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Shame and Patriotism

Rod Dreher describes [1] an unusual encounter with an Iranian man in the Netherlands:

The sad Iranian man didn’t make me angry, not in the least. I happen to agree with everything he said about his government, and sympathized with him. Still, to stand in a foreign country, talking to strangers on a train platform, and to confess straight up that you are ashamed of your country — it was such a demeaning thing that it made both my Dutch friend and me squirm.

It’s an interesting story. When I read it, I wondered how much of the shame the man feels (and apparently feels compelled to admit to random passersby) is a defense mechanism. Suppose that you lived as part of a diaspora in another part of the world where you assumed that your nationality and religion were viewed with suspicion if not hostility, and then imagine that the country you came from also happened to be governed by an authoritarian regime reviled in many other parts of the world. It might not be enough for you to say that the regime doesn’t represent your country, or to insist that your country has been badly misunderstood because of your government’s actions, and instead you might want to make clear how far removed you are from all of it. The man Rod and his friend spoke to said, “I come from Iran. I am ashamed.” But he might just as well have said, “I come from Iran, but don’t blame me for any of that, it’s not my fault.” It may have seemed demeaning to Rod and his friend, and maybe it was, but I suspect it was also one of the few ways that this man thought he could strongly reject the Iranian regime’s shameful conduct without cutting himself off entirely from his country. In this case, it seems to me that the man wasn’t ashamed of his country so much as he was ashamed of what had been done to his country by its leaders. Viewed that way, he was doing something very similar to what exiles and expatriates fleeing from the misrule of their homelands have been doing for centuries.

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18 Comments To "Shame and Patriotism"

#1 Comment By Gordon Hanson On June 9, 2013 @ 4:13 pm

This is a very perceptive post, Mr. Larison. You have a rare ability to get inside other peoples’ minds, or at least to make an heroic attempt at doing so, and at least as noteworthy is that you make this effort, something totally foreign to the neoconservatives and uberhawkish conservatives in general.

#2 Comment By a spencer On June 9, 2013 @ 5:09 pm


My Iranian guide told me if he ever travelled he’d tell people he was Spanish, for the same reasons some Americans have taken to sewing Canadian flags on their backpacks. Iranians are well aware of the world’s perception of their country.

And its too bad, in my experience Iranians are pleasant, welcoming, delightful people*. They wish the world knew more about Cyrus and less about Ahmadinejad.

* even the ones who invited me to take part in the bloodletting of ashura.

#3 Comment By Rod Dreher On June 9, 2013 @ 6:39 pm

What made me unsettled was that the man, who was old enough to be my father, felt that he had to introduce himself with a kind of apology about his country. If we had begun talking, and he took that line, I would have found it less troubling, but it was disarming and sad to see him expect to be hated by us simply because he is Iranian. Then again, maybe it’s like that in his country toward outsiders, and he expected the same treatment from us.

#4 Comment By a spencer On June 9, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

>>hated by us simply because he is Iranian. Then again, maybe it’s like that in his country toward outsiders

Certainly not in my experience; indeed, I received a warm welcome everywhere and never lied about my country of origin. (Someone once lied on my behalf without my prior knowledge; this was to my benefit.) By the way, would you like some tea? Nowadays Iran doesn’t get a lot of visitors, so I got royal treatment especially because, not in spite of, the fact that I was from the US.

Some assumed I was French or German (but not Korean), more frequent visitors. “Good job – finally America comes to Iran!” Of course, older Iranians – 70% of the population was born post-Revolution – remember when the US and Iran were “friends”.

But that’s been true throughout my travels in the muslim world: Persian, Arab, Kurd, Sunni, Shia, Christian, Sabaeans, random. I can honestly say I’ve never experienced any hostility, people are curious if they care at all, mash’allah, and enjoy the rare, non-armed, cross-cultural acquaintance. And most people don’t care. Seriously, would you like some tea?

