Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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My latest collection of blatherings, about Reading Lolita in Tehran, is up over at the Ashbrook main site. Delivered as part of a panel discussion on our summer reading assignment for freshmen, the talk focuses on what we can learn from the book about liberal education.

There are, of course, things that I couldn’t say, given the setting and the time constraints. Nafisi’s book is, among other things, a cautionary tale about politicizing the university as well as about having reasonable expectations regarding political change. When she was a graduate student in the U.S., Nafisi clearly had some affinity for the leftist opposition to the Shah. What she comes to realize in Tehran is that, for intellectual freedom and for the university, there’s little difference between Iranian Marxist-Leninists and the mullahs. For her (rightly or wrongly), totalitarianism is totalitarianism is totalitarianism.

And for those of you who are still dubious about the intellectual and political merits of this best-seller, take note of her acknowledgements, where she thanks "Paul" for introducing her to Persecution and the Art of Writing, as well as Hillel Fradkin and Bernard Lewis.

Discussions - 6 Comments

Joseph- I enjoyed reading your piece, especially since my college also read "Reading Lolita" collectively. I was also lucky enough to meet Nafisi more recently. I found her charming, warm and, like her book, emotional and a bit scattered.

I wanted to ask you to expand on two points that you nade, if you have time. You point out that for Nafisi, totalitarianism is totalitarianism...... Do you disagree with this? is there an important difference from the perspective of the "person," or is the only important difference in the realm of theory?

Second, you wrote:

"But just so that there is no misunderstanding: to have access to something fundamentally different requires that we share a common ground of intelligibility. The variety of human ways of life or "cultures" has to be undergirded by a common humanity."

Are you arguing here for a universal perspective that binds otherwise diverse ways of life, or values? Or, is there another point that you are making?



As for your first question, I’m simply not sure. I wonder whether and how a "theocratic" totalitarianism would differ from its secular counterpart, and whether, in general, "culture" has an impact on the shape and character of the totalitarian order. I have no firm convictions on this and would love to be pointed in the direction of helpful resources.

As for your second question, I do think that "nature" lies beneath cultural variety, making it possible for there to be understanding and communication across cultural differences.

I had lunch with a colleague in sociology who knows a whole lot more about totalitarianism than I do. We’d both just spent an hour discussing Reading Lolita with freshmen. Here are the relevant points on which we agreed.

First, Nafisi plays fast and loose with the term "totalitarian," which she does not define with any real precision. That enables her relativvely unproblematically to assimilate Soviet-style totalitarianism to its Iranian "counterpart."

Second, while there are features that the two "totalitarianisms" have in common--e.g., show trials--there are also some that distinguish them. So far as we know (and don’t quote us on this), Iran doesn’t have a Gulag archipelago.

There is, however, one respect (which for Nafisi may overshadow all the others) in which Iranian "totalitarianism" is much more ambitious than the Soviet version. Whereas the Soviets "simply" wanted to control the means of production, and limited individuality and individual self-expression for the sake of that, the mullahs were interested in penetrating much further into the sphere of individual identity, seeking to control how women saw themselves and were seen by others. Refining and working out the consequences of this rather oversimplified distinction requires more time and mental energy than I have on this, the first day that all the students are back on campus.

Thank you, Joe, for both responses. I understand and share your need to attend new classes, etc.

Shortly after I read Nafisi’s book, I was hip-deep in posts on this blog regarding the "predominance" of liberal faculty. My thinking at the time was,"If the right is allowed to politicize higher ed, and students are encouraged to critique the politics of their faculty, then we are headed for Iran-like higher education.

But, when I read your response to "Reading...." I began to think, "This is what the right is afraid of when they react to perceived left-wing predominance."

So now, I am struggling to arrive at some common ground, or transcendent perspective that might unify the right and the left and leave politics out of higher education altogether.

Here’s her 12/5/04 Washington Post essay (from Book World): The Republic of the Imagination.

FWIW, few political scientists today would classify the Islamic Republic of Iran as a full-blown totalitarian regime in practice. It almost certainly began with totalitarian aspirations toward the kind of mental-cum-social control that Nafisi fears, but the regime’s own weaknesses and the resistance put up by Iran’s relatively affluent and well-educated society poured cold water on that Islamofascist dream some time ago. What exists today is a form of manipulated electoral authoritarianism or quasi-autocracy.

The regime still contains a frighteningly large share of fanatics, including possibly the new president, but the top mullahs are now in a ’late Soviet’ phase--they know that nobody, especially among the young in a demographically ’youthful’ society--really believes in the Islamofascist ideology anymore (indeed, many don’t have any use for Islam, period, at least in part b/c of the disrepute that the regime has dragged it into). But the mullahs have oil cash, lots of secret policemen, and battalions of ’hezbollahi’ militia thugs, and they have a lot of power and corrupt wealth to hold on to as well as continuing records of oppression and murders--dozens in Iranian Kurdistan this summer alone--to cover up. So they are hanging on tight according to the time-honored Middle Eastern maxim of ’rule or die.’

But a lot of the stuff that Nafisi writes about, such as the street- and campus-level dress-code monitoring and so on, has relaxed a great deal. Even the new president, who probably would like to wrap all the women back up in chadors, says things like ’What people wear on their heads is less important than unemployment,’ etc.

This is somewhat true to form. The issue that originally infuriated and mobilized Khomeini (b. 1900) way back in 1962 was the last shah’s decision to give the vote to women. Khomeini and his clerical-caste fellows had been stewing for years over the shah’s modernizing reforms, of course, but it was a women’s-rights issue that opened the floodgates. And yet in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution came, Khomeini did not dare try to take women’s votes away. A few of his more extreme backers wanted him to try, but he decided instead that it was smarter to let women keep the vote while mobilizing them into all kinds of Leninist-style "vanguard" revolutionary committees, fronts, and movements (don’t underrate the exemplary influence of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China on the Islamic Republic of Iran, by the way, even if the IRI has never had an actual ruling-party structure cognate to the CPSU or the CCP).

So women kept the vote, and it stuck. And now they are gradually ditching the dress code, and that will probably stick too. The regime has other fish to fry, and is more worried about whether it can keep breaking heads rather than just put scarves on them.

Nafisi is a lovely writer and a very thoughtful analyst of literature, but her political views get much less systematic attention from her than her literary opinions do, which is one of the ’gaps’ (if it’s fair to call them that) in her book. That said, she’s never pretended to be a thoroughgoing student of politics, so you shouldn’t read her expecting to get a comprehensive account of the Iranian regime or its proper classification--preoccupation with the latter being largely ’une deformation professionelle’ of political scientists anyway.

As a throwaway note, I also think her treatment of Jane Austen is lopsided--though I can understand why--and is one of the weaker parts of the book. She or her editor was right to lead off with the far stronger sections on Nabokov and Lolita. But that’s all another story for another thread someday, I suppose.

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