Iran and Cultural Imperialism
Observer; February 16: Last night Britain executed two men arrested during the period of widespread unrest that erupted after January 29th’s disputed Chilcot inquiry into the Labour government and Tony Blair’s role in the invasion of Iraq. Jonathan Sparks, 21 and Brandon Dwyer 33, convicted as “enemies of the British Empire and the Queen”, members of anarchist and anti-imperialist groups, participating in the rallies with the goal of "toppling state". Seven other men and two women also await execution. J. Sparks and B. Dwyer had confessed to their crimes against the state and the Queen during their televised trial.
On Friday February 12, more than 100 British opposition politicians and activists accused of involvement in violence after the war inquiry, appeared in court in London on the first day of what opposition activists allege is a mass show trial.
During Friday's televised hearing prosecutors read out an indictment outlining what they said was a plot by a coalition of pro-reform, green, anarchists and anti-war political parties to overthrow the British Empire. Among the defendants were several prominent politicians, including former vice-interior secretary William Snow and Democratic Citizen Front leader, Josef Gooderman. The first to read a defense, Gooderman insisted that his confessions were voluntarily, a result of spending the last two weeks in a solitary confinement which gave him the opportunity to contemplate and revise his political positions. Said Gooderman: “The roots of my deviation from the interests of the British people and Empire can be found in years of studying and teaching sociological theories…. Mistakenly, I tried to apply those theories to England”.
This morning a special council has been appointed by the Prime Minister’s office to review liberal arts and human sciences programs in colleges and universities across the nation. The council is expected to provide guidelines before the next school year, September 2011, to align the content of such disciplines with the interests of the British Empire and the Queen.
Obviously the above story is false. Yet it is important to ask what part of it makes it more unbelievable? Is it that such ordeals never happen in England? That British judicial procedures would allow the conducting of group trials, executions, or dictating the content of the human sciences? Or, on the other hand, do you feel insulted and enraged at the possibility as such, of such a group trial and such confessions held under the pretense of due process, of fair and balance justice? If your first reaction falls somewhere in response to the first three questions, I would argue, you suffer from cultural imperialism, or, from an acute voluntary blindness. You suffer, that is to say, from either a double standard according to which such obscenity is acceptable in a third world country, or you just don't care. Such suffering as this is visible in a variety of ‘radical’, ‘progressive’ and ‘critical’ activist organizations and intellectual forums, such as the Monthly Review shows in its stubborn silence about the more than half a year of Iranian uprising, its violent suppression by the Iranian state, and the sort of items with respect to Iran’s unrest, posted on their offspring web page, MRZine.
There was a time, some thirty-odd years ago, that, whenever my friends/co-activists/comrades and I heard anything about show trials in the Soviet Union under Stalin, or executions, labour camps, displacements, etc. we simply dismissed it out of hand as bourgeois, imperialist propaganda. The Iranian left, even those who considered the USSR state capitalist and dubbed it ‘social-imperialist’, still could not believe such atrocities against humanity occurred in such a 'pro-working class' state. Enforcing substantial justice and equality just could not go hand in hand with oppression and the reign of fear and darkness. Like many today, our logic was decisively based on observation of who was benefiting from this undermining of socialism in general and the USSR in particular: American led western imperialism. It is understandable, I think, that we, the young and old leftists of Iran – in a place and time of dictatorship, censorship of books, information, knowledge and critical thought of any kind– might well exhibit such historical ignorance. There were some material conditions for our subjective stupidity. The same cannot be said for today's 'intellectuals'. Apparently, many have failed to notice that the old anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism [For a more patient argument you can consult Bahare Farda’s article], the simple, bipolar world of colonies and colonizers, the world of Avatar, has expired. Yes, you may experience intense cathartic joy when you watch the bad colonist-capitalists with their private army and state sponsored scientific team get their asses handed to them and are then kicked out of the land by its rightful people. And, yes, you may feel a certain satisfaction when you hear heads of state such as Ahmadinejad make condescending comments about American administrations, lecture on peace and cooperation among different religions, or make blunt and rude responses to western media anchors [I can assure you that he does an even better job in Farsi, so, if you are in it for the cheap thrills, I suggest you find the time to learn Farsi so you can get the full effect.]
But in the western world of 2010, a world that is at least not directly suffering from crushing censorship of thought and knowledge, confusing those fantasies, however good the feelings, with social and political reality is inexcusable. Viewing the Iranian Islamic regime as a populist state, a state that supports or works for its working class or under-class, while it murders, assassinates, executes, tortures, kidnaps and imprisons whoever shows a sign of opposition, is not naïveté, but cultural imperialism. I would really like to hear how some western 'anti-imperialist' intellectual of whatever stamp would react to mass trials, confessions and so on in her or his country – or in one of the fellow civilized countries. I doubt that such a 'radical' would watch, silently writing it off as a natural phenomenon for such a place. The story is evidently quite different if the atrocity takes place in a third world country like Iran. Even after two people are put through a farcical pretense of a trial and hanged for participating in a demonstration, the self-congratulatory Monthly Review remains silent.
The attitude is particularly difficult to swallow. "From the first [May, 1949]", it is proudly announced, "Monthly Review spoke for socialism and against U.S. imperialism, and is still doing so today..… In the intervening years of counter-revolution, Monthly Review has kept a steady viewpoint. That point of view is the heartfelt attempt to frame the issues of the day with one set of interests foremost in mind: those of the greatmajorityof humankind, the propertyless.” (my emphasis). Searching through the last seven months of the Journal's table of contents, however, I find precisely zero articles addressing the issues of Iranian "humankind", nothing but a resounding silence. In contrast to the main engine, the MRZine shows a relative abundance of postings on Iran. And here one can follow the not very subtle tracks of cultural imperialism.
