Iran Election, U.S. Intervention, and the “Left” is the complete list of sources, and extracts, used for this post. If a reader does not have time to read the entire articles — more than two dozen are listed — the extracts provided on that page should give one a fairly good background for the post below.
Dr. Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is an expatriate, writing from a distance about events in Iran, a country that he left soon after the 1979 revolution so that he could study in the U.S. He is also the author of a recent, scathing article in Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly condemning what he thinks is the “left’s” position on Iran, titled simply “Left is Wrong on Iran.” Many accusations are made in that article, and the point of this one is to assess the merits of Dabashi’s charges, which are often expressed by way of verbose, vituperative prose.
Let me begin with my initial misgivings about the piece, before raising some questions below. First, I am very suspicious of anyone speaking as if he might have been a good partner of “the left,” but then hardly showing any affinity to whatever that political field is imagined to be. This is not leftist self-criticism — his article is explicitly written by someone who positions himself outside the left. Second, any article titled along the lines of “how the left is wrong” automatically implies the converse: the Right is right. Without a balanced criticism that includes the right, but instead only targets the left, then the political intent of an author should really not be that difficult to figure out. If we are mistaken, then it is a mistake that is up to Dabashi to correct. Third, I am also suspicious of anyone who claims to simultaneously speak for a whole nation, and about the cumulative, amorphous “left” of every other nation — suddenly, the room is crowded with all sorts of midget-sized straw men. Fourth, I become especially intolerant toward anyone who presumes to command my sympathies and who expresses astonishment at those who fail to automatically jump on the band wagon of the day. Fifth, and related to the last point, arguments made without evidence, while making accusations for which the evidence is contradictory, leave me very cold.
I should also pause to note that for anthropologists in particular, Dabashi’s article poses some very sharp challenges for the discipline of anthropology as we have known it, not that it was his intended target. First, Dabashi essentially dismisses all opinions of those outside the region — if you are not Iranian, or at least Arab, then forget it, you have nothing of value to say and you cannot know anything about Iran. Dabashi raises the bar very high: you need to know 200 years of history — so, anthropologists, your one year of obligatory fieldwork just doesn’t make the grade, sorry. Second, there is the question of distance — those who write from outside the region are held in high contempt by Dabashi, except that he too writes from a distance. The questions I liked to pose some of my suddenly nationalist, right wing, Honduran sparring partners in Twitter was: Does the truth have GPS coordinates? Is all accurate and valid information only to be had by those whose bowels are emptied in Honduras? If one does not care for the opinion of foreigners, then why write in their languages and seek to curry favour with them? In other words, regarding the latter question: you do not need our support and approval for your new found sense of absolute autonomy. Otherwise it’s just not autonomy. Dabashi raises what for anthropologists should be the very familiar trope to establish authority: being there (or in Dabashi’s case: being from there). Either way, the outsider can either shut up, or sympathize with the causes commanded by Dabashi.
Having established what are some of my main problems with this piece by Dabashi, I can now more honestly outline my questions, and my criticisms. Needless to say, I do not think that everything he writes is objectionable or questionable, and he does make numerous excellent points.
Hamid Dabashi’s central argument is that those who would choose to focus on the ways the U.S. has manipulated or seeks to exploit the political unrest in Iran, while ignoring the demands of this allegedly massive social movement seeking liberty, are fundamentally wrong, ignorant, and morally confused. He sees these problems as specific to “the left”, the primary target of his article:
“Who are and who promoted these leftist intellectuals who question the social uprising of the people in Iran?”
“Over the decades I have learned not to expect much from what passes for ‘the left’ in North America and/or Western Europe when it comes to the politics of what their colonial ancestry has called ‘the Middle East’.”
“those farthest from it write with an almost unanimous exposure of their constitutional ignorance”
“they are a lost cause, and frankly no one could care less what they think of the world”
“…[who would] take more than 70 million human beings as stooges of the CIA and puppets of the Saudis”
While dismissing many as a lost cause, Dabashi is kind enough to specify those writers he respects and generally agrees with (Azmi Bishara, Mustafa El-Labbad, Galal Nassar), contrasted with those he specifically ridicules, rejects and condemns (Slavoj Zizek, James Petras, Paul Craig Roberts, Anthony DiMaggio, Michael Veiluva, Jeremy Hammond, Eric Margolis).
The evidence, in the form of the author’s actual writings, does not support Dabashi’s thesis — most explicitly do say the exact same things he does, and only three would seem vulnerable to his attempt at caricature: James Petras, Paul Craig Roberts, and Jeremy Hammond (but only if we play along with Dabashi, and play loosely with the facts — see Hammond’s response to this article in the Comments section below). The three might be seen as casting the Iranian election protests as either a CIA-plot, or aligned with, or directed by U.S. intervention. None of the other authors singled out by Dabashi makes that argument, nor even one approaching it, and in fact most explicitly reject it. Suddenly, Dabashi’s “left” boils down to maybe three authors. And what makes Petras, Roberts, and Hammond representative of the entire “left”? My advice: if you are going to pontificate about the left, especially one which is in such close proximity, you have little excuse to pontificate with such “constitutional ignorance.”
