Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part II. FIVE STEPS
STEP 2: SEPTEMBER 22, 2000
The postcard depicted a bearded soldier with his pants around his ankles. Bent over like a football center in front of him was Mickey Mouse. It was clear from the pained expression on Mickey’s face that he was being forcibly entered.
Above the pair in red, white, and blue lettering were the words FUCK THE USA.
It wasn’t the kind of image I expected to see on a postcard rack in the tourist center of Belgrade, Serbia. So I bought it:
I moved on to another vendor selling T-shirts, ceramics, and tourist paraphernalia. On his rack was a similarly illustrated postcard of a Serbian soldier. This one was urinating on an American flag. The caption: U CAN’T BEAT THE FEELING!
So I bought that too, along with these ten other postcards attacking America and NATO:
In the month before Y2K, I’d learned about threats to America from within. Now I was learning about threats from the outside. But I didn’t take them seriously, any more than I did the survivalists. In my naïveté, I was actually excited to add these items to my growing anti-American propaganda collection.
I’d started the collection nine months into the new millennium while traveling in Iran with my brother and father, who was studying the Silk Road, the ancient trading route connecting Asia to Europe and North Africa.
Driving into Tehran from the airport, we passed a building with an American flag painted on the side. The stars had been replaced by skulls and the stripes were trails from falling bombs. Emblazoned in large letters over the flag were the words DOWN WITH THE U.S.A.
It was the first time I’d been in the presence of such a striking display of hatred toward my own country. But instead of feeling fear or shock or outrage, as I would have expected, I was struck by an emotion I couldn’t pinpoint. Because it had been painted many years ago and then abandoned to the elements, the mural seemed like a page from an outdated history book I wasn’t supposed to see:
As we entered Tehran, we passed a brick wall topped by a black fence. Along the wall was more faded anti-American propaganda, including graffiti of the Statue of Liberty, her green feminine face replaced by an evil, grinning skull. Struck by the brutality of the image, I took this photo from the car:
Behind the fence was a building I never thought I’d actually see: the U.S. embassy. Looking at the disappearing graffiti on the wall and the blossoming green foliage on the other side, I thought about how long it had been since the hostage crisis of 1979, how times had changed, and how we were in a new millennium of peace, prosperity, and democracy. Under the leadership of the reformist president and former minister of culture Mohammad Khatami, Iran no longer wanted to destroy America. It wanted to open up and modernize.
In the Golestan Shopping Center, women wrapped in burkas shopped for designer jewelry. Though the only skin showing was the front of their faces peering out from beneath black chadors, at least one in twenty of those faces had a bandaged nose from recent plastic surgery. My cab driver later told me that Iran was the world capital of nose jobs, proving that even in a culture like this, a woman’s vanity could not be kept down.
It seemed as if Iran was slowly falling in step with the West. Although there was no Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tehran, there was a Kabooky Fried Chicken that looked suspiciously the same. Although there was no McDonald’s, there were dozens of fast-food restaurants selling burgers called Big Macs.
When we visited tourist attractions, markets, and mosques, men stood up and greeted us. “We’re so glad Americans are visiting again,” they would say. Then they’d often ask, “You don’t hate us anymore?” After we reassured them, they’d continue hopefully, “Do other Americans feel the same?”
It was as though a family rift had been resolved and resentment over an incident two decades ago was finally fading. It was further evidence that the survivalists hiding from the world in their hillside retreats were wrong. We were entering a new era of tolerance and understanding. There was nothing to be afraid of.
As we traveled through Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, and the ancient city of Persepolis, the only time we heard anything negative about Americans was when we gave a painter the thumbs-up sign and learned that the gesture actually signifies fuck you in Iran.
Perhaps people everywhere are the same; only the symbols change. The problems occur when people believe their symbols are the right ones and everyone else’s are wrong.
Maybe that’s why the Serbians had so many anti-American postcards. Though the Clinton administration’s decision to bomb noncivilian targets had helped to end the genocidal Slobodan Milosevic regime, the U.S. had taken the moral high ground. The problem with that is it leaves someone else on the moral low ground, and being put down there is so repellent to human nature that the only solution is to claim a different moral high ground yourself. This is how hatred is created: two different groups, each insisting they’re on the moral high ground.
