I saw Argo a few weeks before the Oscars, and I liked about 99 and 44/100 of it. Once the plot action starts, the tone, images, language and emotional pitch of the main characters all seem high-quality replicas of historical reality. Not that I have any expertise in making or evaluating film as an art form. I just know what I like and don’t like, and that mainly depends, in the case of historical fiction, on the fit between the fictive rendering and my own experience embedded in the mysterious workings of human memory.
The problem I had, and now have more than ever with the Oscars being announced, concerns the other 56/100 of one percent of the Argo movie experience.
Before the action begins the viewer is treated to a 2-3 minute potted history of post-World War II Iranian politics and U.S.-Iranian relations. As the narrator talks, vivid period photographs flash before one’s eyes. After the action is resolved, the film ends with a taped remark, running for maybe just a minute or so, from former President Carter. From the cracked voice it sounds like Carter is commenting fairly recently, perhaps after having seen a screener of the film.
These bookends to Argo compose an atrocity committed on the historical record. It’s typical Hollywood anti-establishment, mock-heroic crap. More specifically, it’s totally unreconstructed revisionist pablum that (mis)frames for viewers what they are about to see or have just seen. Most won’t remember either bookend explicitly or in any detail, so engaging is the actual movie in between. But into their heads it will have gone, and, possibly, not to no effect.
For those who may not have a good grasp of the logic of anti-U.S. historical revisionism, let me spell it out for you. In the primitive, Manichean revisionist mindset there are only two sides to any conflict or situation: good guys and bad guys. The United States is always the bad guy, making anyone who is against the United States ipso facto a good guy. The way revisionist logic works is that if good guys do anything good, it’s because it’s their nature to do good things—because they are good guys. But if good guys do anything bad, it’s because bad guys make them. Similarly, if bad guys do bad things, it’s because it’s their nature. If they seem to do good things, it’s only because the good guys somehow make them.
With this “logic” in hand, a revisionist can spin any historical event into one in which the United States is always at fault, and enemies of the United States are never at fault. If you understand this, you’ll grasp exactly how these bookends to Argo work. (You will also, incidentally, understand the tactical, logical innards of anything written or produced by Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky or Oliver Stone.) Thus, why did the good Iranians make hostages out of American diplomats in November 1979? Because the bad Americans made them do it, because of all the bad things we had done to them before. And why did the bad Americans pull off the Argo caper successfully? Because the good Iranians created the circumstances for their so doing—and of course the American hero succeeds not with but despite the bulk of American officialdom depicted in the movie.
Don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying that Ben Affleck knowingly lied to his audience. I’m saying that he doesn’t know any better, that he actually believes the nonsense that introduces and frames the film. He is a Hollywood type. He doesn’t know and cannot be expected to know any actual history. It’s not important to him. What is important is that he have a good storyline that appeals to the increasingly cynical, anti-Washington bias of most Americans. Well, maybe he dissimulated a little. Even he has to know, one would hope, that it was the imminent beginning of the Reagan Administration that finally sprung the hostages on January 20, 1981, the day before Reagan’s inauguration. But the name Ronald Reagan never occurs. The way things are left, Jimmy Carter gets credit for bringing the hostages home rather than blame for leaving them there so long in the first place. Well, if you’re going to lie, you might as well make it a whopper.
It is easy to lie vaguely. Indeed, the power of an historical lie rests in the juxtaposition of lots of trivial detail against a studied narrative vagueness. To explain a lie of this kind invariably takes more words than the lie itself. That is why skillful lying is so powerful: It gulls the listener by making understanding seem easy. To unpack the lie requires more effort on the part of the listener, putting the un-packer at a distinct disadvantage. Nevertheless, I am game to do the unpacking if you are game to do the listening.
In the past, I’ve commented on President Obama’s speeches using footnotes which would pop up when you’d mouse over them on the page. This makes for some legibility problems online, so this time, we’ll try it a different, more standard internet way. It’s less than ideal because you’ll not get the sense of the original text as a unified whole. But for the sake easier reading, let’s give it a go like this: voiceover original in block quotes interspersed with my numbered comments. If you so choose, you can cut-and-paste the block quotes to reconstitute the whole.
* * *
This is the Persian Empire, known today as Iran.