I should also say that the majority of Americans I know who have been to Iran – and its a handful, honestly – are Jewish and have expressed interest in returning. Daniel Pearl, for instance, had no problems reporting from Iran and the WSJ helpfully keeps some of his Dateline: TEHRAN articles posted. I like this one, about the burgeoning (pre-9/11) alt-rock scene:


But it depends on the ‘outsider’. Tough to be an Afghan or Iraqi refugee in Iran. In the early days of ’03 US war-making, Iran took in more refugees than any other country in the world. Like Syria with Iraqi refugees, it has only so much capacity to deal with them.

>>and he expected the same treatment from us.

There’s probably a lot of truth in this. A relative who worked in Latin America in the 80s noted that those who live under corrupt regimes often assume you do, too. Though the Iranians you and I may come in contact with in the West are certainly more ‘cosmopolitan’ than say those who take part in ‘ghameh zaneh’.

Nonetheless, people in non-McDonald’s countries also see sex and violence in American media and are naturally wary. In fact they see more of ‘our’ media than we see of ‘theirs’, by an order of magnitude and some of it frankly frightens them.

Persian culture – like Minnesotan – mandates that I ask a third time to indicate I’m serious: would you like some tea? Here’s a plate of fruit and sweets. 🙂

#5 Comment By Ken_L On June 9, 2013 @ 8:06 pm

To judge from thousands of posts and comments I have read over the years, expectations by Iranians that they will be hated by Americans are not only understandable but will often be accurate. Not only Iranians, but all Muslims. I mean do people seriously believe vicious anti-Islam propaganda can be spewed out on a daily basis on hundreds of US web sites, by people including leading political and media personalities, without it influencing global perceptions of how Americans in general think?

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 9, 2013 @ 10:07 pm

I have known people who hid their national origin, out of fear of retaliation against themselves. If discovered, they were often self-disparaging as a kind of defense. How many of us refuse to see any member of a group we despise as an individual, who may be anywhere along the continuum ending in exemplary? Certainly, when speaking of immigrants, if a single one of them commits a crime, there are both public and private calls for crackdowns and new punishments for all of them and often, random violent attacks occur against anyone thought to be of the same origin.

#7 Comment By Aaron Gross On June 9, 2013 @ 11:35 pm

Nope, Rod is right here. It’s not that the guy said he was ashamed of his government. From Rod’s description (which rings true), it was that groveling way he said it. Actually, not exactly groveling, more a ” “please don’t hurt me” message, like a weak dog exposing his throat to a strong one.

I’ve met lots of people from countries with regimes as bad as Iran’s or worse. None of them put on this kind of display. We’ve probably all seen this behavior in other contexts: someone self-defensively volunteers “shameful” information about himself, answering a question that hasn’t even been asked, in order to pre-empt criticism before the criticism arises. While we can feel pity or, ideally, compassion for him, it’s not honorable behavior.

#8 Comment By scott On June 10, 2013 @ 9:46 am

An unexamined assumption that Rod, Daniel and everyone else seems to have is that it’s weird or “demeaning” or “not honorable” to be ashamed of your country and to say so. I dunno. If you read some of the things that Mark Twain wearing his critical hat said about his country and what it was doing, it would make what this guy said seem pretty tame. I don’t think it should be hard for any of to imagine being part of some group, organization or identity, and be so creeped out by whatever it’s doing to say so in pretty strong terms. Maybe it is a little weird to have some random guy confess it to you, in the way that having a random guy confess any deep emotional thing to you would be, but that’s all it would be for me.

#9 Comment By Andrew On June 10, 2013 @ 11:31 am

I mean do people seriously believe vicious anti-Islam propaganda can be spewed out on a daily basis on hundreds of US web sites, by people including leading political and media personalities, without it influencing global perceptions of how Americans in general think?

Oh, boohoo. Too bad. Before using the word “vicious” it is always good to have a precise definition of it in mind, otherwise the meaning becomes inflated to the point of becoming a simulacra. You want vicious–read Malik or Milestones by Qutb. Well, read Quran–that’s vicious. Better yet, take a tour of Saudi Arabia and carry Bible with you on this tour. BTW, it is not only Americans who “generally” think, some people have to actually live with it on a daily bases:


As for “propaganda”–what is coming out today about Islam is not propaganda at all, albeit some small portion of what is coming out is, admittedly, being used as one. What is coming out today is actual description of the nature of the beast. It took United States to experience 9-11 to get to this point–for the layman to actually start inquiring into the nature of Islam and start paying attention to the news, the ones which really matter, not CNN’s or FOX’s style infotainment drivel.

