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Hollow modernity
Obsession with the Great American Culture Project is not a sign of advanced democratic consciousness

May 17, 2004

It appears that a nerve was struck in some people after reading my letter [That arrogant reporter] to New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof [Those friendly Iranians] last week. I received a number of emails, many of encouragement and support that I wish I could have responded to, but have been unable to because of time constraints. Let me now extend to all of you my heartfelt thanks.

I also received many emails that were decidedly unsupportive, critical, and downright hostile, attacking me personally and even suggesting threats of bodily harm. I do not mind criticism nor do I think anyone else should when it is constructive and well-founded; after all, we have a right to our own opinions and as some respondents pointedly reminded me, this is a free country. Criticism helps us grow, as well as lets one see the strengths and weaknesses of an arguments. I also wish thank all the people who took the time to read my thoughts and challenge my views in emails they sent.

However, I do mind it when people seek to insult, threaten, or degrade others simply for having a different opinion. I find it ironic that many of the people who took it upon themselves to attack me did so in the 'defense of democracy and freedom' in Iran; it appears we need a civic education program for some members of our community. Perhaps it is due to this reason that these same people invoked George W. Bush's name and policies so enthusiastically in their emails, because they actually believe it is possible to begin wars for peace, and that there can be some kind of "freedom" in a (second) American coup and subsequent occupation of Iran. Fine. Think anything you want, it is a free country, right?

With that, I wish to respond to three specific types of reactions I encountered while reading responses to my piece.

-- Some really strange, ultranationalist, racist Saltanat-talab people who insist on their own distorted views of Iranian history and somehow feel Iran is "different" (read: better) in the eyes of America than Iraq or Afghanistan (and I am not making a blanket accusation against ALL monarchists, just the extremists who emailed me)

-- The aforementioned people who want to give you some sort of label, like communist, mordeh khor, etc...

-- The "Who are you to speak for Iranians/why are you bringing up old shit/when was the last time you were in Iran? Times have changed/You are out of touch with Iranian youth" types
The first two are easy-- since they were more concerned with name calling and insulting me and had nothing intelligent to say. The third group however, raises some interesting points and valid criticisms of my positions.

In fairness, I will begin by saying that I have yet to go to Iran, and not for lack of desire. That said, I will add that I speak frequently with my family in Iran, as well as with my friends who travel there often. Yet I don't think that this is a reason to dismiss all that I have said. Knowledge of your culture, language, and history make one's observations more relevant. I have all of these.

Those who asked me how in touch I am should ask themselves if they feel that they are able to speak with Iranians of all walks of life when they go to Iran. They should ask themselves if they truly transcend the tight boundaries of their own socio-economic environment while they are in Iran, or if they only pretend to. I recognize that there is a great diversity of experience in Iran, and that I cannot assume to understand all of it -- however, I am not alone is this regard.

Second, while I do not ever claim to speak for all Iranians nor would ever attempt to do so, I do believe that it is my duty as an Iranian to point out that it is definitely not for Mr. Kristof to decide how Iranians think. I draw attention to the fact that there is a history of this not just in his other columns, but in many American media (e.g. Thomas Friedman) and Western academia sources as well. Ultimately, there is a problem when the most cited 'experts' on Iran and the rest of the Middle East are non-Iranian and non-Middle Eastern.

As a matter of fact, I would recommend to all of the "Persian" supremacist bigots who wrote me to pick up an "Arab" book, Orientalism, by Edward Said. He explains far more eloquently and persuasively than I ever could how Kristof (and Western scholars of the Near East historically) creates the concept of the "Other"; that is, the practice of defining people against who you are (in Kristof's case, defining Iran against an upper-class white American male) and what values you have. It sets up a social evolutionary chart, in which Iranians want the progress that is embodied in their love of America. Iranians consequently become more "modern" and "progressive" as they adopt what Kristof sees as modern and progressive. The people of Iran are not monkeys climbing up some evolutionary tree to reach the banana of American culture.

Moreover, Kristof, and a lot of other reporters like him, make these asinine causal links between how modern and democratic a place is with how high the skirts rise and how tight the blouses are. Another of his dispatches from Iran is called, "Those Sexy Iranians." In it, Kristof excitedly refers to tighter manteaus that accentuate the breasts and show the hips as a death blow to the theocracy.

While I am opposed to many of the social, economic, and political realities in Iran, and think that people should have the right to dress, associate, speak, travel, and think as they please, being obsessed with the Great American Culture Project (including J-Lo, reality TV, Maxim, McDonald's) is not a sign of advanced democratic consciousness or modernity. This statement should not be seen as a defense of Islamic fundamentalism, and I feel sorry for those who see it this way. Iranians want their freedoms, and they may very well want democracy as well. However, being democratic does not mean wanting to be like America, which shouldn't be a knee jerk mental association in the first place.

As for those who accuse me of being out of touch with current events, please note George W. Bush & American Democracy + Iraq and how that is going--I believe there are many very telling photos of American & Iraqi encounters available for public viewing. If anything, associating the US with some Holy Grail of democracy is just as Cold War-programmed as it is wrong, especially when most of the world currently associates it with an indignant moral hypocrisy and military arrogance. No other President has done more to make America seem as "un-American" as the current usurper in the White House.

My intent was never to say how Iranians feel. If anything, I argue why not let them decide that their own way. Kristof's valid point (probably made obliviously), was that people reject what the Islamic government says out of principle now, so their affinity for America is more telling of their rebelliousness and absolute disdain for the clerical regime and. In Iran, America represents rebellion, the same way countless American youth wear Che Guevara shirts -- it doesn't mean a generation of Americans are Marxist guerillas. Drawing these conclusions is wrong and simplistic. But hey, it is a free country right?

Finally, I have a note to those who wonder why I mentioned Mossadegh, the 1953 coup, and other events in modern Iranian history. There is a great quote in George Orwell's book, 1984, which says "He who controls the past, controls the present. He who controls the present controls the future." History matters. Information matters. It was Sir Francis Bacon, an English courtier of Queen Elizabeth I who said, "knowledge is power." Damning photographs can now be disseminated as quickly and widely as rumors. This is why governments strive to conceal information, this is why Iran kills its intellectuals, and this is why George W. Bush cannot, and will not, speak in more than simple single sentence bursts about what America is doing in the Middle East.

History is mentioned not to justify the Islamic regime, but rather because it seems some of our own have forgotten the path Iran has taken during the last 100 years or so. Iranians don't need America to realize their dreams of democracy; we have our own dream planted almost 100 years ago during the Constitutional Revolution, to which the people of Iran are moving. The destiny of Iranian democracy was altered once in 1953; there is again an organic process going on, which does not need altering by outside forces.

History matters because if left unchecked, it is bound to repeat itself. The same way that the grins of the American soldiers at Abu Ghraib look eerily like the festive shots of Klansmen celebrating a lynching in the early 20th century. And we should remember what has happened when America has brought 'freedom' to other countries -- Guatemala, Chile, Vietnam, Indonesia, Grenada, and now Iraq -- before we encourage the mantle of American democracy to be draped across Iran, and with it, all its moral values as celebrated by Kristof. Since it is now a crime to remember our history or point out America's, may our necklines plunge lower and our skirts climb higher, so that we too can at least better understand modernity and progress -- God Bless America and those Sexy Iranians.

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Book of the day

Cultural Schizophrenia
Islamic Societies Confronting the West
By Darius Shayegan, et al

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