The Trump administration’s anti-immigration crackdown, including its travel ban for six Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and shake up of the H-1B visa program for temporary workers, together with pressures to eliminate federal arts agencies, downsize and slash the budget of the Department of State (responsible for managing long-standing and successful cultural exchange programs), all paint a bleak picture for anyone who cares about the cultural promise of US internationalism. Instead Trumpists stumble along tacitly embracing an anti-globalist foreign policy of nativist populism untroubled by any expectation of cultural engagement as a robust component of international affairs. Alarmed foreign affairs experts regularly point to the destruction Trump’s policies are visiting upon once-celebrated US soft power – we are already seeing a notable decline in the number of international students applying to US colleges – and to a counterproductive return of “clash of civilizations” thinking, which celebrates the inevitability of polarizing cultural divides even as it ignores the myriad of ways diverse cultural projects constructively cross boundaries and build relationships.
Iran is a good illustration of the potential damage of Trump’s short-sighted nativism. Iran is of course among six countries singled out by his proposed ban – the others are Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. The ban jeopardizes what seemed a nascent change during the Obama years in the footing of the US-Iranian relationship since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, best illustrated by the Iranian nuclear deal. If in geopolitical terms we are used to hearing about Iran as part of the “axis of evil,” the US also boasts the largest Iranian diaspora in the world, with well over 1 million. Particularly with the immediacy of the digital era, an insightful recent book by Brian Edwards, who writes about the circulation of US culture in international contexts, documents how a fascination of Iranians with increasingly available American popular culture, cinema, literature, and academe, has substantially grown in recent years. Making novel uses of US and other global cultural content, Iranian artists have been producing some notably intercultural works.
Asghar Farhadi’s play, “The Salesman,” received significant attention in the US media earlier this year, in part because it won the 2017 Academy Award for best foreign language film, but also because Farhadi boycotted the Oscars to protest Trump’s controversial travel ban. And Farhadi’s has been among the voices of Iranian artists in the US, Iran and elsewhere, pushing back against Trump’s misguided policy – emphasizing its negative consequences for non-US citizen artists, the ways it undermines international cultural exchanges and artistic collaborations of all shapes and sizes. In his Academy Awards speech, read in absentia, Farhadi denounced the ascendancy of cultural “hard-liners” in the US and Iran, and their promotion of fear-driven “us and them” enmities in the name of nationalism and national security.
Farhadi’s cinematic work, epitomized by “The Salesman,” runs in a very different direction from such nativisms, embracing instead the creative and mutually illuminating potential of intercultural dialogue. “The Salesman” takes the form of a play within a play, following the travails of a married couple, both actors, who are rehearsing for a run of Arthur Miller’s iconic American play, “Death of a Salesman” in Tehran. As famously epitomized by Willy Loman, Miller’s play is often treated – particularly in American classrooms, where it has been widely taught for decades – as the canonical work on the dark side of the American Dream, which Miller treats as a self-destructive fantasy. And his play devastatingly exposes the fragility of mid-twentieth century American masculinity by exploring the emasculating – even suicidal – brutalities of failed class striving.
Farhadi’s “The Salesman” is much more than a restaging of Miller’s play in Iran, which was apparently popular before the 1979 Revolution. In his hands the train wreck of the Loman’s lower-middle class aspirations is made both “familiar and strange,” refracted in the unfolding tragedy of his Iranian couple Emad and Rana. Farhadi’s play powerfully conveys the tensions introduced by traditional conceptions of marriage, gender, and male honor in contemporary Iran. Post-WWII New York City and post-Revolution Tehran are two very different times and places. But Farhadi deftly and dialogically explores such issues as violence against women in patriarchal societies, when ambition meets humiliation, and the costs of a loss of trust in peoples’ private lives. The juxtaposition of “The Salesman” with “Death of a Salesman” complicates and enriches, while building a bridge between, how Iranians and Americans understand the upheaval that can follow when traditional social relationships are undermined during moments of rapid expansion of capitalist modernity. As Farhadi and Miller remind us, families are sacrificed.
