It is said that when a British reporter asked what he thought of Western Civilization, anti-colonial campaigner Mahatma Gandhi dismissively replied, “It would be a good idea!” Decades later, Iran's enlightened class turned this insult around in an attempt to explain its defeat in 1979. While it blamed foreign intervention for our nation's ills before the Revolution, the superficially modernist crowd targeted the “intolerant” oriental culture of common people afterwards as the sole cause of Iran's lagging development. In the Eurocentric worldview of the native intelligentsia, pious Iranians who claimed to have discerned Ayatollah Khomeini's likeness on the moon epitomized superstition and opposition to progress on a national scale.
But the dissidents did not have the same reaction last week when the media reported similar illusions expressed by some of the Western pilgrims at the Pope's funeral. Nor have I heard many of them publicly condemn the evangelical circus preceding Terry Schiavo's death in Florida late last month. While fanatic “born again” Christians are inching towards imposing their regressive Texas Republican Party platform on America, college students in Iran are taught that Europe's second birth, the Renaissance, defines life and politics in America.
They rarely read about the fanatic “pro-life” millions who in 1996 brought us Timothy McVeigh and the mass murder of civilians at the Oklahoma City federal building. Nor would they believe that the Congressional leaders who push the hardest for regime change in Iran — including Congresswoman Ileana Ross-Lehtinen and Senators Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum — are fighting tooth and nail to fuse religion and government in the United Sates.
The late Pope promoted the most backward elements in the Catholic church worldwide for over two decades, but the multitudes who adore him are not classified as culturally retarded. The televised archaic clothing and chanting of the Vatican's cardinals — not to mention the Church's secretive and hierarchical decision making, sexual child abuse, and patriarchal obsession with chastity, contraception, and “family” — are met with silent “tolerance” in Iranian intellectual circles.
A similar nostalgia about everything Western ruled in the Soviet Union. Wrote Columbia University historian Eric Foner, who taught in Moscow as the communist bloc unraveled in 1990, “But the [utopian] view of the United States is as one dimensional as the [negative] one it is supplanting … I delivered a talk at the Institute of World History on blacks and the American Constitution. I discussed how the founding fathers had written protections for slavery, such as the obligation to return fugitives, into the document; how even free blacks had enjoyed few legal rights before the Civil War… Nothing I said would have seemed controversial to American historians. But my talk was not, shall we say, greeted with enthusiasm… [In Tbilisi, Georgia] a scholar of American history chided me for leaving out the 'fact' that much of our racial problem is caused by black women who 'have six or seven children and expect white taxpayers to support them.” When Foner returned four years later, “Russia had been subjected to [US-sponsored economic] 'shock therapy,' and among the casualties were the utopian dreams I had encountered in 1990”
While I applaud the spirit of critical inquiry that initially gripped frustrated Westernized Iranians after the Revolution, I find the ideological echo chamber that characterizes them today quite narrow and self-serving. I yearn for a day when “dissident” will describe Iranians who not only resist Iran's rulers, but also dare to re-examine elitist definitions of “civilization” and other received wisdom.
The irony of it all is that the most enlightened sector in the West, well aware of the corruption and brutality of capitalism, has long rejected simplistic explanations of “underdevelopment.” It is the William Bennetts and Paul Weyriches of America that blame poverty and crime on character deficiency and cultural relativism. This clique's well-financed Reaganite moralizing against common folks promotes the war on working class Americans that has more than doubled the prison population in the United States since 1980.
The pseudo-scholarship that blames the cultures of entire socioeconomic classes and nations for their problems has ancient roots. US strategists revived it during the Second World War as studies of the enemy “national character”. It was put to use again later as former colonies gained independence in rapid order and a number of them rejected “free market” economics in favor of state-directed development. The forerunners of today's neoconservative network — intellectuals like Daniel Bell and William F. Buckley and their social science counterparts like William Kornhauser and Seymour Martin Lipset — impressed upon the electorate that the popular will was a threat to democracy. This was the lesson to learn from the early postwar popularity of communism across Europe, they successfully argued with a nod from the US agencies that funded their institutes. Philosopher Walter Lippman spoke for the bunch when he wrote, “The public must be put in its place… Responsible men [must] live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.”
Conservative think tanks nurtured by corporate interests have used similar arguments since the 1960s to condemn the “lifestyles” of African Americans as the cause of their “underachievement” as a community. The latest version of this mystification, promoted by Francis Fukuyama, attempts to explain varying degrees of national development by reference to “social capital” (formerly called “political culture”). What all such non-material theories have in common is that they conveniently discount inequality and exploitation in domestic and international spheres.
You may have noticed that the best publicized reports of human rights violations in Iran largely highlight the suffering of lawyers, journalists, professors and similar middle class professionals. I have read too many analyses claiming that the struggle for democracy in Iran and everywhere depends on such visionaries, who have greater passion for freedom and endure worse abuses than the rest. I rarely hear that Iranian peasants and workers who confiscated the assets of the old privileged class during the Revolution did so because they had experienced much unnecessary deprivation and indignity before. Nor are they hailed as progressive dissidents for refusing to let private interest trump common good.
All of this makes me skeptical about the agendas of the opposition against the current government in Tehran, which is not to say that I favor the existing order. It is rather transparent that most Iranians are described as backward because they are reluctant to unite with the professional class against the current government again as they did against the monarchy in 1978-79. I note that few opposition activists acknowledge that the Revolution was genuine and progressive before it stalled, and this worries me. When I read any of the dozens of books or hundreds of essays in Farsi that define the traditional classes as the obstacle to progress, I fear that the opposition's goal is to reverse the Revolution rather than to reclaim and complete it.
We are rightly saddened when a women's testimony in an Iranian court of law carries less weight than that of a man. But if we similarly consider our common fellow countrymen incompetent, what confidence can we have that their testimony in court, and their views on public policy, will not be dismissed in the future that the sophisticated opposition is promising us? Is it my imagination or does the opposition in fact strive to replace the hereditary aristocracy under the Shah with a professional gentry?
Rostam Pourzal writes regularly about the politics of human rights in Farsi journals in exile.