A Christian Christmas in Snowy Iran

Yep. That's Iran. Tehran, Iran. The Hub of Human Evil. According to American hate radio, anyway. Snowy Tehran on a peaceful winter day. Makes you think of Boulder, don't it? Surrounded by snow-covered mountains? Those are the Alborz Mountains. And they are higher than the Rockies. They are the highest peaks in Asia west of the Himalayas, in fact – with skiing on the upper slopes all year round.

Shocked? I certainly was when I first started surfing the web for photos of Iran. I was shocked by the mountains. Shocked by the snow. Shocked by the busy ski shops. Shocked by the "cool dudes" throwing snowballs in their trendy clothes. Shocked by the American-looking yellow school bus in the upper right photo there. Shocked by something in every photo I saw.

But most of all I was shocked by my shock. I was shocked by the fact that a reasonably well-educated, well-informed man like me, who reads at least a dozen alternative news sites like this one daily, should have so many misconceptions in my head about Iran – without my even being aware they were there. Like the notion that Iran is one big, brain-baking desert. Or that Iran is hostile to Christians and women.

I say that I was unaware these misconceptions existed in my head. But now that I am aware of them, I know as a psychologist how they got there. They got there through the skillful use of the "dark arts" of psychology by the White House, on the one hand, and the American mass media, on the other – with the all too able assistance of some of my sleazy psychologist colleagues serving as high-paid "advisers."

One of those dark psychological arts that led to my brainwashing is that of classical conditioning – which is familiar to us all in the form of commercial advertising. The most notorious example is the Marlboro Man campaign: where a cancer-causing product was sold to millions of insecure American boys and men (including myself as a teenager in the '50's) by pairing the powerful stimulus image of a ruggedly handsome man on horseback with the originally neutral image of a white little thing in his mouth, identified in the ad as a Marlboro cigarette. With enough repeated pairings, smoking those white little things became "manly" in itself (even though Marlboros had "sissy" filters and Camels did not).

What makes classical conditioning so scary is that it works on everyone – regardless of how smart or knowledgeable we are. (Luckily) I'm the (still) living proof. Even as a youth back in the 1950's, I knew that the Marlboro Man campaign was hokum. I was a Camel "man" through-and-through. (Like the guys who won World War II.) And nothing Madison Avenue could do could make me change my brand. Till one day I realized that for some "strange" reason (called classical conditioning), Marlboro was the only brand I had been buying for quite some time.

Flash forward 50 years to this past spring. And here I am again. Even though I "knew better" than to believe all the propaganda I was seeing and hearing on the tube about Iran, synaptic links were still being forged in the "feeling" center (or limbic system) of my brain between the neutral word, "Iran," on the one hand, and strong, fear-inducing words and images (like those around "9/11"), on the other.

To be sure, I knew enough about Iran, even before I came across that first "shocking" photo of Tehran nearly buried in snow, not to go completely off the deep end and buy the White House hype about Iran being an "evil" nation. But all those times I was hearing about "Iran" while seeing ghastly images of Iraq on TV did condition me to assume that the land and climate and people of Iraq and Iran were the same. And the worst part was I did not even know that that classically conditioned assumption had been put into my brain.

The same may be said with respect to my classically conditioned assumption about Iranian women's "oppression." Only here the talk about "Iran" was paired with images of Afghan women in burqas – as in Bill Maher's "burqa fashion show" skit (which you can watch here). To my "rational brain" (my neocortex), the humor seemed crude. And I thought I was unaffected by it. Till I came across the photo of the woman standing outside the ski shop, and was stunned. Simply stunned. And not just because she was a stunning woman either. What stunned me the most was that her stunning face was unveiled for me to see. And as I combed the web for other photos of Iranian women, I learned that most Iranian women, as well as the Iranian clergy, find wearing the burqa an Afghan extreme. The dark art of classical conditioning had brainwashed me again.

But then, as every fan of Harry Potter knows, there is also a whole set of "defenses" against the dark arts that can turn our "hearts" around. And antiwar activists need to master these if we are to stop a catastrophic war from happening. And counter-conditioning is a good place to begin.

Counter-conditioning is actually a form of classical conditioning in that it uses the same technique of pairing one stimulus word or image with another to build an association (or synaptic link) between the two. We only call it "counter" conditioning because it is used to reverse the effects of classical conditioning (or brainwashing) by pairing words and images of an opposite kind, such as the photos of Iran I am showing you here. They too touch our "hearts" (i.e. the limbic systems of our brains). Only, these words and images are of a positive kind. A peaceful kind. A pleasing kind. Glance at them again. It is not so much that we are "fighting fire with fire" here as we are fighting fire with snow. Mountains of snow. Friendly, familiar, fear-dousing snow. Snow wherever you turn. If you look closely, you can even see a whole snow scene with skiers reflected in the sunglasses of the woman standing outside the ski shop in the lower right photo. (Click here for a larger view.)

