Iran and the Future of Liberalism: As an authority against authoritarianism, liberalism is undergoing a renaissance in Iran, and reflecting back to the West its radical roots.
January 8, 2013
Remember the Iranian Green Revolution of 2009? Three plus years later those times seem to have taken place a lifetime ago.
The murder of Neda Soltan, Sohrab Aarabi and up to 150 others (as asserted by CNN) have largely been forgotten. Indeed, there those today who insist we can and should treat as equals, a regime which demanded a $3,000 bullet recovery fee prior to the release of a protester murdered by the authorities. It should be no surprise to anyone by now that Iran is Syria’s most enthusiastic supporter and a long time supporter of terrorism.
Then there is the matter of Iran’s nuclear program, which has been decried by western nations and has resulted in crippling sanctions.
All the while, Iranian protest movements have refused to shrivel up, die and go away. Alone and without visible or media support these young Iranians plod on, driven by one idea: liberalism, the ideology that has birthed more successful revolutions than any other.
There is a lot we can learn and relearn from these driven Iranians- they are inclusive, tolerant and above all they demand human and equal rights for all, religious rights and a free market place for thoughts and ideas.
And they are willing to put it all on the line for those things we often take for granted.
IN her 2003 memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, the Iranian literary scholar Azar Nafisi tells the story of a group of her female students who surreptitiously gathered in her living room once a week to discuss works of Western literature deemed unfit for classroom instruction by the Islamic Republic’s censors. Over a period of close to two years in the mid-1990s, the women snuck into their teacher’s home every Thursday morning, removed the veils they are legally required to wear in public, and mixed it up over Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Jane Austen, Henry James and Saul Bellow.
Reading Lolita is about how these women experienced internal freedom amidst external repression – about a struggle to carve out a space for the imagination under the crushing weight of a regime committed to administering the totality of public and private life alike. It’s a story about the transformative power of great literature, its ability to connect and transport its readers to an outside world – in this case, a world that is prohibited, closed, off-limits. It is an attempt to contravene, however momentarily and precariously, what Andrei Codrescu calls “the disappearance of the outside”.
As Nafisi shows, the encounter with books under such conditions has a transformative effect not only on those who read them, but on the works themselves. The women in Nafisi’s clandestine book club see things in these novels that people on the outside are unlikely to see. Nabokov’sInvitation to a Beheading resonates differently for readers in the Islamic Republic of Iran than for those, say, in North America or Western Europe.
In turn, I think it’s fair to say that we in the West can discover a great deal about our own literature by seeing it reflected back through the prism of an outsider. Nafisi poignantly captures this two-way street by explaining that the West’s “gifts to us have been Lolita and Gatsby”, while Iran’s gift to the West “has been reasserting those values that they now take for granted…”. My contention here is that this insight may be applied to international politics.
If you want to go where people are reading Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper, Nafisi has admonished, “go to Iran”. Go to Iran, I would add, if you want to discover where people are reading Jürgen Habermas, Isaiah Berlin, Leszek Kolakowski and Immanuel Kant. “There have been more translations of Kant into Persian in the past decade than into any other language”, reports Vali Nasr, “and these have gone into multiple printings”. Abdollah Momeni, the leader of Iran’s most prominent student-activist group (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat), claims Habermas as his chief inspiration. The speeches and writings of Akbar Ganji, Iran’s leading dissident, are peppered with references to Kant, John Stuart Mill and Albert Camus.
Indeed, there are often “more vibrant resonances of ‘Continental’ thought” in countries like Iran, writes the political philosopher Fred Dallmayr, “than can be found in Europe today”. In an elegant elaboration on this point, he observes:
This does not mean that European perspectives are simply disseminated across the world without reciprocity or reciprocal learning. Nor does it mean that local origins are simply erased in favor of a bland universalism… What it does mean is that landscapes and localities undergo symbolic metamorphoses, and that experiences once localized at a given place increasingly find echoes or resonance chambers among distant societies and peoples.
