On Wednesday, September 26th, peace activist Medea Benjamin joined us at the Peace & Justice Center to give a talk about the subject of her new book, Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The book itself is an approachable, general-audience guide to U.S.-Iran relations. It deconstructs inflammatory American rhetoric and myth-making, but also speaks about the way in which Iranian citizens’ everyday lives have been harmed by pseudo-diplomatic sanctions.
Just a few days before the talk, a video of Medea had gone viral. Brian Hook, the State Department’s Special Representative for Iran, had just finished giving a speech in front of a prominent right-wing think tank called the Hudson Institute. Before Hook has even made his way to the armchair that awaits him next to the podium, a woman in a hot pink T-shirt walks onto the stage. “That is the most ridiculous thing I have seen,” she begins. A security guard tries to apprehend her as she continues her speech. A second security guard comes, then a third. Eventually, we watch them forcibly carry her out. She never stops speaking, and we can still hear her after she’s down the hallway and out of sight. You can watch that here. It’s pretty brilliant, and seems surreal, almost like a scene from an apocalypse movie.
Medea brought the same passion and clarity to her talk. She talked about the foundation of her own nonprofit, CODEPINK, which is a women’s peace organization. It came about in the first years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and its name references a time when airports were full of signs warning travelers of terrorist threat levels through colors – Code Orange posed a “high risk of terrorist attacks.” “They never told us what to do for color codes,” she said. CODEPINK poses an alternative to the fear and anxiety meted by those threat levels.
I think now that all of this uncertainty was intentional. The US profits from sowing instability among its own people so that we can justify the our unjust wars. There’s been so much talk in the media lately about Russia interfering in the 2016 presidential election, so much talk about how the Kremlin used social media to distort and polarize voters. The US has interfered with elections all over the world, including, famously, in Iran.
Deconstructing the US’s war rhetoric is one of the things Medea does best, but the entire talk was brilliant. She gave us a quick, myth-dispelling history lesson. I was a child in a time of constant war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like many Americans my age, I spent most of my life unsure why we were fighting in these countries. I only knew that Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein were reasons to be afraid, that oil was somehow involved, and September 11th was connected somehow to the war(s). I knew little about the beautiful, rich cultures of the countries that my country invaded.
Medea spoke about visiting Afghanistan amid US tensions. Her line of thinking was “we should go to this country before we go to war with it.” She spoke of friends she made, many of whose lives are now lost, others whose lives have been upended by ongoing economic crisis. I frequently use social media to spread information about justice issues. Sometimes I am torn between the impulse to post happy content and the obligation to spread information about all of the really terrible things that are happening right now. Medea’s talk reminded me that these opposites do not exist in vacuums, separate from one another. The work towards peace is motivated by empathy for others, and it is okay to be uplifted and hopeful. Sometimes it’s easy for me to feel guilty about my optimism when there is so much insidious evil in the world.
She closed on an Anthony Bourdain quote about the incredible hospitality that the late food journalist experienced while shooting an episode of his show in Iran. He called it the “nicest” place that he had ever been – as in, the kindest. I wonder how many Americans understand that the people are Iran are by and large kind, welcoming, and not a threat. The rhetoric of foreign policy leaders – like Brian Hook – allows for us to divorce the government of a country from its people. It’s frankly disgusting to watch our government lay out the case for war as though they are not advocating for poverty and death.
But here, out of everything, is what most struck me about the event. The room was full of people who opposed war with Iran. Medea asked the room, “Who here knows how many nuclear weapons Iran has?” There was a murmur of non-consensus. People sitting near me guessed 200, 8, 1, 5, 100. “Zero!” she said. “Iran has zero nuclear weapons.” I was taken aback. I was sure that I’d read Iran had about five nuclear weapons. Either I dreamt that (unlikely) or I read wrong.
A few days before the talk, I was looking for some articles to post about Christopher Columbus for this coming Indigenous Peoples’ Day (Monday, October 8th). A website that came up on the first page of Google promised the “truth about Columbus.” I clicked it, figuring that I would be directed to in-depth information about the gruesome history of American conquest. Instead, I landed on a website defending Columbus from accusations of genocide and other “leftist lies.” I wonder if I read the misinformation about Iranian nuclear weapons from a similar source. These days, I’m pretty cautious about who I accept information from. When the death of civilians is something that it is apparently acceptable to debate, I can’t afford not to be.
If you missed Medea’s talk you can watch it below. I highly recommend giving it a watch.
-By Ryan Murphy, PJC Programming Intern