1. Statements do not get much more ignorant than this. Iran today is a tiny fraction of the territorial extent of three Persian empires from the past—the Achaemenid, the Sasanid and the Safavid.
For 2,500 years this land was ruled by a series of Kings, known as Shahs. In 1950, the people of Iran elected Mohammed Mossadegh, a secular democrat, as prime minister. He nationalized British and U.S. petroleum holdings, returning Iran’s oil to its people.
2. It is not possible to return something to those who never had it in the first place. The idea that Iran’s oil belonged to the Iranian people is a notion that virtually no Iranian at that point in time would have credited, except perhaps members of the Communist Tudeh Party. Iran’s oil was discovered, extracted, refined, transported and marketed by foreigners—mainly the British. Iranians could not have done these things at the time, so the money the concession paid to the government was money no Iranian would otherwise have had. What the Mossadegh government actually did was to expropriate property, mostly British, in violation of international contracts. In so doing, Mossadegh as prime minister went far beyond his constitutional authority in what was, after all, still a monarchy.
But in 1953, The U.S. and Great Britain engineered a coup d’étât that deposed Mossadegh, and installed Reza Pahlavi as Shah.
3. Here is the key lie in this passage. In the first place, the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, had been Shah before the Mossadegh government. He became Shah at a young age when the Allies deposed his father, Reza Shah, during World War II. It is true that Great Britain and the United States played a role in the overthrow of Mossadegh and the return of the Shah to his Peacock Throne, but most of the damage to the Mossadegh government was done by Mossadegh and his political allies themselves. They made lots of mistakes, they alienated most of their original allies, and they contributed to a genuinely chaotic environment. It was feared both in Iran and beyond that a small but resolute group of Communists, with Soviet support, might take advantage of the situation. This was not an idle fear, given the machinations of the Soviet government in Iran directly after World War II. There is a parallel here to the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. The leftist myth paints Allende as an immaculate-conception kind of hero, a political saint who could do no wrong. The truth was that he did plenty wrong. Like Mossadegh, he also alienated large swaths of his original political coalition. Had Mossadegh and Allende not been such maladroit political operators, it would not have been remotely easy to dump them, and likely not possible at all.
The young Shah was known for opulence and excess. His wife was rumored to bathe in milk, while the Shah had his lunches flown in by Concord from Paris. The people starved.
4. Even if it were true, about the milk bath and the lunches flown in from Paris, it is not as though the Shah and his wife were doing anything that the majority of Iranians did not expect them to do. They were royalty, and most people expected them to act like royalty. Nor is it true that because of the excesses of the Royal Palace the Iranian people starved. There is no evidence whatsoever of significant starvation in Iran during the Shah’s reign. There was plenty of poverty in Iran, yes, but that poverty had existed for centuries and would have existed regardless of the personal habits of the Shah and his princess.
The Shah kept power through his ruthless internal police, the SAVAK. An era of torture and fear began.
5. Another outrageous misstatement. Toward the end of the Shah’s rule, after the shocks of the oil revolution generated tremendous corruption and dislocation in the political economy, it is true that the government became fairly brutal, and the SAVAK genuinely murderous. One of the main reasons for this is that over time the reform agenda of the Shah’s regime, which included confiscating vast amounts of land both from the aristocracy and from the clergy, generated a strong backlash. More about the Shah’s reformist agenda below. The point is that no era of torture and fear began in 1953, as the statement asserts. There was always opposition to the Shah’s reformist agenda from Iran’s hidebound rentier elites, but for the most part his rule was broadly popular—until around the early 1970s.
He then began a campaign to modernize Iran, enraging a mostly traditional Shi’ite population.
6. Another whopper. As I have just said, the effort to modernize the country, known as the White Revolution, which the Shah continued from the time of his father, and which also took Mustafa Kemal in Turkey as a model, did stir up some opposition. For example, the first time that the cleric Rouhollah Mousavi Khomeini—aka Ayatollah Khomeini—got arrested for involvement in a street protest, in 1964, was on the occasion of the government granting the vote to women. This was by no means unpopular at the time, except, again, to the country’s hidebound Shi’a clergy. Is Ben Affleck trying to tell us that the Shah’s extending the franchise to women was a bad idea?! That a vast project of land reform designed to alleviate Iranian poverty was a bad idea?! If that is what Affleck believes, let him please say so directly.