As the Iranian scholar Farideh Farhi has noted, there is an “elaborate and extremely rich conversation that has taken shape in Iran in the past few years concerning the requirements of a democratic and transparent political system and the relationship between faith and freedom”. The Iranian political scientist Mehrdad Mashayekhi describes “an epoch-making renaissance in political culture and discourse”, while the Tehran-based philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo argues that there is nothing less than “a renaissance of liberalism” taking place in Iran today. (Indeed, Jahanbegloo’s own work perfectly embodies the intellectual conversation between Iran and the West. In addition to his books of conversations, in English, with Isaiah Berlin and Ashis Nandy and, in French, with George Steiner, he has written works on Machiavelli, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Tagore and Gandhi. He has also brought an endless stream of Western intellectuals to lecture in Iran in recent years, among them Nandy, Dallmayr, Richard Rorty, Agnes Heller, Antonio Negri, Michael Ignatieff and Timothy Garton Ash).
Why is there such an intense interest in these authors in Iran? How do books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Origins of Totalitarianism speak to contemporary Iranians? Do the ideas of Habermas and Berlin look the same to Iranian intellectuals and dissidents as they do to us? And of the many intellectual-political currents emanating from the West – Marxism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, subaltern studies, and various blends thereof – why is liberalism the most popular school of thought among Iranian intellectuals and students at this historical moment?
First, let me state exactly what I mean by liberalism. There is of course a robust and complex theoretical debate among philosophers, political theorists, and intellectual historians about the precise contours and varieties of liberal thought, its historical evolution, its tensions and contradictions. Many of the arguments being advanced in that debate are important and useful. But for purposes of this essay, I’m going to focus very concretely on what liberalism means in Iran today. Broadly speaking, it signifies the struggle for human rights, women’s rights, civil liberties, pluralism, religious toleration, freedom of expression and multi-party democracy.
The struggle for these things defines the present upheaval. And the reason is pretty straightforward: Iran is a theocratic police state. The so-called Islamic Republic, established after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, defines itself largely in opposition to these things. Its human rights record is atrocious. Newspapers and magazines that criticize the regime are routinely shut down. Dissident journalists and intellectuals are jailed and tortured, in many cases killed. Article 4 of Iran’s Constitution prohibits the establishment of any law or policy not in keeping with Islam. Without the official permission of the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, in the words of the Iranian author Naghmeh Zarbafian, “no books or magazines are published, no audiotapes are distributed, no movies are shown, and no cultural organization is established”. The unelected Guardian Council – a body of six clerics appointed by the unelected Supreme Leader – has the authority to veto any legislation passed by Iran’s parliament and decides who may or may not stand for office. Women are required to follow a strict dress code, covering their heads in public. A 16-year-old girl was recently sentenced to death and hung for having sex outside of marriage. That she claimed to have been raped counted for nothing.
Under conditions like these, liberalism is a radical political project. A triumphant Iranian liberalism would involve dismantling the entire apparatus of the reigning political order and constructing a dramatically different one. In the Iranian context, liberalism is a matter of life and death: people are literally putting their lives on the line when they write articles for opposition newspapers calling for an end to theocratic rule; when they take to the streets to participate in student demonstrations for democracy; when they publish a blog at an internet café that dares to criticize the régime’s human rights record.
For Iranians, liberalism is a fighting faith. They have to struggle, at great personal risk, to realize the‘bourgeois liberties’ we take for granted. “Human rights and freedom are luxuries for us”, says Akbar Ganji. “In order to get them, we have to pay. We have to fight, actively resist, go to jail”.
As the French political philosopher Pierre Manent says, most of us who live in liberal democracies have forgotten what it means to be political. We are tempted, he writes, “to forget that [we] are political animals”. We’re largely incognizant of the struggles that had to be waged in order to achieve the rights and arrangements that liberal societies enjoy today: the sacrifices that were made, the blood that was spilled, the lives that were lost, indeed, the world-altering convulsions that were endured. Many, if not most, of us inhabit a liberal landscape whose provenance is invisible. We exercise rights and liberties more or less the way we drink water – as things that simply are, rather than things that we have to fight for.
