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The Myth of Third World Purity

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Message Jayne Stahl
What a grand spectacle the world was treated to this week, in the General Assembly, with the high drama, and hyperbole of world leaders including some from so-called third world countries like Venezuela and Iran. As has been widely reported, Mr. Chavez compared President Bush to "the devil," and insisted he could still smell sulphur. While the analogy may have been apt, the context was clearly inappropriate, and it was infinitely less appropriate that U.N. delegates laughed, and applauded.

It's time to demystify those who have been the targets justifably or otherwise, of American hostility and aggression. While there are many, like myself, who respect Mr. Chavez, and largely agree with much of what he stands for, there are some who will accept any kind of behavior, and write it off, based on the fact that the individual, or country, has been defamed, occupied, or violated by another. To make allowances for someone, under any circumstances, is arguably among the biggest insults one can bestow on him. Further, regrettably, history has shown that those who have been victimized themselves when given the chance will victimize others.

What galls even more is how hopelessly naive, and reductive, those of us are who suggest that being the victim of American imperialism somehow exempts one from being corrupt and imperialistic. Those who demonize Israel, and the U.S. do exactly as this president does by setting up their own "axis of evil;" substituting a different set of names for bad guys.

Somehow we, in this country, have this curious dialectic with respect to how we view third world countries like Iran, Venezuela, Korea, and Cuba. Either we cling to a bizarre, and antediluvian image of a land of "primitives" that rations food, proscribes free speech, condones torture, is volatile, as well as incapable of dialogue or higher order thinking or, conversely, we revert to the "noble savage" mythos in which underdeveloped, or geographically challenged nations are seen as victims of relentless occupation.

Consider this: at the United Nations today, the president of Iran, who is repeatedly likened to that other madman we recently deposed Saddam Hussein, gave a speech in which he denied that Iran wants a nuclear bomb. Ahmadinejad said, in effect, "bomb, who needs a bomb?" I don't know about you, but I'd sure sleep a whole lot better tonight if the so-called "leaders of the free world," Bush and Blair, felt the same way. Sounding more like a statesman than his nemesis, the Iranian president went so far as to call America "a great nation." It seems that that Iran''s leader has found an alternative to the nuclear option: kill 'em with kindness.

But, what happens to the dynamic when one, or both, plugs are pulled on stereotypes we have? Indeed, what happens when the descriptions we formerly reserved for rogue, or renegade nations can no longer be distinguished from those of our own government? Essentially, the question then becomes how can we tell the good guys from the "bad?" How can we tell who's posturing from who's preaching? When we, in this country, are being prepped for war with a country whose leader tells us he's perfectly willing to move away from any notion of developing a bomb, and our own government has turned back the clock on nuclear nonproliferation by at least 30 years, who are we to believe poses the graver threat? When the world is turned upside down, moral complexity becomes nuanced such that essential differences between things vanish into thin air.

When we put a sword in someone's hand, can we expect them to act radically different if they happen to wake up south of the equator than if they happen to wake up north? I think not. The political cosmology is such that not being a superpower with a proven track record of occupying, and toppling the governments of other states does not make one any more ideologically appealing, or less capable of committing the same high crimes and misdemeanors they themselves were forced to endure.

Finally, those of us ingenuous enough to think that one who is the victim of imperialism will not themselves, under the right set of cirumstances, become imperialists have allowed their preoccupation with nationalism, third world or otherwise, to obscure their understanding of human nature. Power is an equal opportunity corrupter
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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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