In 1979 the people of Iran overthrew the Shah.
7. The “people”, generically speaking, never do anything as such. It is very romantic to make such statements, but it is sociological nonsense. Of course, no one expects an intro to a movie to be a paragon of social science virtue. Still… The Shah fell because he was old and sick, and most of his sagacious political advisers were no longer on the scene. He fell because he could not control the creative destruction he himself had unleashed with his reforms and his engineering of the quadrupling of oil prices; he was to a very considerable extent the victim of his own success. And he fell because his most important ally, the United States in the form of the Carter Administration, did next to nothing to prevent it. See below.
The exiled cleric Ayatollah Khomenei returned to rule Iran.
8. True as stated but misleading all the same. Somehow the impression has grown up that once the Shah was gone or very nearly gone, the only conceivable alternative was rule by the Iranian clergy. Anyone who remembers those days knows that the matter was vastly more complicated than that. Iran had an interregnum provisional government under Abulhasan Bani-Sadr. Any number of outcomes were imaginable at that point; there was nothing inevitable about clerical rule. One distasteful but, under the circumstances, not-beyond-the-pale solution was a temporary military takeover that could calm things down and set the stage for a parliamentary republic. There is still disagreement about the true attitude of the Carter Administration toward this option, all of it rotating around the Huyser Mission.
Anyone who has never heard of General Robert E. Huyser and his mission has absolutely no business writing so much as a single sentence on this general subject. Some say President Carter instructed Huyser to prepare a coup as a last ditch option to prevent the mullahs from coming to power. Others say the reverse: that Carter instructed Huyser to make sure there would be no coup. The truth remains to be established, but with Carter’s friend and UN Ambassador Andrew Young calling Khomeini a saint, who would soon return to his monastery in Qom, I for one lean to the latter interpretation.
It descended into score-settling, death squads, and chaos.
9. “It” descended?! What actually happened was exactly what anyone with a brain would expect to happen: The guys who won, the guys with the guns, went around the country jailing, torturing and murdering the opposition. The statement makes it seem as though everyone was equally to blame for the mayhem. The technical term for this is “bullshit”, or, better, “bullshistory.”
Dying of cancer, the Shah was given asylum in the U.S. The Iranian people took to the streets outside the U.S. Embassy, demanding that the Shah be returned, tried, and hanged.
10. Again, the Iranian people did nothing of the sort. The protests were large, drawing on a grievance culture deep within the Iranian psyche. But the foot soldiers of the protests were members of the new clerical political movements. This was their job. The intimation that the entire country was behind these protests, and took part in them enthusiastically, is simply false.
* * *
And here is the Jimmy Carter ending voice over:
* * *
They went in, as you know, under the guise of making a motion picture, and there was a high possibility of failure. And after it was successful, of course there was a lot of temptation to reveal all the stories, so that I could take a little bit of credit for it, since I was president. But we had to keep it secret. Tony Mendez has gone down in history, after his retirement, as one of the top fifty most important CIA operatives of all time. Eventually, we got every hostage back home safe and sound, and we upheld the integrity of our country, and we did it peacefully.
Jimmy Carter has become increasingly delusional as the years go by. Nowhere in the movie does anybody mention, nor does Carter mention it here, that there was a failed attempt to rescue the hostages by dint of military force. If that operation had not been grounded early on, there is every prospect that at least a limited fight would have taken place. Carter’s intimation that everything he ordered throughout the ordeal was spic-and-span peaceful is a flat lie.
As for upholding the integrity of the country, this is almost too ludicrous to believe. Carter’s indecisiveness at the critical moment lead to the rise of the clerical regime in Iran. Carter’s weakness in the face of the seizure of our embassy ended up enabling a small number of Iranian radicals to essentially take the entire foreign policy of United States hostage for more than two years—and enabled Ayatollah Khomenei to claim, famously and damagingly, that United States “cannot do a damn thing.”
Now, when Carter says that he would like to have taken credit for the Argo operation, he does not directly claim credit for the return of the hostages. But he does imply it when he says “we got every hostage back home safe and sound”—and if he does not then Affleck does. This amounts to another lie.