Left-wing critiques of liberalism, which seemed in many ways to have lost their sting and appeal amid the revolutions of 1989, have been making something of a comeback in the Age of Bush. Whereas in the immediate aftermath of Communism’s collapse, radicals like Peter Osborne were arguing that “the future of socialism seems now to hang in the balance of its reorientation towards the liberal tradition”, liberalism now finds itself, if anything, on the defensive. Liberals are saddled with the burden of disentangling their project from neoliberalism, from the Iraq War, and from US imperialism. They are busy responding, in other words, to the radical critique of liberalism…
January 8, 2013
Everybody is an expert. Self help books abound and their advocates are convinced and are often enthusiastic promoters of their efficacy.
Too bad the reality is very different. The best of the self help books remind us that common sense is often our best guide. They also reinforce the notion that self help can’t fix everything. Consult a real expert is the mantra when problems are overwhelming. The worst of the self help books usually center around the idea that a) the experts are all wrong, serve corporate interests, serve their own interests and are all a part of a conspiracy to keep you dependent and b) because you are so special/smart/kind/wonderful you don’t need an expert, all the tools to solve any problem can be found within you.
In particular, New Age ideas have helped legitimize magical thinking. You can be anyone you want to be, succeed at at anything you want succeed at and become a very special person because, well, you already are a very special person. It matters not one bit you may not have the talent, aptitude or mental health- you are special and that is all that matters.
This kind of thinking eventually lead to the acceptable treatment of depression for example, as a physical illness. In fact, just about whatever ails us nowadays can and is dealt with by self help experts.
Very rich self help experts.
How-to writers are to other writers as frogs are to mammals,” wrote the critic Dwight MacDonald in a 1954 survey of “Howtoism.” “Their books are not born, they are spawned.”
MacDonald began his story by citing a list of 3,500 instructional books. Today, there are at least 45,000 specimens in print of the optimize-everything cult we now call “self-help,” but few of them look anything like those classic step-by-step “howtos,” which MacDonald and his Establishment brethren handled only with bemused disdain. These days, self-help is unembarrassed, out of the bedside drawer and up on the coffee table, wholly transformed from a disreputable publishing category to a category killer, having remade most of nonfiction in its own inspirational image along the way.
Many of the books on Amazon’s current list of “Best Sellers in Self-Help” would have been unrecognizable to MacDonald: Times business reporter Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, a tour of the latest behavioral science; Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist, a fable about an Andalusian shepherd seeking treasure in Egypt; Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a journalistic paean to reticence; publisher Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club, about reading with his dying mother; and A Child Called “It,” David Pelzer’s recollections of harrowing and vicious child abuse. And these are just the books publishers identify as self-help; other hits are simply labeled “business” or “psychology” or “religion.” “There isn’t even a category officially called ‘self-help,’ ” says William Shinker, publisher of Gotham Books. Shinker discovered Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and now publishes books on “willpower” and “vulnerability”—“self-help masquerading as ‘big-idea’ books.”
Twenty years ago, when Chicken Soup for the Soul was published, everyone knew where to find it and what it was for. Whatever you thought of self-help—godsend, guilty pleasure, snake oil—the genre was safely contained on one eclectic bookstore shelf. Today, every section of the store (or web page) overflows with instructions, anecdotes, and homilies. History books teach us how to lead, neuroscience how to use our amygdalas, and memoirs how to eat, pray, and love. The former CEO of CNN writes the biography of an ornery tech visionary and it becomes a best seller on the strength of its leadership lessons. The Nobel-laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes a subtle analysis of our decision-making process and soon finds his best seller digested and summarized in M.B.A. seminars across the country. Philosophical essayist Alain de Botton launches a series of self-help books called “The School of Life,” whose titles will all begin with “how to.” Even before books are written, their advances are often predicated on strong “takeaways” targeted to proven demographics. More like a virus than MacDonald’s frogs, self-help has infiltrated and commandeered other fields in its drive to reproduce. This plague of usefulness has burrowed its way into the types of books that were traditionally meant to enlighten, or entertain, or influence policy, but not exactly to build better selves. It’s generally led to better self-help, more grounded in the facts and narratives that drive the other genres, but also to a nonfiction landscape in which every goal is subjugated to the self-improvement imperative.
