Argos hints at the negative foreign actions of the United States from the 1950s through the 1970s

I recently saw the movie Argo (95% fresh reviews at which was quite well done for a movie for which you know the outcome. One part of the movie that intrigued me was an early timeline scene where the relations between the United States and Iran were described. The events of 1979 shouldn’t have been a complete surprise; the CIA had helped install the Shah through a coup in 1953 and the US supported the regime even through its abuses. This is the back story through which the events of the movie take place. (See the story of Iran-United States relations.)

However, the actions of the United States in Iran were not an isolated incident. Indeed, following its rise to superpower status after World War II, the United States was involved in a number of countries. Some of these actions are more well-known. A war in Korea which ended in a stalemate and reaching the brink of war with China. A war in Vietnam which became unpopular and the US didn’t reach the result for which it entered the war. The Bay of Pigs where the US hoped to depose Fidel Castro. But, there were plenty of actions that were not as well-known. Here are a few places to find out more about these actions:

1. The Church Committee was a Congressional committee that operated in 1975 and uncovered and reported on US foreign actions. The committee produced a number of reports that included information like this:

Among the matters investigated were attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, the Diem brothers of Vietnam, Gen. René Schneider of Chile and President John F. Kennedy’s plan to use the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro of Cuba.

2. Former CIA operative Philip Agee wrote a 1975 book titled Inside the Company: CIA Diary where he detailed what he knew about CIA actions to influence politics in Latin America. For his actions, Agee’s passport was revoked and he became a persona non grata in some countries friendly with the US. In 2007, Agee described why he came forward with what he knew:

“It was a time in the 70s when the worst imaginable horrors were going on in Latin America,” he says. “Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Guatemala, El Salvador – they were military dictatorships with death squads, all with the backing of the CIA and the US government. That was what motivated me to name all the names and work with journalists who were interested in knowing just who the CIA were in their countries.”

Watching Argo in light of this information may just change the interpretation of the final scenes. At first glance, these scenes can be viewed as yet another American success story: American ingenuity and hard work again fights off the forces of darkness. But, with the more complete back story, the final scene might appear more bittersweet.

Making Iranian oil as unpopular as the McMansion

Here is an argument that compares McMansions to Iranian oil:

The United States would like to perform a magic trick, and our economy might depend on its success. The illusion? We want the world to think Iran’s oil is practically a Las Vegas McMansion.

Now, nobody is going to confuse a barrel of crude with a four story desert abode. Las Vegas houses have been widely shunned and practically unsellable. As a result, their prices have plummeted for the few remaining buyers. We want the same thing to happen to Iran’s oil: We want it to become so unpopular that Iran is forced to sell it only at a significant discount.

Perhaps it seems odd that the United State should hope Iran sells any of its oil. After all, we’re using sanctions to turn Tehran into a pariah within the global financial system, making it next to impossible for them to actually export crude, with the hope that it will force the country’s leaders to drop their nuclear program. But you can’t cut the world’s fifth largest oil producer entirely out of the global petroleum market and not expect prices to surge even more than they already have.

Instead, our government wants Iran to keep shipping oil to some of its major customers — but for cheap. “Policymakers need to ensure that they are not creating an embargo of Iranian oil but, instead, implementing these sanctions so that Iranian oil becomes a distressed asset,” Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Executive Director Mark Dubowitz, who advised Congress while it drafted the sanctions legislation, told Bloomberg today.

An unusual comparison. I can see the general point: we want Iranian oil to stay in the market but we don’t want Iran to benefit from being able to sell it for high prices. So we need Iranian oil to carry a stigma so that the price has to be dropped.

But the comparison breaks down if you think this through to the end. Most critics would argue that McMansions shouldn’t be built in the first place. At this point, we can’t stop Iran from producing oil but we can effect how it is sold, similar to the ways in which McMansions have publicly been denigrated. However, we have more control over McMansions: if we really wanted to as a country, we could ban the construction of McMansions (though this would most likely have to happen at the local level).This makes me wonder if McMansions could ever be considered okay or even popular. If I remember correctly, the New Urbanist authors of Suburban Nation suggested McMansions might be acceptable if they were modified slightly to fit into traditional looking neighborhoods that encouraged civic participation. This particular comparison ties the popularity of the McMansions to their price; so they would be acceptable as long as they are cheap? Perhaps then the housing could be considered affordable housing, not just the province of the wealthy or nouveau riche, even if critics are correct in suggesting that such houses are poorly built, poorly designed, and are often in sterile neighborhoods.

