From Revolution to Freedom
April 16, 2007
I considered erasing the posts below and statring anew here at End Credits. I feel the sense of a finally definable political persuasion and/or identity and its tempting to erase the traces of your past that might indict you in the present. But what’s the advantage? The journey is as relevant as the destination…
I’ve been nothing in the past eight years if not something of a political nomad, drifting from radical anti-globalizationist Marxism to radical anarchist pacifism to postmodern apolitical to Eustonista. Call it flip-flopping if you like, but considering how late in the game I came to taking politics seriously and to getting a reasonable political education, I like to think of it as the tumult of maturation. It’s safe to say that one should probably take the time to read something OTHER than just Marx, Zinn, Klein, Proudhon, Goldman and Chomsky before getting ready to take to the streets in a gas mask. I didn’t. So in the years following 1999, I ran the gambit: Kant, Locke, Spinoza, Paine, Jefferson, Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Habermas, Zizek, Bulter, Foucault, Tortsky, Baudrillard, Appadurai, Hayek, Hitchens, Said, Berman, Hobsbawm, Taylor, Cohen, Geras, Arendt, and even Sayyid Qutb.
My encounters at the New School with Nietzschians, Foucauldians, philosphers of mind, psychoanalysts, Middle East scholars and Christopher Hitchens make up the essential lineaments of my political education. Enter the radical Marxist, enamored of postmodern politics. My towering work in 2003 just before arriving at the New School was an examination of Foucault’s influence on the Nuclear Freeze movement. What followed was an absolute obsession with Jacques Lacan and my eventual transfer to New York where I intended to properly study Lacan.
At the New School I fell in with the Nietzsche Circle which brought me in close orbit with the Foucault Society. The Iraq War and the Kerry vs. Bush race were raging–the leftist protestors on campus gave me a creepy feeling that I didn’t engage with critically, but instead continued deeper into the world of Nietzsche, Bataille, Heidegger, and Foucault. I didn’t realize at the time how appropriate this was to my non-involvement in politics. Something began to unnerve me about the Foucauldians and Nietzschians, the way the scholars looked and dressed like the authors they were into. This was also the case with Lacan, where at a day-long seminar given by a South American heavyweight, I witnessed one of the most comical and disturbing dramaturgical re-enactments of Lacan’s speech patterns and mannerisms. Todd May, Foucault scholar extraordinaire, spoke at a symposium I helped co-oridnate and promote–in glasses, and with a shiny, shaven head. In a class on Bataille, a locally respected professor informed us that it was time for the “effacing of anthropos.” In other words, the human project was over, kaput.
Not only for intuitive reasons, but as the result of a long dialectical engagement, I broke ties with the radical left, the postmodern cliques and found myself around that time in a class with Christopher Hitchens, whose “Letters to a Young Contrarian” had become one of the only books that had spoken to me on the aforementioned gut level in any meaningful way. I had read “A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq” with a great deal of difficulty reconciling what seemed to me to be two different authors. But enagaging with the man, not the cardboard target of anti-Bush bloggers, and not the supposed ally of neoconservatism, was a paradigmatic experience. Not because I was destined to become a Hitchensist–there is, or at least should be, no such thing. It was the perspective one could gather from casually conversing with a person who had become a convenient ideological tool for both left and right by himself eschewing allegiance to one or the other. Seeing the way this played out in the media was, and still is, fascinating. Having occasion to disagree with Hitchens is quite invaluable, as one discovers–regardless of one’s differences with him–a person with ideas that have an astonishing philosphical and ethical continuity.
And so I come to the war. How many people can claim to have formed their opinion on Iraq by having spoken to someone who has visited North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and who is chummy with Barham Salih, or Kanan Makiya? Iraq was, is, and will be, I think, a sort of Krondstadt of the 21st century. There was a vaccuum for leftist internationalists in the wake of anti-imperialists taking sides with theocrats and mass murderers. We wanted to talk about human rights, liberal values, the separation of church and state and suddenly, the only people doing so were neoconservatives. Did we become neoconservatives for pointing this out? When ideas regarding humanitarian intervention can be published in The Weekly Standard, but not in The Nation, does it mean that a columnist who airs his views in The Weekly Standard has become complicit in neoconservative militaristic designs?
