vs. the renaissance
Culture wars masquerading as development theory
April 13, 2005
It is said that when a British reporter asked what
he thought of Western Civilization, anti-colonial campaigner Mahatma
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
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
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