Irony, Contingency, Solidarity: It’s Not Easy Being Green—Especially in Iran

Perhaps you’ve noticed that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was opposed in the recent election by a man with rather bold and outspoken followers who had a particular fondness for green. In fact, you may have observed that there’s a lot of green-wearing in the Muslim world generally, and many green flags.

How come? Is it that the majority of people in Muslim countries are unusually enthusiastic fans of Kermit the Frog? Or might they be worshipers (like Americans) of American dollars? Or perhaps many Muslims have seen An Inconvenient Truth and are Al Gore environmentalists!

Alas, no, no, and no.

The reason, according to Slate today, is—surprise!—Mohammad.

Not Mohammad Ali, but the seventh century Mohammad. It turns out that the seventh century Mohammad liked green, so naturally everybody who follows him in the 21st century is keen on green:

The Islamic prophet is said to have worn a green cloak and turban, and his writings are full of references to the color. A passage from the Quran describes paradise as a place where people “will wear green garments of fine silk.” One hadith, or teaching, says, “When Allah’s Apostle died, he was covered with a Hibra Burd,” which is a green square garment. As a result, you’ll see green used to color the binding of Qurans, the domes of mosques, and, yes, campaign materials.

Isn’t it curious how seemingly small contingencies can, over time, turn into huge system effects, impacting culture and history? What if Mohammad had, for example, expressed an off-handed distaste for coffee, and was into drinking gallons of prune juice?

No coffee in the Muslim world; lots of prune juice bars.

And what if it was learned that the Buddha had not sat under a bodhi tree, as is now thought, but stood, in fact, on his head at the shore of an ocean?

Suddenly, headstand beach meditation would be all the rage among skinny models in Malibu.

And how about Jesus if he had multiplied—camels?

Well, you get the picture. Lots of American cars with the “sign of the camel” on the back of them. 

Mohammad’s favorite color, Buddha’s bodhi tree, and Jesus’s fish multiplication are lessons in contingency. You never know what your words or deeds might lead to.

So watch out!

I myself, in briefly contemplating the nature of contingency here, am now utterly confused and indecisive as to my next move. Dare I eat a peach (to echo T.S. Eliot)? And shall I post this post?

If you’re reading this, the answer I returned to myself was, yes, I will post this post, and obviously I did. But maybe I shouldn’t have.

Susan Neiman, in her brilliant book, Evil in Modern Thought (Princeton 2002), offers this anecdote from Kant about the power of contingency to produce surprising effects (and so render the ultimate outcomes of our choices indiscernible by us):

Your innocent friend took refuge in your cellar from a murderer pursuing him. When the murderer arrives at your doorstep demanding to know his whereabouts, should you tell a lie? Kant says you should not, and his reason will puzzle. It is possible that if you lie and tell the murderer your friend is elsewhere, he will leave the house to continue his pursuit, thereby running straight into your friend, who just managed to slip out the basement window to what he thought was safety.

Kant’s point here is a moral one. Maintain your good intentions, and do not tell lies. Since you can’t really know the ultimate outcomes of your choices, you might as well uphold the moral law.

Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, runs on a similar theme, but turns the Kantian imperative on its head. In The Idiot, a Christ-like protagonist imagines himself doing good, but generates enormous harm at every turn in his “do-gooding.”

So do good or do ill. Act with large ambitions or little tiny ones. Still, you never know what will ultimately come of them. Maybe your good intentions will bring about evil; your ill actions, good; your largest life ambition, a ripple in the fabric of nothingness; your tiniest gesture, the destruction of kings. For want of a horse . . . 

Another example: Hitler’s gross Antisemitic evil perpetrated upon the Jews during World War II was certainly a decisive factor, after World War II, in the creation of the State of Israel. What would Hitler have thought of that? Obviously, you can’t really know much of anything with certainty in this life.

Now choose anyway.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Irony, Contingency, Solidarity: It’s Not Easy Being Green—Especially in Iran

  1. homeyra says:

    Let’s consider another side of the story:
    A candidate who has no access to state owned television as much as the current president adopts a symbol – some color – to be visible.
    What color to chose?
    If you chose “orange”, you are accused to ferment an orange revolution, if you chose red you might be a commie, so what could be that color?
    Green seems safe. Not only you can refer to a pious roots, its environmentalist resonance will appeal to the youth, and your enemies can’t criticize you.
    When it comes to issues such as “Muslims”, “Iran” and the like, why bother with pragmatism when we can dig in … slate 🙂

  2. santitafarella says:

    homeyra:

    I understand your point. Here’s another example. Aren’t we lucky that, on election maps in 2000, the states that were designated red were Republican and blue were Democratic? If those tags were reversed that year, we’d hear no end from the far right of “red” states being associated with Mao, Lenin, and communism.

