Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran

Photo by Hamed Saber

Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran
By Danny Postel
Prickly Paradigm Press, 2007

Most of us ordinary Americans, with our limited time, energy, and resources, take shortcuts to our political positions; it’s inevitable. One of the most common (and useful) of these is “out now.” Out of Vietnam, out of Central America, out of Iraq, out of the West Bank, out of NAFTA. “Get out” if our government or one of its clients has already intervened; “stay out” if they haven’t yet. It’s a reasonable default position.

It does, however, like all mental shortcuts, have its drawbacks. It doesn’t, for example, suggest ways we might help people whose political problems are not solely America’s fault. Contemporary Iran is one example. The US Government menaces Iran but probably can’t carry out its threats. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime makes life difficult for its own political opponents. How can Americans support Iranian democracy activists without furthering our own government’s purposes, which have little to do with democracy in Iran or anywhere else?

Even to raise this question is, for an American leftist, to think outside the box; if Danny Postel’s eloquent and provocative Reading ‘Legitimation Crisis’ in Tehran did nothing more, it would still be an important contribution to the political conversation. But it does more.

One chapter is a sensitive review of Foucault and the Iranian Revolution by Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, which documents Foucault’s puzzling and slightly scandalous enthusiasm for the Islamic regime. Another is a wide-ranging interview with Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, mainly about which Western political thinkers currently interest Iranians most and why. Apparently liberals and pluralists like Habermas, Arendt, Berlin, and Popper are far more popular than radicals and anti-imperialists like Chomsky and Said, while Marxism is simply a dead letter. Revolution and class struggle are conversation stoppers; instead, Iranians want to discuss individual rights (also known as “bourgeois liberties”): democracy, pluralism, civil society, tradition and modernity, religious tolerance.

The central argument of Reading ‘Legitimation Crisis’ in Tehran is that Western progressives, preoccupied with the sins of their own governments, are not doing Iranian democracy activists as much good as they might. “Anti-imperialism” sometimes even provides a rationale for ignoring or excusing the crimes of the Iranian regime, since any such criticism may be seized by right-wingers seeking pretexts for intervention. This is all wrong, Postel protests (as do Iranian activists, many of whom he cites). Iran, he points out, is “a state at war with itself,” and “progressives everywhere should take sides in that war and actively support the forces of democracy, feminism, pluralism, human rights, and freedom of expression.”

True, but what can Americans do for Iranian democrats? Postel’s answer seems to be, provide moral support. Encourage them, send them speakers, bring them over here to speak. Yes, of course. But what about material support? They don’t want it, and individual citizens couldn’t offer much even if they did. As for US government money, “Thanks, but no thanks,” they say — probably wisely, though I don’t see any objection in principle, only that it would be a tactical mistake. We can demand that the Iranian government release this person, stop that policy. But to whom do we make this demand? The Iranian government has no incentive to pay the slightest attention to American progressives. Nor, for that matter, does the American government. The proper audience for those of us whom Postel is addressing is his and our fellow citizens, whom the US government cannot ignore — not, at any rate, indefinitely. Only an informed majority of American citizens can force a decent foreign (or domestic) policy on the American government.

So what, Postel asks, would be a decent and effective US foreign policy toward Iran, apart from nonintervention? It’s so much clearer in the Israeli-Palestinian case or the Cuban case or the globalization case, or any on the list of cases he rattles off at one point as examples of what progressives usually concern themselves with: “poverty, development, trade policy, capital flows, financial markets, sweat shops, structural adjustment, landless workers, transnational corporations, ecological destruction, genetically engineered crops, and the like.” In all those cases the US government is already doing things that make a great deal of difference, usually for the worse. What about Iran? Why is it urgent that well-intentioned Americans persuade their fellow citizens to force our government to do, or stop doing, in respect to Iran?

The scope of that question can be broadened: what would the world’s richest and most powerful state do if it were serious about promoting democracy and equitable development? The material infrastructure of democracy and human rights is economic security, literacy, public health, and the absence of external threats (which typically furnish governments with “national security” pretexts for repression). American citizens, via taxes, annually fund hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of not entirely benign international activity by their government. A fraction of this money would go a long way toward helping to build that infrastructure in non-rich societies, which are usually (and not coincidentally) non-free societies. As Postel rightly insists, international solidarity isn’t all about changing American policy. But perhaps most of it is.