This new kind of self-help could never thrive in a vacuum. Or rather, it thrives in a particular vacuum—the one left behind by the disappearance of certain public values that once fulfilled our lives. Strains of self-help culture—entrepreneurship, pragmatism, fierce self-reliance, gauzy spirituality—have been embedded in the national DNA since Poor Richard’s Almanack. But in the past there was always a countervailing force, an American stew of shame and pride and citizenship that kept these impulses walled off, sublimating private anxiety to the demands of an optimistic meritocracy. That force has gradually been weakened by the erosion of all sorts of structures, from the corporate career track to the extended family and the social safety net. Instead of regulation, we have that new buzzword, self-regulation; instead of an ambivalence over “selling out,” we have the millennial drive to “monetize”; and instead of seeking to build better institutions, we mine them in order to build better selves. Universities now devote faculty to fields (positive psychology, motivation science) that function as research arms of the self-help industry, while journalists schooled in a sense of public mission turn their skills to fulfilling our emotional needs. But since self-help trails with it that old shameful stigma, the smartest writers and publishers shun the obvious terminology. And the savviest readers enjoy the masquerade, knowing full well what’s behind the costume: self-help with none of the baggage.
It was in the seventies that we began to shed that baggage, starting with the outer layer of self-help: common sense. Children of the postwar middle class were weaned on the mass paperbacks of Dr. Spock, and their parents learned how to win friends and think positively from Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale. But in the late sixties, that gray-flannel-suit howtoism gave way to the reemergence of an older, more mystical strain, part bootstrapping and part magical thinking. The New Age was really a revival of what had once been called New Thought: a religious movement spawned in the primordial soup of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sigmund Freud, and William James that preached the flip side of the Protestant work ethic: faith above works and a belief in one’s unlimited capacities on Earth. The new New Thought was the perfect religion for the Me Decade, a reality-show version of spirituality in which the meaning of life is to unleash the inner superstar.
You might date the final triumph of New Thought over mid-century pragmatism to the relocation of Harper & Row’s venerable religious division. In 1977, the old Protestant imprint moved to New Age–soaked San Francisco, land of Esalen, yoga, est, and Human Potential. Nine years later, it partnered with the Hazelden clinic to publish Melody Beattie’sCodependent No More. Suddenly, the jargon of AA became the jargon of the USA. Linda Loewenthal, who led self-help beacon Harmony Books, calls the recovery boom “my awakening to the power of naming something.” And, actually, “recovery” named everything, defining every problem as a personal illness to be conquered—toxic parents, women who love too much, obesity, excessive shopping, and above all “codependency,” which could potentially encompass any human relationship.
Recovery-inspired self-help replaced doctors, priests, and therapists (and maybe even parents, senators, and teachers) with public personalities who gave names to the problems of millions. In the insecure nineties, these Martin Luthers translated elite (and expensive) knowledge into news Americans could use. Suze Orman had worked at Merrill Lynch before ending up a financial counselor to the recently laid off. Then she pitched a book to Esther Margolis, the head of self-help publisher Newmarket Press. Now Orman’s the preeminent adviser to a downsized middle class. Deepak Chopra was a doctor at Tufts and Boston University who turned to meditation. He went to Harmony Books with his 1993 breakthrough, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old. In one soothing voice, East met West, the mind met the body, and the aging boomers met their age-defying guru…
January 8, 2013
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
January 8, 2013
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
Are Babies Born Good? New research offers surprising answers to the age-old question of where morality comes from
January 7, 2013
Every parent recalls feeding an infant-the laughing, smiling and cooing as the infant eats the Cheerios proffered by mom or dad. In tine, there is a ritual which must be performed before the child will eat.. Funny faces, the spoon as airplane and babies mouth as a garage are but a few.
