Microphones, Planes, and Stereotypes – Those Behind the Making of “300”

Touraj Daryaee and Warren Soward

I have been following reactions to the movie “300” and to my article which appeared on Iranian.com as well as on Payvand.com and in the Orange County Register. Of course each of these venues has their own constituency and so reactions have been somewhat different, to say the least. But comments on Iranian.com merit a follow up to my review which will come out to a wider audience in a national newspaper. On the Iranian.com the comments by Parsa Pezeshki and Darryl Narcisse caught my attention and interest. The first by Pezeshki entitled “Ummm…it’s a movie man,” calls my review “truly comical,” while Narcisse felt that my reflections were bordering on absurdity.

Indeed, perhaps I have had my head buried in the books for too long, but having taken courses on politics and history through film (such courses are offered at major universities in the U.S., especially for those who are interested in American popular culture!), I am still quite disturbed by the intentions of the film. In fact, it is these scholarly pursuits that make me dig a bit deeper, past the slogans and moralistic hyperbolae. I see now that the reason that I reacted to “300” needs some explanation, in order that our friends understand why this is not just a movie.

Yes, Zack Snyder’s “300” is just a movie, based on a graphic novel, a form of comic book, by Frank Miller. But let’s talk about some of the people involved in making the film. Who is Frank Miller? Oh, he writes comic books. Do you accept the premise that one’s political ideology and worldview affects her or his creative work? If you say no, there is no need for you to read another word of this article and please either get an education or just head to the beach. Otherwise, if you feel that intent might be important, let’s see how Mr. Miller, Mr. Snyder, and their consultants see the world and the “others,” i.e., the people of the Middle East.

Thanks to a friend, I was able to obtain the transcripts of a recent interview with Frank Miller, made on January 24, 2007, about President Bush’s State of the Union address. Let me give you his responses and thoughts on the current state of affairs in the world (I’ve highlighted the important words):

(National Public Radio – NPR): Frank, what’s the state of the union?

Frank Miller: Well. I don’t really find myself worrying about the state of the union as I do the state of the home-front. It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western World is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants … and we’re behaving like a collapsing empire…

NPR: A lot of people would say what America has done abroad has led to the doubts and even the hatred of its own citizens.

Frank Miller: Well, okay, then let’s finally talk about the enemy. For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw peoples’ heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.

NPR: As you look at people around you, though, why do you think they’re so, as you would put it, self-absorbed, even whiny?

Frank Miller: Well, I’d say it’s for the same reason the Athenians and Romans were. We’ve got it a little good right now. Where I would fault President Bush the most, was that in the wake of 9/11, he motivated our military, but he didn’t call the nation into a state of war…”

Of course, I know that there are people who hate Islam and all that it represents, but from certain American perspectives, such as the one espoused by Frank Miller, if you live in that part of the world, be you Arab, Persian, or any other, you are on the side of those who have attacked the U.S. on 9/11. Is anyone telling me that the moive has not then consciously portrayed the Persian army of king Xerxes like the Taliban terrorists and the Iraqi insurgents who use IEDs to kill American soldiers?

What about Zack Snyder? I see him as more of a man making a buck, something that the movie industry aims at anyway. By all accounts he is successful. I very much liked his Sin City. I thought it was good. He also gave an interview which was, in short, about whether we should change the world “Persian” to “Zoroastrian” because of the current issues and to avoid offending anyone. An interviewer mentioned that, before the movie was finished, it had been observed that Leonidas, the king of the Spartans, came off like George Bush. Snyder replied that he hadn’t thought much about it and if Leonidas did sound like Bush, all the better.

Oh, still would you say, ‘umm it’s just a movie, man, get over it?’ Frank Miller is just doing a comic book and Zack Snyder is making a fun movie? So, has anyone read the book 300: The Art of the Film? Does anyone know who has written the forward to it? Since I deal with “absurdities,” and I just can’t take things lightly, I searched for the name of the person who has helped turn “just” comic book into to “just” a movie. The name of that person is Victor Davis Hanson. Who is he, you might ask? He is a professor of Classics (Greek and Latin) at California State University, Fresno and is an “expert” on the “Western” way of war, whatever that means (for criticisms see “Speaker debates ‘Cheney’s favorite historian’“). So why was a historian of Greek warfare asked to write the forward to a book about its making? So next time someone tells you, ‘oh there is no real historical substance to the film,’ ask them why it was necessary for an ancient historian to attempt to lend intellectual legitimacy to it.

But for me, what is much more troubling is who Victor Davis Hanson is, and what he stands for. Beside his work on Greek agriculture and warfare, he does other things. Mr. Hanson is also a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute, Stanford University. If you do not already know about the “great” Hoover Institute, then do some searching and ask people in academia about it. Ummm, and what does Dr. Hanson do in his spare time when he is not writing about Greek techniques of warfare and how they saved Western Civilization from the Barbarians (people like me)? Well, he writes, not on ancient history, but on current events for William Buckley’s National Review Online and other “conservative” (today they are called Neo-conservative) news outlets, as well as his website, victorhanson.com. He has several interesting books which I suggest you look at, such as AnAutumn of War: What America Learned from September 11 and the War on Terrorism (2002). President Bush and Vice President Cheney have met him and are enamored by his views. In fact Hanson’s AnAutumn of War is one of Cheney’s favorite recent books. In October 2002, during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, Cheney invited Hanson to the vice president’s mansion for a meeting followed by dinner. Cheney said little but asked many questions. So Hanson provides the intellectual force behind Cheney’s views.