On February 11, for example, the MRZine announces: “Iran: The Islamic Revolution Defeats Western Hopes for Regime Change”, posting four clips from the Iranian state media's pro-state productions, three on the so-called victorious day for the Islamic state under the rule of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, and one clip under the subheading “Green Wave Ebbs” reporting on the meek presence of the opposition - hence their ‘defeat’. This 'ebbing' and 'defeat' is also propped up by adding two short clips showing a sparse crowd of opposition protesters. For more, the editor recommends that we "consult Iran's Last [!] Marxist Nasser Zarafshan: Setareh Derakhshesh, "Interview with Dr. Nasser Zarafshan and Farrokh Negahdar"” conducted by Voice of America on January 6, 2010. That the interview is in Farsi means that the current non-Iranian “generation of activists” are limited to an “education as subscribers to” MRZine from the Iranian state presentation of its own victory (no doubt one could get a similar grasp of the righteous Chinese, North Korean, Egyptian or Saudi Arabian representation of their people’s interests from their state newscasts, but these other representatives of the people don't shout “death to U.S.A.” so they are of no interest to MRZine). Beyond this posting's title, the rest of the text tells us of "Hashemi’s hopes for a palace coup," and gives us the following trail-off: "Iran Celebrates the 31st Anniversary of the Islamic Revolution”.
Limiting myself to this example (the other entries are more or less equally egregious), I would like to raise the following points to challenge MRZine's representation of the Iranian struggle:
1) To begin with, however much the West and the Iranian state try to reduce the 1979 revolution to Islam and Khomeini, there is no equation here; it's like renaming the French Revolution the Jacobin Revolution to reduce it all to the Terror. The 1979 Revolution was much broader than the Islamic element, and it was only after the victory of the revolution against the dictator Shah, that Khomeini and his followers got together as the Islamic Republic Party and hijacked it. Starting with the disenfranchisement and oppression of women, just three weeks into the post-Shah era, they moved on to disenfranchise and oppress the ethnic and religious minorities, finishing up with all other political and ideological parties and those ordinary people who sympathized with anything other than Khomeini and his power bloc. They massacred, jailed, tortured, paraded forced confessions on television, oppressing the flesh and spirit of the entire country. And that is only the story of the first decade after the revolution; they marked their tenth anniversary by massacring thousands of political prisoners to finally solve the problem of the dissident revolutionaries of the 1979 generation. This is functionally parallel to the final solution or the Stalinist purges.
2) Next you imply with the word “defeat” that the sparse crowds on the small number of the phone videos, when compared with the carefully staged shots of the state presentation of its own rally is a sign of the victory of the state. These are hardly fair and balanced sources. You might want to take a look at a non-state and from the ground clip of Ahmadinejad’s 'nuclear power' talk and see how sparse his crowds are.
3) “Western hopes”: Here again cultural imperialism (perhaps even hiding under the guise of anti-U.S. imperialism) appears in the exclusive focus on this 'western' perspective– Of course the West has its own dreams of continued and expanding domination; yes, the sun comes up in the morning, and yes, both of these are important. Neither, however, should blind us to the effective complexities. In this case, there is no mention of the hopes of the thousands of men and women arrested, thousands more who have fled the country to avoid prosecution, the thousands of mothers, fathers, children and siblings whose family members have been killed in the streets or under torture and executed over the years by this regime (You may have noticed that they just handed down another death order). Further, there is no mention of the hopes of the millions of people who are deprived of freely talking over the phone, sending emails and text messaging because of the state’s universal surveillance. Apparently there is no recognition of the human agency, the subjective courage of those Iranians who, even when promised death in the streets, demonstrate their resistance to this regime.
4) “Hashemi’s hopes”: Complementary to the above, it seems that in the MRZine’s imagination there is no room left over for the 'ordinary' human's subjectivity or agency. Even when potentiality is bestowed on a non-western figure, it is Hashemi Rafsanjani who becomes the recipient. That is to say, the only subjects involved in the civil and political unrest, months of street rallies and fights, and the sporadic workers strikes, are other factional members of the Iranian state, much like Hashemi (when it's not the western states). It is only their hopes, their voices, and their demands that count. The rest do not exist. So, it seems you agree with Ahmadinejad who announced the state has no opposition, that those in the streets are only khas va khashak,“dust and trash”. Most regally on your part, so it looks to many, you apparently consider these people nothing more than pawns in the hands of the big agents, the big subjects, U.S. imperialism and its ilk.
All in all, is it really possible that you anti-imperialist ‘activists’ and ‘intellectuals’ feed your righteousness with the cliché that the enemy of my enemy is my friend? That you take sides with whichever political figure, institution or state, however despicable, uses your familiar anti-imperialist rhetoric? At best, the scenario you present is one of intellectual laziness dreaming on the hammock of cultural imperialism; at worst, it appears as the dogmatic mantra of an antiquated anti-imperialist religion.
*Shokoufeh Sakhi is an ABD candidate for the Ph.D. in Political Theory at York University, Toronto who spent eight years in prison in Iran for leftist activism in the 1980s. She participated and consulted in "The Tree That Remembers", an NFB documentary.