By Max Fisher www.TheAtlantic.com
It’s not revolution, exactly, but wearing a Toby Keith t-shirt is more subversive than you might think.
In the mass theater piece that was Friday’s parliamentary election in Iran, one of the players showed up with an unwelcome prop. A young man voted in Tehran, as shown in the above photo, while wearing a t-shirt that would be considered ironic in the U.S., but seems downright rebellious in Iran. In case you can’t make it out, the shirt reads, “God Bless America / Toby Keith / Pre-Concert Party / October 8, 2004.” There’s an American flag on the shirt, which is a bold fashion choice any day in Iran, but especially on a day when the state-run media are out and the security services are likely to be even touchier than usual.
The photo is funny — this kid’s got chutzpah — but it’s also a reminder of the challenges of protesting Iran’s political system, and even of the complex and sometimes contradictory nature of cultural tension between Iran and the West.
This is Iran’s first election since the rigged 2009 vote that reinstated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and launched the “green movement” protests, and the government is taking them very seriously. We in the West often take Iranian elections as a farce, and it’s true that the country is not a democracy, but it does have some modest democratic features. Elected legislatures have actual powers (though not many), reformist parties are represented (though not well), and while the unelected Supreme Leader dominates the government, citizens do expect a say. After Iran’s global humiliation in the 2009 election, everyone is eager to see how Iran’s “democracy” functions.
Ahmadinejad called on Iranians to vote in order to “smack the face” of foreign “enemies,” an unintended admission that Iran’s autocratic backsliding is an embarrassment to the country and a sign of the regime’s weakness. Wouldn’t you know it, state media report 65% turnout, almost exactly the number that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated as his official goal. Meanwhile, an anonymous source in Tehran told PBS, and the BBC also found, that polling stations were deserted. So are the streets: unlike in 2009, the regime seems to have successfully deterred or prevented mass protests, most likely by a combination of imprisoning and intimidating activists and preemptively deploying security forces.
An Iranian democracy activist doesn’t have any good choices today. Protesting seems to be off the table, and after the violence many activists suffered in 2009, it’s not hard to understand why. Voting is an unattractive option, since the regime is clearly using today’s vote in an attempt to boost their own legitimacy, and participating would help them out. But boycotting is never an effective choice, since it only ensures the activists will further marginalize themselves. And, even if candidates range on the ideological spectrum “from pitch black to dark gray,” as Karim Sadjadpour told the New York Times, that’s still a chance to effect some tiny change. The dilemma seemed to trouble even opposition figure and former President Mohammad Khatami, who first called for a boycott and then ended up voting, enraging some activists who saw it as a betrayal.
So you’ve got to hand it to the young man in this photo, who seemed to figure out a clever way to protest the election — wearing the flag of his government’s #1 enemy — while still making sure his vote is included. It’s a small but brave way to thumb his nose at the system without excluding himself entirely, as boycotters did Friday.
There are also some subtle, though perhaps unintended, cultural factors at play in this photo. Yes, the Iranian government regularly and consistently depicts America and all things Western as the most severe mortal threats to Iran. It’s not enough to hate American foreign policy: Western music, Western literature, even Western hairstyles are treated as tentacles of the great American menace. And, yes, Iranian nationalism is a real cultural force, including among reformers and democratic activists, and that nationalism often includes a certain hostility toward the U.S., which is after all destroying their economy with sanctions. Wearing an American flag on election day suggests a rejection of the anti-Americanism that undergirds Khamenei’s narrative of the Iran-West conflict, and that conflict after all undergirds much of the regime’s legitimacy.
Or maybe he just thought it would be funny to wear a Toby Keith shirt on election day. Because foreign media in Iran were even more restricted than usual Friday, and because Iran’s repressive laws and cruel security services make honest public discussion so difficult, we can’t really know.