America, the Great Satan

Nearly every month, thousands of Iranians can be heard loudly proclaiming their outrage against the Great Satan itself, the United States of America.  And they are correct.  The United States is the Great Satan.  Of course, this requires that the word "Satan" is used in its proper historical sense.

For years, most Iranians have referred to the United States as Shaytan-e Bozorg, which in Persian directly translates to "Great Satan."  The word "Satan" as it is colloquially used in English is linguistically and even phonetically identical with the Persian word "Shaytan."

But language has a funny way of interacting with popular culture.  Popular culture changes and distorts words in the same way a candy factory morphs flavors.  At some point, for example, a food engineer or candy factory maven decided that a particular flavor should be called "grape."  "Grape flavor" then came to mean "tastes like the sweet confection that everyone knows as 'grape,'" and today, it doesn't (but should) sound ridiculous when someone hates "grape flavor" without hating "the taste of grapes."

Similarly, the word "Satan" can be traced back to its original use in the Hebrew bible some two thousand-odd years ago.  It was not used to refer to the embodiment of evil; in fact, it was not used to refer to any one particular being at all.  It was a regular old noun, meaning "an adversary."

This usage can be found in Numbers 22:22, where Balaam, having angered the Lord, has his path blocked when "the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him."  In the Hebrew, the phrase is Vayityatzev malach HaShem baderech l'satan lo.

Even the English word "devil" is rooted in the Greek word "diabolos," which literally means "one who throws something across" and was understood as "one who throws something across the path of another" -- in other words, "an adversary."

In the biblical story of Job, the adversary (i.e., "the Satan") is sent by the Lord to test Job's dedication to doing the right thing.  In this story, "Satan" takes on a positive connotation.  From the limited perspective of Job, the Satan is the source of Job's undeserved pain and misery.  But in reality, the Satan was acting in the same way as a drill sergeant or an athlete's skilled training partner would act in preparation for things to come.  Of course, these people are not evil.  Quite the opposite -- they are taking directions from the military brass or the coach with the express goal of helping and improving the abilities of the soldier or the prizefighter.

How does this relate to the United States as the Great Satan?  It is no longer in vogue to think highly of American exceptionalism.  The concept that the United States is special or "better" in some way is considered, in "intellectual" circles, a proposition dirtier than pornography.

But the United States is special.  It plays a special role throughout the world.  The United States, by setting an example of freedom and equality, plays the adversary on behalf of human goodness.  The United States throws a stumbling block in the path of dictators and oppressive nations.  But as the old saying goes, the United States never asks for anything in return except for a small plot to bury its soldiers killed fighting to make the world a better place.

So yes, the United States is the Great Satan -- the greatest Adversary, working on behalf of the better lights of human nature to challenge the rest of the world to live up to its full human potential.
Nearly every month, thousands of Iranians can be heard loudly proclaiming their outrage against the Great Satan itself, the United States of America.  And they are correct.  The United States is the Great Satan.  Of course, this requires that the word "Satan" is used in its proper historical sense.

For years, most Iranians have referred to the United States as Shaytan-e Bozorg, which in Persian directly translates to "Great Satan."  The word "Satan" as it is colloquially used in English is linguistically and even phonetically identical with the Persian word "Shaytan."

But language has a funny way of interacting with popular culture.  Popular culture changes and distorts words in the same way a candy factory morphs flavors.  At some point, for example, a food engineer or candy factory maven decided that a particular flavor should be called "grape."  "Grape flavor" then came to mean "tastes like the sweet confection that everyone knows as 'grape,'" and today, it doesn't (but should) sound ridiculous when someone hates "grape flavor" without hating "the taste of grapes."

Similarly, the word "Satan" can be traced back to its original use in the Hebrew bible some two thousand-odd years ago.  It was not used to refer to the embodiment of evil; in fact, it was not used to refer to any one particular being at all.  It was a regular old noun, meaning "an adversary."

This usage can be found in Numbers 22:22, where Balaam, having angered the Lord, has his path blocked when "the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him."  In the Hebrew, the phrase is Vayityatzev malach HaShem baderech l'satan lo.

Even the English word "devil" is rooted in the Greek word "diabolos," which literally means "one who throws something across" and was understood as "one who throws something across the path of another" -- in other words, "an adversary."

In the biblical story of Job, the adversary (i.e., "the Satan") is sent by the Lord to test Job's dedication to doing the right thing.  In this story, "Satan" takes on a positive connotation.  From the limited perspective of Job, the Satan is the source of Job's undeserved pain and misery.  But in reality, the Satan was acting in the same way as a drill sergeant or an athlete's skilled training partner would act in preparation for things to come.  Of course, these people are not evil.  Quite the opposite -- they are taking directions from the military brass or the coach with the express goal of helping and improving the abilities of the soldier or the prizefighter.

How does this relate to the United States as the Great Satan?  It is no longer in vogue to think highly of American exceptionalism.  The concept that the United States is special or "better" in some way is considered, in "intellectual" circles, a proposition dirtier than pornography.

But the United States is special.  It plays a special role throughout the world.  The United States, by setting an example of freedom and equality, plays the adversary on behalf of human goodness.  The United States throws a stumbling block in the path of dictators and oppressive nations.  But as the old saying goes, the United States never asks for anything in return except for a small plot to bury its soldiers killed fighting to make the world a better place.

So yes, the United States is the Great Satan -- the greatest Adversary, working on behalf of the better lights of human nature to challenge the rest of the world to live up to its full human potential.