Of course, these photos do not appall us the way, say, photos from Abu Ghraib do. But that does not mean these gentle photos do not have their own kind of power. Quite the contrary. They may actually have a more powerful effect upon us in the long run precisely because they do not threaten us with collective guilt the way photos from Abu Ghraib do. Hence we are more likely to let these gentle images into our "hearts," and allow our hearts to be changed by them, rather than erecting psychological barriers against them the way people tend to do against photos from Abu Ghraib.

Certainly the photos offered in this article are easy on the eyes. At the same time they tell us an enormous amount about the climate and culture and people of a cosmopolitan city like Tehran and the ski resorts around it. Like the emphasis that men and women place on looking stylish and attractive. I was really taken aback. Especially by the boys. "Suicidal sand devils" they are not. Rush Limbaugh can say what he will. Boys don't dress like that to turn on virgins in the sky. And you don't need to be a psychologist to see that.

That is the wonderful thing about photos. That is the wonderful thing about human vision. We may not be that smart. But our eyes sure are. Over billions of years of life on this planet, our eyes (and the associated visual areas of our brains) have evolved the capacity to process millions of pixels of information – without our being consciously aware of what is happening, let alone being able to put what we visually "know" into words. Like which male is the "alpha male" in the snowball scene. Or what those boys have most on their hormone-challenged minds. We would instantly draw the same conclusions whether the photo was from Iran or Switzerland or Argentina.

Photos are egalitarian that way. They are the most libertarian mode of communication that we have in common. And as long as photos like these are out there on the web, we can mine them for the kind of information that the American mass media would deny us. Information that we as citizens must possess for us to assess the wisdom (or folly) of where our leaders are leading us.

Take this final set of photos, for instance. Instead of wringing our hands at the growing censorship in this country, let us see what our eyes can tell us from a bunch of innocent Christmas photos from Iran about the treatment of Iranian Christians in that demonized nation.

And what my eyes tell me is that it looks like there are lots of Christians now living in Iran (as they have for many centuries). And these Christians feel free to shop for Christmas trees on the street and for Christmas cards in the stores; and take photos of their kids with Santa; and attend Christmas services in posh new churches. And what my eyes tell me too is that all of these Christians are unafraid. And I am sure that your eyes tell you the exact same thing.

That's not because we all think alike. It's rather because we all see alike. By which I mean that all human eyes and optic nerves and visual centers in our brains process visual information in the exact same way. That is part of our common biology And an important component of our common visual-processing program is to be able to "read" each other's feelings from thousands of visual clues that are far too subtle to verbalize if we were even aware of them and had the language skills of a Shakespeare. It's the same for every species. Whether we are talking about humans or hummingbirds or hamsters, the ability to read the feelings of other members of one's species is "programmed in." It has to be for the species to survive.

So here. From the way these people sit and stand and hold their heads and use their hands, our eyes and optic nerves and related brain areas all reach the same conclusion in a nanosecond. And that is that these Iranian Christians are able to pray and shop and get goodies from Santa and walk home through the streets of Tehran with gifts for their grandkids without any fear. Be it from saber-toothed tigers or "Muslim maniacs." And our visual processing programs are also able to determine that these Christians are not being brave in the face of danger. Their bodies are really relaxed and unguarded – just like those of Christians in Boulder.

Now a hamster or a hummingbird cannot take things any further than this seemingly simple (but actually extraordinary) task of recognizing what other members of their species are feeling through their body language and sounds. But humans also have a "new" brain (or neocortex) surrounding the "old" brain which allows us to think. And when we think about these photos – when we really stop and think – we discover that each and every one of these photos is a treasure trove of information about Iran if we would only take the time to apply our analytical skills to them. And America's newly minted "thought police" and their psychologist "advisers" can never prevent us from finding the truth in these innocent photos. For the truth is everywhere to see. And as Bush's favorite philosopher would say: the truth will set us free.

For example, we can tell from the abundance of Christmas cards and trees and wrappings and ornaments and Santa Claus suits that Iran has a capitalist, consumer-oriented economy, with a large enough Christian community to support a whole host of retailers, wholesalers, distributors, suppliers, importers, and tree farms. And if we glance back at that incredible first shot of Tehran at the foot of the snow-covered Alborz Mountains, we can even say with certitude that the area around Tehran has just the right terrain, soil, and climate for the new-cut Christmas trees you see.

We can also deduce from such things as Christmas trees being sold on Tehran sidewalks and big Merry Christmas signs hanging in Tehran stores that while American aggression in Iraq may have had the tragic "blowback" effect of driving out 90% of all Christians who once lived there, Muslim tolerance towards Christians is still alive and well in Iran. And this tolerance on the part of Iran's supposedly "mad mullahs" starts at the top with Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, and permeates all the way down – even when it comes to such things as the depiction of angels in paintings and sculptures: which is forbidden in Muslim mosques, yet allowed in Christian churches. Take a closer look at the church shown above and you'll see.

So, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And right now he's headed towards Tehran. Let the bells of Christian capitalism and Muslim tolerance chime!

December 20, 2007