But the person for whom Dabashi reserves especial scorn, is in fact a Lebanese professor in the U.S., also a well published author, speaker, and blogger: As’ad AbuKhalil. Here it seems that Dabashi has entirely misunderstood AbuKhalil’s most basic points and his focus of interest, which are not about the Iranian protesters. Instead, his biggest failing, Dabashi suggests, is his failure to actively and loudly support, sympathize, defend, and cheer for the Iranian protesters, as a “leftist”:
“having principled positions on geopolitics is one thing…being blind and deaf to a massive social movement is something entirely different….he dare not take a stand.”
Reese Erlich, not mentioned by Dabashi even though he is the only author who appears to have an identical argument to his, also states: “The leftist critics must answer the question: Whose side are you on?”
Let me simply list some questions which Dabashi’s article provokes, and which he does not answer in that article, or anywhere else as far as I know:
- Are only Iranians allowed to investigate and criticize the many ways the U.S. has planned, funded, and implemented various forms of intervention in Iran? Is this uniquely “Iranian” knowledge…when it is exposed in such places as The New Yorker, by such persons as Seymour Hersh?
- Because Hamid Dabashi is very proud to have been called in by CNN and featured as an expert, does that mean that those of us who very rightly question and criticize CNN’s misleading coverage of the Iranian situation must be implicitly condemning Iranian protesters? Does CNN represent the Iranian opposition? Are they one and the same?
- Are the opponents of Ahmadinejad “leftists,” such that other “leftists” should be supporting them? Or is it the expectation that whenever and wherever anyone protests and condemns a regime, that it is the duty of leftists to support them? Since when? Says who?
- If Petras’, Roberts’ and Hammond’s alleged rejection of the protesters as a genuine social reform movement with indigenous grievances, responding to endogenous dynamics, reflects their “constitutional ignorance”…then why is it that those who sympathize from as a great a distance, and with just about as much knowledge, or any less “ignorant”?
- Are not the “leftists” that Dabashi names doing what they can do, what they ought to do, and that is writing about what they know best, i.e. the mainstream media where they live and the documentary record of the U.S. government’s efforts to destabilize Iran? Why doesn’t Dabashi talk about such facts in his article, instead of engaging in the comical hyperbole that an “entire nation” is against Ahmadinejad, as if he won no votes, as if the opposition consisted of the entire population?
- Does Dabashi think that not a single person in the Iranian opposition has ties to the CIA? If not, then just how much influence might they have within that movement? As someone who is an expert, and “in the know” as an “insider,” then surely this is the kind of thing Dabashi should be explicating at length?
Dabashi’s Fallacious and Illogical Reasoning
The primary fallacy in Dabashi’s argument is clearly pinpointed in AbuKhalil’s response:
“to say that the US, Saudi and other reactionary forces were involved in a conspiracy in Iran is in no way to deny the existence of a genuine and sincere movement in Iran against the oppressive regime there….To say that there is an American plot in Iran is not to say that all the protesters in Iran are tools of a Western plot.”
And why should AbuKhalil endorse a distant movement that suddenly appeared on the scene when, as he says, “I don’t pose as Iran expert but I comment on matters of international affairs”? Had AbuKhalil stood and cheered the protesters, only then might someone have reason to take up Dabashi’s pontificating-while-ignorant thesis.
Is Dabashi right to castigate all the authors he mentions? Read what they say, Dr. Dabashi, and tell us if most do not echo your statements and sentiments exactly, while contradicting your misrepresentations.
Here is Michael Veiluva:
“We Americans love to shoot our mouths off over matters we know next to nothing about. It’s something that we are hardwired to do. We have utmost faith in the power of words. ‘Speaking truth to power’ is one of our favorite phrases, even when some of the ‘truth’ is actually nonsense.”
Here is Eric Margolis:
“the majority of protests we see in Tehran are genuine and spontaneous”
Here is Anthony DiMaggio:
“It is worth reflecting on one central question regarding Iran: why does the recent election enjoy so much attention in the U.S.?”
Here is Slavoj Zizek:
“the saddest of them all are the Leftist supporters of Ahmadinejad….displays its blindness for a genuine demonstration of popular will, patronizingly assuming that, for the backward Iranians, Ahmadinejad is good enough – they are not yet sufficiently mature to be ruled by a secular Left [here Zizek explicitly assumes the opposition is the “secular left”]”
Thus, among the so-called leftists, Dabashi is so far wrong about four, and perhaps only partly right about three (see the Comments section).
Dabashi’s arguments fare even worse when it comes to those whom he cites approvingly, since they say many of the same things as the writers above. Let’s look.
Here is Galal Nassar:
“Two decades ago, the CIA set up an organisation targeting young people around the world. It enlists young Westernised men and women with ostensibly liberal political sympathies in order to incite social revolutions that favour Western interests. It trains these youths in the use of modern media, methods of instigating unrest, and ways of undermining the authority of the target societies. The first success of this network was in Serbia. It then scored similar successes in the Ukraine and Georgia. Its tentacles are to be found in every state and society that is of importance to American interests and its cadres benefit from Washington’s secret protection. Moreover, the US is serious in its determination to entrench and expand these networks so that it can draw on them whenever and wherever it needs to. Many have hastened to deny its existence, attributing it to the fantasy of the conspiracy mentality. But the organisation is there and boasts of its accomplishments.”
