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Democratic blackmail
Questioning conditions that have lead to proliferation of discourses on democracy and referendum

By Choob Dosar-Gohi
June 25, 2003
The Iranian

Despite the certainty with which many Iranian satellite television programs predict the future of Iran, this future remains ambivalent and undecided. What is certain, however, is that in the battlefield of claiming what is best for the "Iranian people," the notion of democracy plays a major role in the articulation of Iranian citizen-subjects.

Arjun Appadurai is right in noting that the fluidity of ideoscapes of the Enlightenment that are consisted of a chain of ideas and terms such as freedom, welfare, representation, and democracy, is complicated by the growing diasporas of intellectuals who inject new meanings into these discourses.

For many Iranian intellectuals and politicians, Iran as the "origin" of a deterritorialized population becomes fantastic, and a ground for new ideoscapes that can lead to bloody conflicts. Suddenly, and forced by an urgency to forge coalitions in hopes of accelerating a regime change in Iran, monarchist television commentators (who passionately play the role of the vanguard intellectual), interview "leaders" of different leftist groups and allow opposing (and many times insulting) phone calls, all along, not failing to remind their viewers- implicitly or explicitly- that this is what democracy looks like!

This theater of enacting democracy, "live" on satellite television programs, resembles an advertising competition, where what is for sale is the concept of democracy. Through presenting competing discourses on the future of a democratic Iran (which also seems to be on sale for those who can afford it), satellite television programs become billboards where each viewer/consumer/caller is to feel unique, while resembling other imaginary competitors.

By consuming the democratic gesture of calling to express one's opinion, the citizen subject is not only expected to find fulfillment and liberation, but in Baudrillard's terms, this consumption is also " transformed into a means of individual and collective expression" of the " people."

Here, the ethos of Enlightenment as a historical and political project in the West is used to constitute the Iranian "individual" as the one to be trained/corrected, and measured/compared to others in his/her individuality. This "democratic" promise, also guarantees submission of the individual in the name of liberty.

As Foucault has noted, one of the contracts of the Enlightenment is the Kantian principle that the "public and free use of autonomous reason will be the best guarantee of obedience, on condition, however, that the political principle that must be obeyed itself be in conformity with universal reason."

Perhaps it is this "universal reason" that the satellite television programs seek to promote, and perhaps it is their capacity in doing so that makes them the prospect recipients of a proposed (by Sam Brownback) $50 million/year by U.S. Department of State.

Brownback's "Iran Democracy Act" is introduced as "a resolution expressing the sense of the Senate concerning the continuous repression of freedoms within Iran and of individual human rights abuses, particularly with regard to women." (See National Iranian-American Council.)

Brownback, a good old kaasehye daaghtar az osh Republican, writes, "Iranian people aspire to democracy, civil, political, and religious rights, and the rule of law." Here, the word "aspire" denotes a "lack" to be fulfilled. Democracy and submission to "the rule of law" stand as universal objects of desire, which are to be achieved through U.S. implementation of democracy in Iran (read intervention).

In Brownback's bill, the possibility of democracy and American subjectivity is constituted vis-à-vis the undemocratic, un-free, and repressed Iranian Other, who "is yearning to live in freedom."

Brownback's liberal attempt to distinguish "people of Iran" from its government does little to bypass the binary opposition of freedom in the West, and oppression in Iran. In his talk on the "future of Iran," Brownback opened his presentation by locating Iran as "the most significant source of terrorism in the world as well as the single biggest opportunity for a peaceful democratic revolution in our age." (Keynote speech at the American Enterprise Institute forum on "The Future of Iran." Washington DC, May 6, 2003. Reported by Shalizeh Nadjmi, National Iranian American Council.)

It is through the construction of this difference, between the sovereign subject in the "West" and the repressed but aspiring Iranian subject, that Brownback legitimizes his "civilizing" mission. Brownback's discourse, does not necessarily erase "Iranian people" (through the violence of war), but interpellates them in new ways (as subjects who desire democracy and are willing to submit to its laws), and creates forms of consciousness that compel citizen-subjects to self-govern in the name of democracy and individual freedom.

The question that comes to mind, is, who are these homogeneous and victimized "Iranian people" whose aspirations and needs are so apparent to Senator Brownback, and who has the power to represent the "Iranian people?"

The irony of Brownback's bill is that while he deploys the trope of "woman" as its object of "concern" and representation, the text of the bill barely mentions women. The only line (other than the title) where "women" appear in this legislation, is the shortest "whereas" statement, where the author claims that "men and women are not equal under the laws of Iran and women are legally deprived of their basic rights."

As seduced as I am with promises of democracy, equality, and freedom in Iran, I find it hard to believe that it is a mere coincidence that the development of a uranium enrichment program in Iran is mentioned early in the bill. It makes one wonder why Caspian Energy and the American Enterprise Institute are among the strong supporters of this bill!

Too busy with safeguarding national and transnational gains, Brownback's democratic plea (or command) for freedom in Iran does not accommodate women! As Gayatri Spivak says, "between patriarchy and imperialism, subject constitution and object formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but to a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the "Third World woman caught between tradition and modernization."

The protection of the "Iranian woman" signifies the establishment of a "democratic" society in Iran, while it constitutes the democratic sovereign "Western" self whose mission is to "liberate." The "Iranian woman," herself, has no voice in this battleground of protection!

Democracy is not an abstract idea that remains sacred and untouched. It is implicated in material practices that have material effects, and the history of Iran is not void of memories of its deployments. To question the sacredness of democracy is not to deny its potentials, but to reflect upon its limits. As Foucault argues, "we must free ourselves from the intellectual blackmail of being for or against the Enlightenment."

Perhaps, rather than being for or against democracy, we ought to question the political and historical conditions that have led to the proliferation of discourses on democracy and referendum. And, perhaps, rather than consuming the rubric of regime change in Iran, we should probe the emergence of the discourse of regime-change in its current form, and at this historical juncture. To do otherwise may repeat history in costly ways.

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By Choob Dosar-Gohi




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