And then a monumental event in the development of the child occurs. One day, in the midst of feeding, the child proffers a morsel to the parent. In what seems like an instant, the child becomes aware of his or her capacity to please/satisfy the parent. The significance of this cannot be overstated. A child’s earliest thoughts are ‘me’. Feed me, hold, me, change me, etc. Now, the child becomes aware of the other.
But what if there were more to this behavior? What if the behavior is not simple but the result of very complex processes? What if babies can count? Suppose babies were sophisticated enough to determine our moods? What if babies were able to discern right from wrong and good from bad?
There are a whole lot of researchers who believe just that. In fact there are a lot of scientists who believe babies hard hardwired for certain positive (helpful) social interactions. In fact. a strong case can be made that as man evolved the need for social interactions took primacy of the needs of physical interactions.
Of course, the science isn’t so neat and orderly.
What kind of a role does culture play in the social evolution of babies (if any)? While the innate desire to help/get along may be there under what circumstances are they manifested and when are they withheld? What can we do to enhance these characteristics to help and share and what are we doing that might impede them?
No simple answers to these fascinating questions. One thing is certain- there will be a firestorm of debate surrounding this new and ongoing research.
Arber Tasimi is a 23-year-old researcher at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center, where he studies the moral inclinations of babies—how the littlest children understand right and wrong, before language and culture exert their deep influence.“What are we at our core, before anything, before everything?” he asks. His experiments draw on the work of Jean Piaget, Noam Chomsky, his own undergraduate thesis at the University of Pennsylvania and what happened to him in New Haven, Connecticut, one Friday night last February.
It was about 9:45 p.m., and Tasimi and a friend were strolling home from dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings. Just a few hundred feet from his apartment building, he passed a group of young men in jeans and hoodies. Tasimi barely noticed them, until one landed a punch to the back of his head.
There was no time to run. The teenagers, ignoring his friend, wordlessly surrounded Tasimi, who had crumpled to the brick sidewalk. “It was seven guys versus one aspiring PhD,” he remembers. “I started counting punches, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Somewhere along the way, a knife came out.” The blade slashed through his winter coat, just missing his skin.
At last the attackers ran, leaving Tasimi prone and weeping on the sidewalk, his left arm broken. Police later said he was likely the random victim of a gang initiation.
After surgeons inserted a metal rod in his arm, Tasimi moved back home with his parents in Waterbury, Connecticut, about 35 minutes from New Haven, and became a creature much like the babies whose social lives he studies. He couldn’t shower on his own. His mom washed him and tied his shoes. His sister cut his meat.
Spring came. One beautiful afternoon, the temperature soared into the 70s and Tasimi, whose purple and yellow bruises were still healing, worked up the courage to stroll outside by himself for the first time. He went for a walk on a nearby jogging trail. He tried not to notice the two teenagers who seemed to be following him. “Stop catastrophizing,” he told himself again and again, up until the moment the boys demanded his headphones.
The mugging wasn’t violent but it broke his spirit. Now the whole world seemed menacing. When he at last resumed his morality studies at the Infant Cognition Center, he parked his car on the street, feeding the meter every few hours rather than risking a shadowy parking garage.
“I’ve never been this low in life,” he told me when we first met at the baby lab a few weeks after the second crime. “You can’t help wonder: Are we a failed species?”
At times, he said, “only my research gives me hope.”
The study of babies and young toddlers is a perplexing business. Even the most perceptive observers can be tempted to see what isn’t there. “When our infant was only four months old I thought that he tried to imitate sounds; but I may have deceived myself,” Charles Darwin wrote in “A Biographical Sketch of an Infant,” his classic study of his own son. Babies don’t reliably control their bodies or communicate well, if at all, so their opinions can’t be solicited through ordinary means. Instead, researchers outfit them with miniature wire skullcaps to monitor their brain waves, scrutinize them like shoplifters through video cameras and two-way mirrors, and conduct exceedingly clever and tightly controlled experiments, which a good portion of their subjects will refuse to sit through anyway. Even well-behaved babies are notoriously tough to read: Their most meditative expressions are often the sign of an impending bowel movement.
But tiny children are also some of psychology’s most powerful muses. Because they have barely been exposed to the world, with its convoluted cultures and social norms, they represent the raw materials of humanity: who we are when we’re born, rather than who we become. Benjamin Spock’s famous book, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, “starts out with the sentence ‘You know more than you think you do,’” says Melvin Konner, an Emory University anthropologist and physician and the author of The Evolution of Childhood. “There’s another point that needs to be made to parents: Your baby knows more than you think she knows. That’s what’s coming out of this kind of research.”
The 1980s and ’90s brought a series of revelations about very young babies’ sophisticated perceptions of the physical world, suggesting that we come to life equipped with quite an extensive tool kit. (Can 5-month-olds count? Absolutely. Do they understand simple physics? Yes.) Recently, some labs have turned to studying infants’ inborn social skills, and how babies perceive and assess other people’s goals and intentions. Scrutinizing these functions, scientists hope, will reveal some innate features of our minds—“the nutshell of our nature,” says Karen Wynn, director of the Yale lab.
“People who’ve spent their whole careers studying perception are now turning toward social life, because that’s where the bio-behavioral rubber meets the evolutionary road,” Konner says. “Natural selection has operated as much or more on social behavior as on more basic things like perception. In our evolution, survival and reproduction depended more and more on social competence as you went from basic mammals to primates to human ancestors to humans.”
The Yale Infant Cognition Center is particularly interested in one of the most exalted social functions: ethical judgments, and whether babies are hard-wired to make them. The lab’s initial study along these lines, published in 2007 in the journal Nature, startled the scientific world by showing that in a series of simple morality plays, 6- and 10-month-olds overwhelmingly preferred “good guys” to “bad guys.” “This capacity may serve as the foundation for moral thought and action,” the authors wrote. It “may form an essential basis for…more abstract concepts of right and wrong.”
The last few years produced a spate of related studies hinting that, far from being born a “perfect idiot,” as Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, or a selfish brute, as Thomas Hobbes feared, a child arrives in the world provisioned with rich, broadly pro-social tendencies and seems predisposed to care about other people. Children can tell, to an extent, what is good and bad, and often act in an altruistic fashion. “Giving Leads to Happiness in Young Children,” a study of under-2-year-olds concluded. “Babies Know What’s Fair” was the upshot of another study, of 19- and 21-month-olds. Toddlers, the new literature suggests, are particularly equitable. They are natural helpers, aiding distressed others at a cost to themselves, growing concerned if someone shreds another person’s artwork and divvying up earnings after a shared task, whether the spoils take the form of detested rye bread or precious Gummy Bears.
This all sounds like cheering news for humanity, especially parents who nervously chant “share, share, share” as their children navigate the communal toy box. Indeed, some of these studies suggest that children’s positive social inclinations are so deeply ingrained that it doesn’t matter what parents say or do: A Harvard experiment, nicknamed “The Big Mother Study” (as in Big Mother Is Watching You), showed that small children helped others whether or not a parent commanded them to help or was even present.
These findings may seem counterintuitive to anyone who has seen toddlers pull hair in a playground tunnel or pistol-whip one another with a plastic triceratops. Day to day, babies can seem unfeeling and primitive, or at the very least unfathomably bizarre, afraid of donkeys one minute and the moon the next, their prismatic minds beaming nonsense and non sequiturs instead of the secrets of our higher nature. No seasoned parent can believe that nurture doesn’t make a difference, or that nature trumps all. The question is where the balance lies.
“Where morality comes from is a really hard problem,” says Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. “There isn’t a moral module that is there innately. But the elements that underpin morality—altruism, sympathy for others, the understanding of other people’s goals—are in place much earlier than we thought, and clearly in place before children turn 2.”…