One day, as we walked to the Imam Mosque in Tehran, we noticed tanks rolling down the street. They were followed by missile launchers, antiaircraft guns, and squads of soldiers. This was more like the Iran I’d imagined as a child.
“What’s going on?” I asked after finding a soldier who spoke English.
“It’s Sacred Defense Week,” he told me.
“Is there a war?”
He explained that it was the anniversary of the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War, and the military was showing the people and the Ayatollah it was still capable of defending the country. “When your biggest enemy lives next to you,” he continued, “it’s necessary sometimes to make your people feel safe.”
I felt so ignorant. I may have known everything about the entertainment world, but I knew nothing about the real world. I had no idea that Iran’s biggest enemy wasn’t the United States but Iraq.
I felt lucky, in that moment, to be alive in an era when I could safely travel just about anywhere in the world as an American without encountering enemies. The most forbidden place was Cuba, but even the embargo there seemed like a vestige of a dead Cold War.
As Francis Fukuyama had foretold in his essay, the world seemed to have advanced beyond wars over religion and nationalism. These conflicts were limited to more primitive societies, which just needed time to catch up. Norman Angell had written in a similar work, The Great Illusion, that war was becoming obsolete in the face of a modern world full of multicultural, polyreligious societies that were economically dependent on each other.
Of course, Angell’s book about the end of war in the modern world was written in 1911. Three years later, World War I broke out in Europe. So perhaps all that Angell and Fukuyama and, it would turn out, myself were feeling was the quiet before the storm, buoyed by a resolute human optimism and enough vanity to believe we were living at the end of history—in much the same way that World War I was known as the War to End All Wars, though in truth it was just the war that made the next war possible.
And so, after I returned from Iran with my graffiti photos and official government stamps like these—
—I officially began collecting anti-American propaganda. Much of it came from Russia during the Cold War, China during the Cultural Revolution, and North Korea today, like this poster:
But what was most exciting was finding unexpected sources of vitriol, like this late-nineties advertisement by an Indian jeans company, with the slogan at the bottom NOT MADE IN AMERICA. THANKFULLY:
I collected them for the same reason I wanted to spend New Year’s Eve with Bible-thumping prophets of doom—because I didn’t take them seriously.
After all, we were America, where all the lessons of the past had supposedly coalesced into perfection. We had the best movies, the best music, the best government, the best opportunities, the best lives. We didn’t have to invade countries. Instead, we opened a McDonald’s in their town square and played Die Hard in their theaters and put the Backstreet Boys in their stadiums. And the more they ate our food, the more they admired our action heroes, the more they hummed our songs, the stronger we became.
Of course that created resentment, which expressed itself in the form of the propaganda I collected in much the same way a singer confident in his talent makes a collage of bad reviews by hack writers and hangs it on his wall with pride.
I was too ignorant at the time to realize that it wasn’t our burgers but our policies that were responsible for this resentment—and that its consequences would be fatal.
Unbeknownst to me, another book was released as I was traveling through Iran in my rose-colored glasses, and it wasn’t about the end of history. It was about the end of an empire. Written by Chalmers Johnson, a former consultant for the CIA, the book was Blowback, named after intelligence jargon for the unintended repercussions of covert foreign operations.
“The evidence is building up that in the decade following the end of the Cold War,” Johnson wrote, “the United States largely abandoned a reliance on diplomacy, economic aid, international law, and multilateral institutions in carrying out its foreign policies and resorted much of the time to bluster, military force, and financial manipulation.”
Johnson went on to warn that “the by-products of this project are likely to build up reservoirs of resentment against all Americans—tourists, students, and businessmen, as well as members of the armed forces—that can have lethal results.”
If I knew then what I know now, I would have realized the obvious—that my collection was a symptom not of open-mindedness, but of the exact American naïveté and arrogance that leads others to hate us in the first place.
Because when I look at these stamps, T-shirts, and posters today, they don’t seem so funny anymore: