilder
Jan. 26, 2020, 9:23 p.m.

In a fantastic opinion published last week, Daily columnist Vibhav Mariwala argued that “rigorous historical analysis” is required to truly understand India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, its intended and unintended consequences, and why it all matters.

I would take Mariwala’s argument one step further — historical inquiry not only allows us to understand seemingly complicated and distant world events, but it also encourages empathy. Like understanding, empathy is something equally important, and I believe equally lacking, from American political discourse, particularly surrounding American military intervention in places like Iran.

Less than one month ago, the Trump administration authorized an airstrike in Baghdad that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. In the weeks since then, Iran launched missiles at bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops and shot down a civilian airliner leaving Tehran. Meanwhile, Trump has threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites, and increased our already massive defense budget by $2.5 trillion. Our myopic meme-ing about an inevitable World War III betrayed that we empathize with the Iranian people and the many civilians in the Middle East who have been murdered by U.S. assault even less than we understand our country’s history with Iran. And what discussion we were having about Iran at all has since disappeared.

Stanford students often describe our lack of meaningful dialogue or action as a result of the perceived distance of the Middle East and randomness of American militarism; it almost feels unreal. But the reality is, American militarism is far from random and far from unreal. While the slaying of Soleimani may be the first event of its kind our generation is really collectively aware of in our political coming-of-age story, the fact is that this isn’t the first time America has engaged in such brutal, aggressive and preemptive antagonism in our lifetimes, let alone in the last hundred years. That Trump could dump a bomb on an airport in Baghdad without authorization from Congress, killing the second most important official in the Iranian government, is very much in line with the logic of American imperialism, particularly with regards to Iran.

In Cairo in 2009, then-President Barack Obama delivered an address in which he stated, “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Albeit somewhat tepid and easy to miss, this was the first-ever acknowledgement by a U.S. president of Operation Ajax, the 1953 CIA-assisted coup d’état of Iranian Premier Mohammad Mosaddegh. Despite this, it seems that very few of my peers, and of the American public generally, are aware that this coup took place — that America, along with Great Britain, is responsible for dismantling Iranian democracy at a crucial moment in world history. Even fewer understand how important this event was in the development of America as a major interventionist world power with one eye on, and one hand continually in, the Middle East.

But these historical facts remain immensely relevant. The coup drastically shifted Iran’s political trajectory. Some scholars argue the religious fundamentalism and anti-American sentiment that fueled the 1979 hostage crisis and the Islamic Revolution were a result of resentment caused by the American-backed reinstallation of the Shah to power and the suppression of political dissent directly following the coup. The creation and empowerment of the Savak, the monarchy’s secret police, which also followed the coup, were responsible for censoring the media and apprehending (and torturing) political minorities from 1957 until the Shah’s overthrow. The coup had a hand in reversing progress toward multicultural freedom and economic autonomy from British oil interests, which Iran was nearing after over four decades of Western imperial domination over the region.

Some commentators interpret recent hostility toward Iran as an attempt by America to reestablish “deference” to American hegemony, which has been a legitimate explanation for America’s attitude toward Iran since 1953. Furthermore, the desire to control Middle East oil (threatened by Mossadegh’s attempts to nationalize the industry in Iran) and American weapons and armaments sales and profits, have always been unspoken factors in American aggression. But as calculated as it is, our policy toward Iran is simultaneously often nonsensical — for example, what did knowingly shooting down an Iranian civilian airliner in 1998, killing 260, accomplish? The common denominator is American chauvinism, which disregards national sovereignty and makes numbers and “collateral” out of brown bodies. And for the Iranian people, Soleimani’s death is just another example of that.

But it’s true that this history and reality may feel distant even as we’re on the brink of a new war. It is intentionally designed to feel distant. This history of American intervention is perhaps less obscure now than it was a handful of years ago, as new information and scholarship on the subject continually emerges. I only learned about it in my frosh introsem with Professor Joel Beinin in the History department titled “The American Empire in the Middle East” in 2016. A year later in 2017, the CIA finally declassified the full installment of their records on Operation Ajax after 64 years of denying any involvement. But even so, it has yet to be part of any meaningful discourse in American politics.

War-mongerers on both the Right and the Left in this country conveniently leave this history out of the narrative on Iran in favor of portraying the state as brutally repressive and its people as backwards fundamentalists. Perhaps this is because it’s very hard to acknowledge and engage with the reality that America, for the benefit of the (corporate elite) few, is responsible for incomprehensible suffering, injustice and autocracy in a region we constantly demonize and drop bombs on for the sake of  “democratization.”

I won’t go so far as to say that the trajectory of American imperialism is a direct result of our lack of empathy. But a disregard for history breeds a lack of empathy that diminishes our knowledge of and sensitivity to injustices carried out by our government and our military.

Marjane Satrapi, Iranian graphic novelist, put it eloquently: “The world is not divided between East and West. You are American, I am Iranian, we don’t know each other, but we talk and we understand each other perfectly. The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you.” Only through engaging critically and exhaustively with history can we learn this.

Contact Emily Wilder at ewilder2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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