Here is Mustafa El-Labbad, speaking of opposition figures and the political spectrum in Iran:
“Rafsanjani has been an integral part of the ruling order since the victory of the Iranian Revolution in 1979….no analysis of ‘the contemporary situation in Iran’ can stay afloat for long, unable as it is to withstand the perpetually shifting variegations in the Iranian political map and a seesawing in the balances of power….the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ serve more to locate their relative positions on a geopolitical territory than shades of political opinion.”
This is an important observation that El-Labbad makes, because some may make the mistake that everywhere on earth institutional politics fits into a left-right spectrum, and that is simply not the case. I think of the Anglophone Caribbean, where the only two places one might find with left-and-right party politics are, in descending order, Guyana and Jamaica, and even then it is a stretch. In the case of Trinidad, there is no leftist party in parliament, and much of mainstream politics is structured on race and personality.
Now here is Azmi Bishara:
“The difference between Democrats and Republicans in the US is not much greater than that between reformists and conservatives in Iran….[differences in Iran] are more in the nature of electoral leagues….The criticisms levelled at the regime on the part of a broad swath of youth who have joined the reformists, especially those from middle class backgrounds who are more in contact with the rest of the world, are reminiscent of the grievances aired by the young in Eastern Europe, who held that their regimes deprived them of their individual and personal freedoms, the freedom to choose their way of life and the Western consumer lifestyle….While not dismissing or belittling such criticism, it is important to bear in mind that these people are not the majority of young people but rather the majority of young people from a particular class….Most of the youth from the poor sectors of society support Ahmadinejad, just as the poor support Chavez in Venezuela….Remember that Ahmadinejad’s in 2005 was a protest vote, mostly on the part of the young, against corrupt conservatives, not just against the reformists.”
Well, read on, since Bishara is making the exact same arguments about the opposition that Petras-the-ignorant-pontificating-leftist made.
And here is Bishara again, this time echoing AbuKhlail on the Western media:
“I was so taken aback by this unusual sentimentality from The Economist that I turned back to the edition that went to press on the eve of the Iranian elections. Not a single piece of news about the forthcoming polls; let alone a prediction regarding the outcome….If the reformists had been expected to win, as it claimed after the elections, how could it have overlooked such an important forecast before the elections, given how central Iran and the Gulf are to the global economy and the security and politics of the West?….Time magazine devoted pages to a portrait of Mir-Hussein Mousavi, introducing readers, probably for the first time, to what a nice guy he is, and talented too — a painter and an engineer, with a nice home and a family. Ahmadinejad does not have a family, or a nice backyard, or artistic talents that we know of, so he is obviously not worthy of Time….And to think that the Americans had once regarded Mousavi, a former foreign minister of Iran, as one of those shadowy figures who had supported ‘terrorism’ against them in Lebanon and other parts of the world in the 1980s…..Such is the nature of Western media. It painted a halo around Arafat and bestowed on him a Nobel Peace Prize when needed.”
In these three instances, Dabashi is partly supported by them, and most of their statements flatly contradicted his own, especially as Dabashi seems to have drawn an entirely false and fictitious dividing line between the first seven (lousy) writers and the second three (great) writers.
What are Dabashi’s Scruples?
If personally find it very distressing that a scholar should turn to other scholars and demand that they agree, without ever bothering to provide a shred of evidence to support the “stolen election” thesis, as if it was not scholars’ job, their duty, to be suspicious and skeptical. The more that is written about the “stolen election” hypothesis, the less credible it becomes (see especially this piece, and contrast it with Newsweek‘s assumptions). What we have instead of concrete evidence are allegations, erroneous suppositions premised on ethnic/tribal voting patterns, mathematical guess work on top of assumptions about how little inventive human beings are when it comes to inventing tallies, and conspiracy theories suggesting that an average of 860 ballots per box could not be counted in two hours, and that tens of thousands of election volunteers conspired to keep silent on massive fraud. I can defend the Iranian opposition’s demands for greater civil liberties and more participatory and legitimate forms of democracy, as I would for anyone. My consistent problem with even liberal democracy is that it is not democratic enough. But that does not translate into an uncritical eagerness to believe that an election was stolen. Give me some real evidence, and I will certainly change my mind. In the meantime, I reserve the right to think critically.
There is a bigger question about Dabashi’s scruples at play however. When you attack those who unveil and criticize the U.S. “regime change” schemes, when you attack those who attack imperialism, and when you create a false caricature of a left that not even those you name abide by…then what are you doing? When you attack those who criticize Western media such as CNN — institutions that embraced and included you as an expert — and then you attack those who criticize the CIA…then you leave yourself in a very dangerous position, because now we know that your score so far is “1 for 2.”
The most reprehensible aspect of Dabashi’s and Erlich’s pieces are this: why on earth would you single out “the left” as the problem, as if actual imperialism and actual intervention were simply not occurring? Whose side are they on?