Just a short little blurb on NPR this morning got me thinking that a thriving culture has little to fear from other cultures around the world. Nations with strong cultures are readily willing to allow their major cities to attain “cosmopolitan” status and invite people from around the world to mingle in its parks and nightclubs, share their national cuisines in their restaurants, debate politics in their pubs and parks, sell one anothers’ newspapers at their newsstands, permit their young people to befriend and marry one another and come to study in local universities, and recruit businesses from abroad to establish branch offices in their financial districts. Xenophobia is not a sign of cultural strength — or to be more precise, it is a sign that one perceives one’s own culture as possessing insufficient strength to survive contact with another culture.
So when the government of Iran forbids the producers of cooking shows from demonstrating how to make anything but traditional Iranian dishes, that ought not to fill the hearts of intelligent Iranians with joy. This strikes me as a sign of the difference between Iran and Persia. Persia was, and likely still is, a strong and thriving nation with a powerful and ancient culture, a people willing to take their place in the world. Persians are not afraid, and seem to enjoy, engaging other cultures. Iran is, or at least in the past thirty years has become, an insular nation striving for cultural, political and religious purity and China-like, seeking autarky as the ultimate objective of economic policy. Having seen in Egypt and Tunisia that Muslims can also acquire a taste for democracy, it is no wonder that the leaders of Iran see in both the protests driving Mubarak out of power in Egypt and in the popularity of rock music and chicken nuggets the precursors of their own fall from power.
Global culture, like global economics, will infiltrate Iran no matter how tightly the government tries to squeeze its iron first around the consciousness of its people. The fact that the government there seems to think that so petty a thing as not allowing cooking shows to make pizza and tacos and burgers is a manifestation of the deep fear of that creeping cultural infiltration, paranoia at the heart of the governing philosophy of any totalitarian state, that culture matters and will eventually lead to a change in the political will of the people.