Iran and Humor as War Propaganda

I’ve got an only slightly off-topic, long piece up at AlterNet describing a few historical and current examples where humor has served to soften up a domestic audience for attacking another country. You can click through to read it, but here’s an excerpt:

In early July, news came that the Islamic Republic of Iran decided to issue fashion guidelines for men. Unveiling a large poster showing headshots of a half dozen men, in frontal and profile views, the Iranian culture ministry announced that certain haircuts were immodest and violated the Islamic Republic’s national and religious sensibilities. The ban covered gelled spikes and mullets, and the poster showed six acceptable styles, all seemingly ripped from the 1950s (the side part, the comb-back, and even a little flop over the ears are acceptable). Recovering from a beer-imbued long weekend, complete with fireworks, Americans returned to work on Tuesday to find a slew of articles and blog posts on the new restrictions. Even Stephen Colbert got in on the action, declaring that Iran had approved his own hairstyle. Everyone had a good chuckle.

The reaction seems innocuous – just poking a little fun at what is, on its face, a ridiculous regulation on a whole nation of people thousands of miles away. But laughing at the expense of Iran is not quite as harmless as it seems – not when the U.S. has occupying armies on two sides of Iran’s borders, and a large chunk of the D.C. strategic establishment speaks belligerently about U.S. or Israeli bombing runs on the country of 65 million. There’s something crass about it, actually. The fact that Americans feel free to laugh about Iran in a climate where a former CIA chief tells CNN he thinks attacking Iran “may not be the worst of all possible outcomes” speaks to the likelihood that Americans administer their empire from their unconscious minds. Humor, of course, is a gentle way to convince people – propaganda for the unwitting part of the brain.

In the modern era, humor has worked again and again to dehumanize target countries as a standard part of war propaganda. In a democracy, where support of the population at large is supposedly a prerequisite for attacking another country, jokes are a common means of dehumanizing, demonizing and generally placing the population of the targets of the attack into the category of Other. Empathy plummets; and civilians in the aggressor state find it increasingly difficult to put themselves in the (Islam-approved) shoes of those on the receiving ends of the bombs.

Most troubling is that liberals and progressives – those you might expect, ostensibly, to oppose a U.S. attack on Iran – are just as likely to laugh the country to war as hawks. Maybe more: Hawks in the media, at neocon rags and mainstream outlets alike, take Iran far more seriously. Those liberals snickering about mullets play into the same sort of joking that occurred in the run-up to the Iraq War – dehumanizing the soon-to-be targets. But instead of the Butcher of Baghdad, today’s monsters are the “mad mullahs” in Tehran.

Read more here, at AlterNet.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. You could’ve pointed to any number of caricatures of our enemies, but the way the Japanese were depicted in cartoons was particularly vile. Ol’ Bugs Bunny was a major propagandist. I can, upon reflection remember being affected by these crass stereotypes.

    An interesting exception was the Soviets. While we were lied to about the Russian people, while they were dehumanized and made the enemy–Sting’s song stood out as a powerful rebuttal of these tactics–I don’t recall the Soviets being lampooned as we did so many others.

    Of course we were never ready to bomb them in my lifetime–since 69. Our intelligence establishment was focused on inflating the threat from the Soviets to justify our own containment and military budgets. We similarly inflated the threats from regimes that posed no serious threat to us, Iran, Iraq, the North Koreans to pick some more recent examples.

    We always held the upper hand over the Soviets, but they presented a substantial deterrent. I suppose we reserve humor for our nastiest of intentions.

  2. Sorry, but I’m going to laugh at the policing of hairstyles anyway. The people of Iran determine what sort of government they will have, but I’m sorry, the thing makes Iran look silly.

    I would add that the sillier Iran looks, the less likely we are to attack her. (Can I still refer to a country as “her,” or must I say “it” to remain politically correct?) Hard to demonize a true object of mirth.

    I object (cordially, though) to the statement that “liberals and progressives” are those one “expects” to oppose a U.S. attack on Iran. The vast majority of traditional conservatives and libertarians are quite opposed to such foreign adventures. Please recall that before George W. Bush came on the scene, our warmongering presidents were all liberal Democrats. LBJ alone killed far more people — Americans and foreigners — than all the Republican presidents since McKinley. And George W. Bush was a conservative in name only; his polices, like Richard Nixon’s, were liberal-statist through-and-through.

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