The fallacy in his historical outlook is clear by such statement as:

“The phrase “300 Spartans” evokes not only the ancient battle of Thermopylae, but also the larger idea of fighting for freedom against all odds — a notion subsequently to be enshrined through some 2,500years ofWestern civilization”.

So he not only provides a skewed portrayal of ancient history, he is also consulted by the so-called compassionate conservatives for purposes of skewing present-day matters of the Middle East!

Dr. Hanson’s other book, Between War and Peace: Lesson from Afghanistan to Iraq (2004) includes such interesting essays as: “Don Rumsfeld, A Radical for Our Time,” “History Isn’t on the Palestinians’ Side,” and “Misunderstanding America: We’re Not the Ones with the Problems,” and he has also written on other things such as Why the West Has Won? (2002); Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the past Still Determine how We Fight, how We Live, and how We Think (2004).

Even more troubling to me is yet another side of Victor Davis Hanson’s writing, that which has to do with seeing the non-Anglo immigrants as contaminating the pure center of Western Civilization, the U.S.A. He is the author of Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (2004) and with this book he became an instant hero of the anti-immigrant movement in the U.S. To quote one reviewer, “He (Hanson) argues that ‘cultural relativism’ and ‘multiculturalism’ – which contend that all cultures possess inherent value – ‘have escaped from the university and circulate like an airborne toxin in the popular culture’ (p. 6) (review online by Walter A. Ewing, The American Immigration Law Foundation) (bold words mine).

For Hanson, all cultures are not equal and should not be appreciated. And not only is he in a state of panic about the Mexican immigration attacking the America which he once knew, but others are not so welcome either. One of my students, after reading Hanson’s chapter in a book called What if? hypothesizing an alternative history in which the Persians won the battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, and which suggested that, as a result, freedom and democracy would not be alive today? My student had asked the author, “Do you think I am an uncivilized person because I am coming from an Iranian civilization?” and he was answered by Hanson that, “If you are from that civilization, I think you are uncivilized, but I think you are part of Western civilization now.”

Dear readers, these are the people behind the book and the movie “300.” You can not say that such individuals have been just writing a comic book and just making a movie with the aid of a ethnocentric historian.

I hope that that my “absurdities” have become a bit more clear, and I also hope that it is clear that “300” is not “just, ummm, a film, man,” but that it is informed by an pseudo-intellectual force that is behind many of these types of projects which portray the ancient Persians as the epitome of the modern enemy of the United States. For Hanson, what is unfortunate is that the war between the Greeks and the Persians is still not over but rather has been carrying on for the past 2,500 years. A very sad mindset, indeed. Once we allow this type of stereotyping to continue to bombard the American viewing audience, many whose main mode of learning is visual, you will generate an even more negative view of “others” and also of us Persians/Iranians in the United States. It is these subtleties that I believe are most dangerous to us as immigrants living in the U.S.

When you allow books to appear, without criticism, which call for the “encampment” of Muslims in the United States (Michelle Malkin, In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and the War on Terror (2004, selling over 100,000 copies) or for stopping immigration from the Middle East by the same author, Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores (2004, selling almost 300,000 copies), combined with films portraying the Persians attacking Western values, killing their women and children, hanging them on trees, and crucifying their heroes, I warn you, we will be discriminated against even more. If one does not criticize and articulate the phobia and hatred of these people, then it is easy toend up in a concentration camp somewhere in Nevada or Arizona, because the popular culture has prepared the population of this nation for seeing all of us, be we Arab, Persian, Turk, Muslim, Jewish, Bahai or Zoroastrian, as the head-covered, turban-wearing lunatics who want to destroy the American way of life, freedom, and democracy.

What we need is an articulation of Iranian history in an intelligent and coherent fashion, one that is not wrapped in nationalist language. The Irish and others had a very tough time when they immigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century. There were signs outside bars and other places stating no dogs and no Irish were allowed, and now it may be our turn if we do not stand up. When was the last time a Persian or Iranian was shown in a positive light in Hollywood? Lunacy on either side does not help our cause, but confronting racism, Iran-bashing, and the bashing of the ancient Persians, which “300” has done in many ways, has changed my aim in life. It has certainly enlisted me to spend part of my time writing not just articles for academic journals which are read by maybe fifty people, but rather on a wider scale for the American and English-speaking population to understand that in the sixth century BCE, Peloponnesus (Greece which indeed was and is a great civilization) was not the only place on earth that had a culture, and that Persians, among others, contributed enormously to this World Civilization (that is what needs to be emphasized) who brought to the world such things as backgammon, chess, and polo, the Persian rugs which the world cherishes, the Persian cats that they are willing to pay so much for, and that it was Persians such as Razi who found the medicinal use of alcohol, and, Khawrazmi who formulated algebra and algorithm (the word algorithm derives from his name). Somebody should ask Frank Miller how his microphone could work and his planes could fly if it wasn’t for some of these contributions from Persian civilization.

April 3, 2007