Translating Ritzer for Iranian audiences

An Iranian translator says he will translate sociologist George Ritzer’s theory textbook into Persian:

Iranian author and translator of sociology works said that he will release two translations of American sociologist George Ritzer in Iran and added that he has decided to translate a book in the field of “Social work” as well as “Sociology in the internet era”…

Dr. Khalil Mirzaee told IBNA that one of the books which he has translated is George Ritzer’s “Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots” which had been previously converted into Persian as well. The inappropriate Persian equivalents encouraged me to re-translate the book, he added.

He said that George Ritzer reviews his works once in every four years which include omitting some theories as well as adding new theories.

It is interesting to hear how a common textbook is being used in other countries. But I wonder how this relates to news from last year that the Iranian government wanted to review sociology departments (among others) because of Western influences. Ritzer’s theory books are mainly about European and American theorists but Ritzer’s own ideas about globalization might also be of interest to both scholars and the government.

Just how much did Facebook and Twitter contribute to changes in Egypt?

With the resignation of Hosni Mubarek, there is more talk about how the Internet, specifically social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, helped bring down a dictator in Egypt:

Dictators are toppled by people, not by media platforms. But Egyptian activists, especially the young, clearly harnessed the power and potential of social media, leading to the mass mobilizations in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt. The Mubarak regime recognized early on that social media could loosen its grip on power. The government began disrupting Facebook and Twitter as protesters hit the streets on Jan. 25 before shutting down the Internet two days later.

In addition to organizing, Egyptian activists used Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to share information and videos. Many of these digital offerings made the rounds online but were later amplified by Al Jazeera and news outlets around the world. “This revolution started online,” Ghonim told Blitzer. “This revolution started on Facebook.”

Egypt’s uprising followed on the heels of Tunisia’s. In each case, protestors employed social media to help oust an authoritarian government–a role some Western commentators expected Twitter to play in Iran during the election protests of 2009.

This article, and others, seem to want it both ways. On one hand, it seems like social media played a role. But when considering whether they were the main factor, the articles back away. Here is how this same article concludes:

It’s true that tweeting alone–especially from safe environs in the West–will not cause a revolution in the Middle East. But as Egypt and Tunisia have proven, social media tools can play a significant role as as activists battle authoritarian regimes, particularly given the tight control dictators typically wield over the official media. Tomorrow’s revolution, as Ghonim would likely attest, may be taking shape on Facebook today.

Or it may not. Ultimately, we need more data. For example, we could match Facebook or Twitter activity regarding Egypt with the level of protests on specific days – did more online traffic or activity lead to bigger protests? This would at least establish a correlation. Why can’t we match GPS information from people using Facebook or Twitter while they were protesting on the streets? This would require more private data, primarily from cell phone companies, but it would be fascinating to look for patterns in this data. And how exactly do these cases from Egypt and Tunisia help us understand what didn’t happen in Iran?

These questions about the role of social media need some answers and perhaps some innovative insights into data collection. And a thought from another commentator are helpful to keep in mind:

Evgeny Morozov writes in his new book, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” that only a small minority of Iranians were actually Twitter users. Presumably, many tweeting about revolution were doing so far from the streets of Tehran.

“Iran’s Twitter Revolution revealed the intense Western longing for a world where information technology is the liberator rather than the oppressor,” Morozov wrote, according to a recent Slate review. In his book, Morozov writes how authoritarian regimes can use the Internet and social media to oppress people rather than such platforms only working the other way around.

Perhaps we only want it to be true that social media use can lead to revolution. If there are enough articles written suggesting that social media helped in Egypt and Tunisia, does it make it likely that in the future social media will play a pivotal and even decisive role in social movements? Morozov seems to suggest this is a Western idea, probably rooted in Enlightenment ideals where information can (and should?) disrupt tradition and authoritarianism.

Sociology, among other disciplines, under review in Iran

When I first saw the story a few days ago that the Iranian government wanted to review certain disciplines in Iranian universities, I wondered if sociology made the list. Indeed it did, among other academic fields of study:

Iranian Ministry of Science and Technology announced that 12 disciplines in the humanities will have to be revised before any further developments are approved in those fields.

Abolfazl Hassani, head of Education Development at the Ministry of Education, told reporters today that the fields of “law, human rights, women’s studies, economics, sociology, media, political science, philosophy, psychology, education, administration as well as cultural and artistic administration” are under review…

He added that the contents of these sciences as taught at present are not consistent with religious principles and are based on “Western culture.”

Hassani went on to say: “It is imperative that we revise the contents of these disciplines in view of our religious and indigenous ideology and principles.”

Why exactly are these disciplines under review? One guess is that these disciplines may be considered subversive in that they suggest ideas and values that don’t line up with the ideas and values of the Iranian government. This does seem to be the general nature of a lot of sociology: an interest in questioning why things are the way they are when they might be otherwise.