This was a moment for the left when some of us simply had to point out that ZNet and The New Left Review were being criminally silent while neocons were at least talking a good talk, if not walking the walk. But who wanted to jump on Bill Kristol’s ship? None of us. There grew a task of separating the rhetoric of liberalism emanating from neoconservtive quraters from our liberal left internationalist position of solidarity. Nick Cohen, Norm Geras, and Paul Berman, among others started charting that route. But many on the left only saw one thing: that Eustonistas and George Bush said some of the same stuff. So we were just in service of empire–the cruise missile left, as Ed Herman called Paul Berman.
Somewhere in all this, I developed a keen affinity for the story in Iran. Not only for the politics, but for the music scene. I wanted to think beyond Iraq, which had been lost due to American incompetence and arrogance. If the left’s main problem was myopic anti-imperialism that had resulted in its ability to stand in solidarity with Kurdish social democrats or Iranian students, then then key was finding a space where one could focus on solidarity while remaining critical of Empire.
I had the experience Danny Postel refers to in his “Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism.” Postel’s pamphlet explains in detail what I have been saying for over a year now–shifting one’s sights to Iran is the most fertile ground for asserting liberal values without talking like George Bush. Instead of the moronic ‘We Are All Hizbullah Now’ slogan, one might appropriate it and say ‘We are all DTV Now.” DVT (Daftar-e Takhim-e Vahdat, or, in English, the Office for Strengthening Unity) , though it was once associated with the students that participated in the hostage crisis, is now a sworn enemy of the regime and an advocate of democracy and secularism. Its spokespeople and secretaries have been jailed by the mullah regime for decrying their leaders as fascists–their words, not the PNAC’s.
Rahmin Jahanbegloo, also a political prisoner of the regime, has outlined the notion of non-imitative dialogical communicative action. This is a fancy way of saying that cultures should converse and share ideas without emulating one another or imposing on one another. It is an interaction that takes place between civil societies, where Iranians can discover the Iranian Nabakov and Americans can discover the American Khayyam. It’s not appropriation, but engagement with and adaptation to those things one wishes to embrace. He has spoken of a soft universalism that doesn’t fix the idea of self in any iron-clad sort of way.
In 2003, the students in Tehran rose up to protest a homophobic, sexist, fascist theocracy. ZNet, as Postel points out, was silent. The right wing National review was not. Jahanbegloo implores us to support and engage the dialog, the power of conversation and to give moral support to Iranians as they fight for the freedoms we take for granted. I have found this without a doubt to be the most satisfying and gut-level good feeling political project I’ve ever embraced. I learn about myself, my own freedoms, my own egagement with bourgeois democracy; I learn ever more how to separate my liberal values from their past entanglements with the ideology of Empire–not to mention their present-day ones.
And I’ve found, through my nomadism, coming finally to this place, the value of being uncomfortable–of having unpopular ideas. Making the liberal humanitarian case for war in Iraq, as Jose-Ramos Horta and Vaclav Havel did, can be profoundly unnerving. You find yourself almost entirely alone–which is, I think one of the great lessons the politicized citizen can have. It goes to the heart of Kant’s notion of Enlightenment–the exercise of one’s own reason without help from outside. I have to admit to being able to have it both ways on this, which I never intended, since I agitated against invasion in 2003, but entertained arguments as to the moral humanitarian quality of the invasion in the years following. But today I feel a great sense of hope and excitement for the future of being uneasy–because that is the essence of liberal society–of never being too sure about what you think. Jahanbegloo exalts this as a political principle and I agree with him. Today in Iran, it is the guiding principle. In a world enamored of ideologies–Islamism, neoconservatism, Marxism–Iranians’ main lesson from the 1979 Revolution was that overconfidence is suicide.
In 1999, the year of the ‘revolutionary’ actions in Seattle, Iranian students held a march called “From Revolution to Freedom.” They know all to well that revolution, like religion, serves only its architects. Whether or not America is lost to top-heavy hegemonic ambitions is up for debate. But if those who assert that case care about the future, they should turn an eye to Iran, where a liberal movement thrives that posits a positive political project. The radical left has become so good at defeatism–but one kind of defeatist proposition they might consider is the idea that, between Seattle and Tehran, Tehran won the race for progressive political vision. All eyes East…