Hawking Up Hairballs

Thursday, October 20, 2005


I find it frustrating that it is so difficult to get reliable knowledge about other countries, in particular the ones that are disapproved of by our ruling elites. Iran is a case in point, and the difficulty came home to me again in a piece in the Nov. 3. 2005 issue of The New York Review of Books called “Soldiers of the Hidden Imam.” It was written by Timothy Garton Ash, a Professor at the Univ. of Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Garton Ash is certainly no supporter of the jingoistic policies of the Bush administration, but he accepts without question the notion that the West must do whatever it can to support democratic forces within Iran. I can’t disagree with that. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a regime that is as oppressive as Iran’s seems to be. However, there are two questions that I have, and it’s damned difficult to get them answered to my satisfaction. The first concerns the true nature of the regime. The second concerns the opinions of the people in Iran. Garton Ash fails to furnish helpful answers to either.

Regarding the nature of the regime, he would do the Bushes proud in that he paints it as bad, bad! That’s fine, if he did it with facts, but he chooses to tar it with various loaded words and condemnatory comparisons. For example, he says, “Khomeini was both the Lenin and the Stalin of Iran’s Islamic revolution. The system he created has some similarities with a communist party-state.” This is all ad hominem, and presents no real useful information to the reader. Why not aver something like that there are sociological similarities between the structure of Iran’s state and that of the Soviet Union? He could then follow that up with examples that illustrate his contention.

This isn’t just one instance that I’m picking on. Later he says, “In a communist party-state, the party line was to be found in the pages of Pravda or Neues Deutschland. In the Islamic mullah-state, the “imam line” is handed down through Friday prayers,...” What is the purpose of that first statement except to tell the reader that these guys are as bad as the communists were. It’s yet more ad hominem.

Even when there is an example of some minimal democratic practice, Garton Ash dismisses it. “As in communist party-states, there is intense factional struggle, which Western observers sometimes mistake for pluralism. Unlike in communist party-states, factions actually appeal to voters to strengthen their position(sic).” He goes on from there to explain why this doesn’t really count.

After reading such passages and, believe me, there are more, how am I supposed to believe anything that he has to say about the nature of the regime is accurate? Yes, I know it’s a theocracy and that it’s oppressive, but that’s about it. What informed readers in the West need to know is more details about the regime and how it operates. This isn’t just an intellectual exercise either because it bears upon the question of whether or not there are political movements that can be supported that embrace democracy. Is it possible for the regime to be changed peacefully, or is it so oppressive that nothing short of a violent upheaval will change things? That’s a questions that dearly needs answering.

The second question regards the support for the regime, and Garton Ash provides no more helpful information here. He traveled to Iran for two weeks and claims to have “met intellectuals of all stripes, artists, farmers, politicians, and businesspeople.” I find it interesting that of the five sorts of people that he claims to have visited only one, the farmers, are what are usually considered to be members of the masses of people, and I’ll bet that he didn’t get as up close and personal with the farmers as he got with the people in the following passage. “I also got a taste of life behind the high garden walls of the houses of the middle and upper class, where the hijab immediately comes off and opinions are scathingly contemptuous of the aging revolutionary Islamic zeal of the country’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”

If one wants to get a feel for Garton Ash’s true feelings toward ordinary people, consider the following remarks, “In the middle of a Tehran traffic jam, my driver received a text message on his cell phone. It asked him urgently to pray for the return of the hidden imam, the Shiites’ twelfth imam or mahdi, who supposedly went into hiding some 1127 years ago. A secular intellectual wondered aloud whether a society so rife with mendacity and superstition is at all susceptible to understanding through reason.”

The fact is that Garton Ash is a privileged fellow, even here in the West, so who is he going to be most comfortable with? Those who are like him, of course, so I’m guessing that he mostly hung around those from the educated and relatively affluent elites. These people, of course, would love a more Western style of government in Iran because they would then be the ones most likely to rise to positions of wealth and power. The question is though, how do the broad masses out there feel about the regime, and I don’t feel that I can trust the likes of Garton Ash to answer that question for me.


Blogger slickdpdx said...

Information about Iran supporting Garton Ash's general statements is pretty easy to find.

Enjoyed reading your blog. Geek Love is a fantastic novel. The only thing that bothered me was the journalist angle, I thought it got in the way of the novel and should have been eliminated. I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say about the other two books you are re-reading.

A book I have found holds up to re-reading every few years is The Plague.

You Bright and Risen Angels is worth picking up, one of the best books in recent years. Fathers and Crows is also good.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Chuck Oliveros said...

I realize that it's easy to find info supporting Garton Ash's general statements. It's mostly the ad hominem nature of the remarks that got under my skin. I also want to know what the average Iranian in the countryside thinks. Garton Ash visiting Tehran in order to discern what Iranians are thinking is like an Iranian visiting New York City to get a feel for what Americans are thinking. The view is bound to be skewed.

I haven't read The Plague since college, which was a very long time ago. Back then I was a very big fan of Camus. I'll have to put it on my list.

I'll have to get You Bright and Risen Angels. Given that I haven't worked in a long time, I'm trying to limit the purchase of books, and they don't have the book in the local library, so it may be a while before I buy it.

11:47 PM  

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