March 28, 2009

Iran and the US: Those "Family Values"

I have so many subjects I want to write about and so little time and energy to get them written, but this afternoon I'm putting it all aside to write about my experience in the moment. I'm watching CSPAN's Book TV. The program, which originally aired on 1/26/09, is called simply "Rick Steves." Mr. Steves is a travel writer who recently visited Iran because, he says, we should not bomb people we don't know.

As Steves shows slides and describes his experience, he compares and contrasts US and Iranian history, culture, and beliefs. He reminds us that for most adults in the US, the 1979 hostage crisis is a powerful influence on our ideas about Iran. For Iranians, events of 1953 have shaped their collective concept of the United States:
  • In 1953, a democratically elected Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mosedegh, governed Iran. Mosedegh nationalized Iran's oil. In response, the CIA overthrew the Prime Minister and re-instated a monarchy in the person of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, so US oil companies could access and profit from Iranian oil.
The Iranian people eventually overthrew the Shah in 1979, installed a theocracy, and instituted "The Revolution of Values," which would stand in stark contrast to their experience of Western values.

While US culture is saturated with consumerism and the free-market ideology, Iranian culture is saturated with theocracy and their version of "family values." Reminders of Iranian values are everywhere, just as ads are everywhere in the United States. Steves gives this example:
  • On every street corner in Tehran is a metal box, similar to a small mailbox, for depositing alms. On each box is written an admonition from the Prophet Mohammad to care for the poor.
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Right there, as I watched the program, I stood stunned. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. What would happen to the American psyche if we had a box for alms on every street corner with this inscription:

Sell what you have, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
or this:
Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

We call ourselves a Christian nation, but the words should stick in our throats. Politicians and citizens scream bloody murder over something so small as a meager increase in food stamps for the desperately poor, while bankers and corporate fat cats wallow in reprehensible excess on the public dole. The message is loud and clear:

Blessed are the rich and powerful, for theirs is the wealth of the Empire.
and this:
Accumulate all that you can with no regard for your neighbor.
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Steves gives more examples of Iranian revolutionary values. Some sound good to Western ears; others, not so much. Billboards and posters proclaim "Death to America" at every turn. Steves' purpose is not to paint a rosy picture of Iran, but to give Westerners a framework with which to understand it. In the process, I hope he helps us understand something of ourselves. That is ultimately the more important but much more difficult task.

More on Rick Steves in Iran:

Rick Steves: Rick Travels to Iran The Other Side of Rick Steves
KCTS Video: Rick Steves on Iran

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