Another celebrated Iranian artistic engagement with – for lack of a better term – *Western* popular culture is Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel and memoir, Persepolis. Originally written in French and offering international readers a glimpse of teenage rebellion inside Iran’s revolutionary period and its aftermath, Persepolis has come to be widely taught in the US, at both the high school and college levels. The graphic novel and its highly-praised film adaptation have also generated public responses in Iran and in the US. The Iranian government denounced Persepolis as promoting an inaccurately negative account of its Revolution, while the graphic novel was among the top ten most challenged books in the US in 2014, according to the American Library Association, for various perceived offenses, including its depictions of gambling, use of offensive language, and political viewpoint.
But Persepolis is an intercultural tour de force. Satrapi’s autobiographical protagonist constantly appropriates and experiments with Western cultural artifacts and influences in pursuit of her own DIY personal style, even as the graphic novel opens spaces of understanding about the revolutionary period for non-Iranians. In the novel itself and through interviews, Satrapi has highlighted a welter of cultural sources, including: the pop singer Kim Wilde, Bruce Lee, Godzilla, American comic books, the song “Eye of the Tiger,” The Terminator, Michael Jackson, Art Spiegelman, Casablanca and other American classics, the Italian film The Bicycle Thief, Iggy Pop, feminism, Marxism, Fritz Lang, Nosferatu, and Nike sneakers, among other inspirations. Marji, the graphic novel’s iconoclastic main character, regularly expresses anti-authoritarian Punk-like sensibilities while embracing her many contradictions as a “veil-wearing Marxist anarchist.”
But this is not a story of the triumph of Western cultural consumerism. Marji’s restless cultural mixing and matching have a personal and local resonance. Her novel appropriation of Punk style is altogether something else than what a reader, familiar with expressions of Punk subculture in the UK and US in the late-1970s, might expect. In New York or London, Punk was variously associated with anti-authoritarian often nihilistic disdain for popular music and mainstream consumer society, as a critique of political idealism and often as a typically un-PC expression of race and class antagonisms characteristic of late industrial capitalism. If Satrapi’s protagonist expresses a similarly rebellious anti-authoritarian and DIY sensibility, for her Punk offers a form of resistance to the Iranian regime and a kind of proto-feminism, for which themes of race or nihilism are largely irrelevant. In post-revolutionary Iran Punk is, ironically, associated with American consumer goods, including such notably un-Punk – at least in the US of the late-1970s – items as Nike sneakers and the song “Eye of the Tiger.” Satrapi offers the reader her DIY style as an alternative to stock images of Iran as “fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism,” so often presented in the US news media. Punk style, in Satrapi’s world, helps us to appreciate this, even as we also recognize the appropriative contortions of transnational youth subcultures in action.
Farhadi and Satrapi are just two contemporary Iranian cultural producers. But they help us understand some critical benefits of the border-crossing global conversations enabled by circulating national cultural content, in direct tension with the nativist moment we’re living at present. US cultural agencies used to incentivize projects like the NEA’s Southern Exposure program to bring little-known performing artists from Latin America to the US in order to encourage creative relationships between US artists and their counterparts to the south. But analysts, too preoccupied with zero-sum market penetration where the extent of circulation of US cultural goods and services – for better or worse – exhausts the implications of their transnational movement, often unconstructively privilege a “world is flat” conception of cultural globalization. And current domestic US debates about the politics of cultural appropriation, with their tendency to celebrate the patrolling of identity boundaries, don’t help.
What Trumpists, analysts of globalization, and today’s cultural cops all often disregard is the extent to which the pervasive global circulation, appropriation, and repurposing of US popular culture continues to be a source of global relevance of the US as “good to think with,” and way for others elsewhere in the world to express their agency. These appropriations service a transnational cultural dialogue, bridging geopolitical frontiers and pointing to shared experiential horizons, while making differences relatable. Such uses of US cultural content for diverse local ends help to maintain the possibilities for a “mutual tuning-in relationship,” in Alfred Schutz’s words. They give us all a variously imagined and re-imagined but shared topic of conversation. In a world of ascendant nationalisms and nativisms, these are conversations we need to encourage.