It is tragic that many decent law-abiding “Muslims” do feel it that way and many do respond in the manner described in Rod’s and Daniel’s posts to simply forestall any kinds of unpleasant response. But it is no more (in fact far less) tragic than this:


What neither Daniel nor Rod wrote, though, is that this Iranian man response is not only defensive mechanism but the manifestation of understanding of a general, highly negative, attitude of Europeans to European Ummah and Europeans DO have more than ample reasons to feel this way. Expect more anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe. Ahh, those “vicious” Europeans…..

#10 Comment By Aaron Gross On June 10, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

@Scott, since you’re replying to my comment among others: I don’t think there’s anything bad or dishonorable about saying you’re ashamed of your country, if your country deserves it. I can’t speak for Rod, but I think what’s contemptible is the way that guy said it. So that “assumption” you talk about is not an assumption of mine, much less an unexamined one. I think I was pretty clear about that, actually.

#11 Comment By Labropotes On June 10, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

Morocco’s first words to Portia were, “Mislike me not for my complexion.” He had issues.

With the US lording it over the world and its own population, ignoring the law and the constitution, how long before we Americans are introducing ourselves in this way?

#12 Comment By Stuart On June 10, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

I’m surprised I’m the first to say this, but isn’t this Iranian’s reaction to his country’s regime basically the same thing that innumerable Americans did when traveling the world between ’00 and ’08 – “I’m American, but Bush isn’t my fault!”

It’s really odd to me that the idea of being ashamed of your government is alien to American commenters here. Surely most of us were either ashamed of Bush, or are ashamed of Obama now, or both? Especially in the case of Bush, it was a pretty safe assumption that any foreign person you might meet had a low opinion of him, and an impulse to defend yourself from being painted with the same brush was commonplace.

#13 Comment By Hyperion On June 10, 2013 @ 1:12 pm

Following up on Stuart’s comment….

I come from the USA. I am ashamed.

I’m happy to live in a country where the possibility of peaceful change exists. But I’m still ashamed. And fearful of our future.

#14 Comment By James Canning On June 10, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

I travelled widely in Europe in the early 1970s and did not find it demeaning to denounce the stupidity of the US military adventure in Southeast Asia.

#15 Comment By James Canning On June 10, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

Does anyone else wonder just what it was, that made the Iranian man “ashamed of his country”?

#16 Comment By scott On June 10, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

No, I got what you said (@ Aaron Gross). I just found the visceral distaste with which you reacted to this guy to be a little OTT, with the language about groveling, weak dog, not honorable, etc. I just took it as the guy felt bad about his country and knows the spotlight is on anybody coming from there, so he said what he said. The Dixie Chicks did something similar years back at a concert overseas in reaction to the Iraq invasion at the time, and of course they got pilloried for that with lots of self-righteous tut-tutting. I just found the reaction to some random Iranian guy to be similarly excessive and wondered what was behind it, but YMMV.

#17 Comment By William Dalton On June 10, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

I remember there were times when I was embarrassed to be an American, say when Bill Clinton was President. But it never occurred to me to think I might be ashamed to be an American until after 9/11, when Congress passed the Patriot Act and GW Bush launched his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When I was five years old my mother took me to visit family in Germany. What little I can recall is that I did not play nice with the other children, probably because they refused to speak English and it mortified my mother that her cousins looked upon me as “typically American”, spoiled and self-centered.

When I was eighteen I went to visit a friend in Norway. He took me to his school, where I was appalled to find students openly wearing buttons identifying themselves with the Viet Cong, something anti-war protesters even in Chapel Hill and Durham would not have dared to do. My friend had to calm me down and remind me that not everyone in Norway thinks America’s enemies are evil people – there are even some who would put the shoe on the other foot.

#18 Comment By David J. White On June 10, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

My Iranian guide told me if he ever travelled he’d tell people he was Spanish

I had a professor in college in the fall of 1980 — during the Iranian hostage crisis — who shared with the class that he was Iranian, but he said that when he was out casually he would tell people, if asked, that he was Hungarian.