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Live From New York...It's the Same Old Propaganda!

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Studio 8H in New York City's Rockefeller Center is not only the two-floor sound stage from which Saturday Night Liveairs, but has also long been one of the most important stages for mainstream American political satire and comedic commentary over the past three decades. Whereas during its thirty-four year tenure, from Chevy Chase's prat-falling Gerald Ford to Tina Fey's brilliant impersonation of bimbo huntress Sarah PalinSNL has successfully lampooned many American politicians, the show has long steered clear of challenging government propaganda or party-line talking points. Dubious ideologies of American imperialism and exceptionalism are not only often ignored but, at times, are even reinforced by the show's writers, producing jokes that can easily be seen as, at best, ignorant and misinformed, and at worst, downright dogmatic and racist. 

SNL's reinforcement of American political propaganda has never been more pronounced, offensive or unapologetic than under the helm of Seth Meyers, who succeeded Fey as the show's head writer in 2006. Meyers clearly has a hard-on for Barack Obama (he donated $4000 to his campaign) and revitalized the show's waning popularity by exposing the embarrassing absurdity of the Illinois Senator's political opponents. More recently, Meyers has shown that the new President's Congressional adversaries should face defenestration due to their dissent over his economic policies, at the devious bidding of Obama's henchman Rahm Emanuel (a suggestion that I too subscribe to, as long as Rahm is then also thrown through a closed window, followed soon thereafter by the President himself). 

What is clear is that real issues are never fair game with Meyers in charge, and each politics-related sketch seems to serve the purpose of revealing his own tired political perspective: Republicans are stupid and wrong, Democrats are well-intentioned, if at times silly, but the United States is always right and just. Regardless of this blinkered viewpoint, this format is often harmless and usually humorous.

Sometimes, however, the results are a bit more sinister.

Even though challenging the American status quo is off-limits to Meyers and his writing staff, they often revel in making fun of foreign countries and cultures, proving time and again that the American public, far from being able to stomach substantial satire and criticism of its own government's policies, historical narratives and national mythologies, eats up racial stereotypes and dehumanizing generalizations like Big Macs, and is always hungry for more. 

Nowhere is Meyers' own voice heard more explicitly than on SNL's Weekend Update. The famous faux-news report segment, an SNL staple since its very first broadcast back in 1975 and obvious inspiration to shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, is arguably the funniest part of each episode and allows the SNL writers to deliver their own perspective and commentary in a much more direct forum, rather than through the prism of sketch comedy or subtle satire. Meyers, as Weekend Update anchorman, is playing himself and, thus, the audience is able to hear his views straight from the source.

As such, on the March 7, 2009 episode, Meyers had this to say:

"The Iranian government this week has demanded an apology from Hollywood saying the films 300 and The Wrestler were insulting to Iranians. Well how 'bout this Iran: you apologize for the hostage crisis, pursuing nuclear weapons, high gas prices, financing Hamas, denying the Holocaust, and setting fire to a Danish Embassy because of a couple cartoons, and then you'll get your apology for The Wrestler."
This little laugh-line got the biggest cheer and loudest applause of the evening from the audience and Meyers appeared to be pretty pleased with himself afterwards. But hey, it's an entertainment show that is supposed to make people laugh, right? So what's the big deal?

The big deal is that humor doesn't work in a vacuum. Context is what makes situations and punchlines funny, and if a joke is based on a flawed, faulty, or completely false premise, it fails. The joke itself doesn't need to rely on truth, but the context certainly does. The best humor pushes boundaries, challenges assumptions. The only way this particular gag could succeed is if all parties involved - from the writer to the audience - were ignorant of reality and held a strikingly demonized view of the Iranian people. And succeed it did.

This characterization (or caricaturization) of Iran is based wholly on American mainstream media propaganda and US - and Israeli - governmental talking points. The premise is that Iran has a lot more to apologize to America for than vice versa and, therefore, the idea of Iran demanding an apology from the US is patently absurd. It assumes that history began thirty years ago and that the United States, the world's Super Empire, has been long victimized, threatened, and offended by a country nearly six times smaller, with less than a quarter the population, and with a military budget that is literally one hundred times smaller than the US'. The United States has been invading foreign nations and overthrowing governments for over one hundred years. In contrast, Iran has neither threatened nor attacked any other country in over two centuries. 

Meyers' glib delivery played to his audience's own ignorance; his self-congratulatory smirk hid truths that every literate American should really know by now. The crowd hooted and hollered as Meyers claimed that it is Iran that hasn't given the US a fair shake all these years and that this demand on Hollywood just goes one insult too far. Regardless of the fact that the American film industry has long demonized Middle Eastern Muslims, from Beau Geste to Ishtar to Iron Man, as aggressive, violent, irrational, barbaric terrorists hell-bent on destroying the Western way of life for no particular reason, other than perhaps uncontrollable freedom-hating, apparently it's Iran that owes us, not the other way around. In this one punchline, Meyers has revealed himself to be a know-nothing parrot, ripe for propagandistic ventriloquism.

Luckily for the Obama Administration, just like Bush's, Good Germans like Seth Meyers continue to repeat government talking points without the slightest hint of skepticism or reason. Meyers is all too eager to defend Barack against his detractors, who are often portrayed as petty and vindictive Republicans, while willfully regurgitates the same old nationalism and xenophobia - which has not slackened at all with Obama's inauguration - with aplomb. 

Granted, this should come as no surprise to SNL viewers, as Meyers has shown his true colors many times before on Weekend Update. On November 18, 2006 - right after the Democrats regained control over Congress, when anti-Bush sentiment was at its peak - Meyers delivered this quip:
"Christian and Muslim Britons joined forces yesterday to tell city officials to stop taking the Christianity out of Christmas, warning them that this simply fuels a backlash against Muslims. Also fueling a backlash against Muslims: terrorism."
And then, only two months later, on January 20, 2007, repeated the punchline with a different set-up:
"Muslim groups are concerned that the new season of 24, which features Muslim terrorists setting off a nuclear explosive near Los Angeles will foster hate against them and create a climate of Islamophobia. Also creating a climate of Islamophobia: terrorism."
It's clear that Meyers' own bigotry remains unabated and undeterred in this glorious post-racial American reconstruction era of Barack Obama.

So, why should Iran as a nation, or Iranians as a people, apologize to the United States or the American people? According to Mr. Meyers, an apology is owed for the "hostage crisis" during which Iranian students held 52 U.S. diplomats in the American embassy in Tehran for 444 days. Perhaps this would be a reasonable request if history began on November 4, 1979, the day the embassy was taken. But it didn't.

Meyers' entire joke hinges on deliberate misinformation and selective memory. The history that Meyers ignores (in a way speaking for most Americans and echoing the oft-repeated rhetoric of the US government) is as follows:

In 1953, the American government backed a CIA coup in Iran that overthrew the popular and democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, after the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry, and installed a brutally repressive and violent dictatorship under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Shah ruled Iran, with constant US support and financial backing, for over 25 years, during which opposition to the tyrannical monarchy was countered and suppressed with imprisonment, torture, and execution by the Shah's security agency and intelligence apparatus, SAVAK. SAVAK was trained and funded by both the US and Israel. When the people of Iran finally rebelled and drove the Shah from the country in 1979, he found asylum in the United States. The United States has never issued any sort of apology for the 1953 coup, its support of dictatorship, or for its role in attempting to suppress the 1979 revolution. 

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Nima Shirazi is a writer and a musician. He is a contributing commentator for Foreign Policy Journal and Palestine Think Tank. His analysis of United States policy and Middle East issues, particularly with reference to current events in Iran, Israel and Palestine, can be (more...)
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