As already noted, nowhere is there a mention anywhere in this movie, whether in its bookends or in its main section, of Ronald Reagan. During the 1980 campaign Reagan criticized Carter repeatedly for his mishandling of Iran, and he left no doubt in anyone’s mind that, if he had it in his power, he would take a very different and much more muscular approach to the problem. The public record thus far is mute about how the incoming Reagan Administration might have communicated its intent to the Iranian regime after the results of the November 1980 election were in. But the man who would become CIA Director in that new Administration, one William Joseph Casey, was hardly at a loss to know how to do such things. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the Iranian regime took to heart whatever was communicated to it from the Reagan transition team, possibly via Swiss intermediaries, between the election and the inauguration. They were plainly afraid of Ronald Reagan, and that is the main reason they let the hostages go. Had Jimmy Carter won the election, they almost certainly would not have been released at that time. Whatever would have become of them no one can know.
* * *
Why belabor all this? After all, it’s just a movie, and nobody takes these things seriously, right?
Alas, that’s not so. No one takes them seriously as such, perhaps, but a lie repeated in public space often enough becomes truth through a process of lazy entertainment osmosis. Most of the people who have seen, and will now see, Argo are too young to remember what was going on back in the mid to late 1970s. Most viewers, too, know little to nothing about the history of Iran or U.S.-Iranian relations—why should they?—and so they have no basis against which to protect themselves from weapons-of-misinformation-dumps (WMD). Most important, we exaggerate the capacity of most people to distinguish between fact and representations of fact, because being able to do so is very context specific. Let me tell you a story about this.
Many years ago there was an actor named Robert Young. He was famous for being the father figure on a very popular television show called Father Knows Best. Later, he played the unimpeachably marvelous Marcus Welby, MD on another very popular television show of that name. Either toward the end of or after his Marcus Welby role, Sanka hired him to sell instant coffee in TV commercials. How did they do this? They dressed him in a doctor’s white coat, put a stethoscope around his neck, and gave him a pointer to point at some graphic purporting to show how healthy this instant coffee was for you. Now, of course, if you asked viewers outright if the guy on their TV screen was actually a medical doctor, or just an actor, most of them could probably tell you that Robert Young was just an actor. But given the associational promiscuity of the human mind, and the tendency of television as a technology to put a viewer into a semi-hypnotic trance, most of the time the question was never asked and the distinction never made. As far as I know, the commercial did exactly what the Sanka people wanted it to do.
The point is that in the context of our obsessive entertainment culture, narratives about real politics tend to smuggle their way from the fanciful to the factual without most people ever bringing their critical facilities to bear on what they’re hearing. In our culture, which loves to be entertained more than anything else under the sun, the temptation to believe an easy truth is tantamount to a done deal. People associate being entertained with authenticity, with emotion, with really being alive, so that anything one learns about history, say, in the midst of an entertaining experience is given pride of place as truth. I cannot resist quoting from the late Michael Crichton’s masterful 1999 novel Timeline:
What is the dominant mode of experience at the end of the twentieth century? How do people see things, how do they expect to see things? The answer is simple. In every field, from business to politics to marketing to education, the dominant mode has become entertainment. . . .
Today, everybody expects to be entertained, and they expect to be entertained all the time. Business meetings must be snappy, with bullet lists and animated graphics, so executives aren’t bored. Malls and stores must be engaging, so they amuse as well as sell us. Politicians must have pleasing video personalities and tell us only what we want to hear. Schools must be careful not to bore young minds that expect the speed and complexity of television. Students must be amused—everyone must be amused, or they will switch: switch brands, switch channels, switch parties, switch loyalties. This is the intellectual reality of Western society at the end of the century.
In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom. A sense of time is on our hands, a sense of nothing to do. A sense that we are not amused.
I fully expect that the result of Argo and its popularity will be to permanently deface recognition of the actual historical record when it comes to Iran and U.S.-Iranian relations from this period—and this for a relationship that has anything but run its course. If the revisionist logic is as insidiously contagious as I think it is, it stands to reason that the notion will spread that if the good Iranians want a nuclear weapon, it’s only because the bad Americans are forcing them to have one. Get the picture?