    —Santi

  3. Alan Lenzi says:

    Sidebar: the fish symbol of today harks back to early Christianity when the word for “fish” in Greek, ἰχθύς, was read as an acrostic, “Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior” (“Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ). It’s true that there are plenty of fish and fish stories (not to mention fishy stories) in the Gospels. But the modern practice of putting a stylized fish on one’s bumper is not directly connected to any of these (e.g., the multiplying of the loaves and fishes). Some have also suggested the stylized form of a fish, essentially two arcs, was a secret Christian symbol that allowed Christians to identify other Christians easily. One person would make one of the arcs in the dirt, the other, if they were a Christian, would complete the “fish” by making the other arc. (That last bit might be apocryphal.)

  4. santitafarella says:

    Alan:

    I’ve also heard all my life that Greek for “fish” is an acrostic, but I wonder if that’s apocryphal too. I think it’s easy to come up with plausible acrostics, and this might be an example of an etiological narrative after the origin of a practice has been forgotten.

    It may simply be that early Christians told a lot of “fishy” fish stories about fishermen and fish miracles and the acrostic became an afterthought or a rationalization. Most things in the early centuries of Christianity are hard to trace (in terms of origins).

    —Santi

  5. Alan Lenzi says:

    I’m with you concerning the tendency we humans have to invent etiological narratives. Ultimate origins are always elusive, if not illusory. But I do know that Tertullian, late 2nd Century, seems to reference the fish thing in the opening paragraph or so of his treatise on baptism (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.vi.iii.i.html). In any case, just a sidebar.

    BTW, I’m enjoying your blog.

  6. Alan Lenzi says:

    Sorry that link doesn’t work. Here’s another attempt:
    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.toc.html (scroll down to “On Baptism”).

  7. santitafarella says:

    Alan:

    Thanks for reading my blog and enjoying it.

    As for Tertullian . . .

    Tertullian?

    Why, when I think of Terullian, do I immediately think of Rush Limbaugh?

    Oh, I remember now. They’re both TOTAL ASSHOLES.

    Okay, I went to the link and read it. Obviously, in his ability to crack a fish joke about “IXOYE”, it must have been widely known.

    I think it still begs the question: Why seize upon “fish” as an acrostic if not that Christian stories, earlier on, were associated with fish and fishing?

    In other words, it might be interesting to see how many other imaginitive acrostics might have been seized upon from other Greek words, but weren’t because the earliest Christians weren’t as readily associated with them.

    Put differently: You’ve got to get an especially good fit between acrostic and association. Perhaps fish is the closest. Camel, for example, might have had acrostic potential, but there’s only one camel allusion in the gospels (going through the eye of a needle). Bird might have achieved some plausible acrostic, and we can think of doves and the Sermon on the Mount. But “fish.” Well, that makes a great association—and look!—it “says” Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior!

    And when the first Christian noticed this association, what would he (or she) have thought upon learning that, two thousand years into the future, there’d be these giant metal rolling cart-machines called “Hummers” on which the acrostic for his (or her) aesetic religious sect would sometimes be glued to the back of!

    How did the world get from there to here?

    Therein lies a curious, improbable, and yet thoroughly true contingent tale!

    Back in the late 70s and early 80s public television had this great series called “Connections” (with James Burke) in which Burke traced the curious developments of science. You might go to Amazon and check them out (if you don’t know the series).

    Our contingency chat here made me think of those old shows.

    —Santi

  8. Thank you… I have recently discovered a very common weakness in the way some Christianity is expressed. We are told to obey, in order to be good servants. and secondly we are told how to act to everyone – our neighbor, our spouses, etc. but *and you uncover it* are we responsible for the results???.. Most opinions of well-meaning Christians would imply yes, but I found the fruit of taking on the blame/honor of the results has almost always been corrupt… Perhaps the proof that supports Kant’s point…

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