Tag Archives: Iran election

Beyond the Axis of Evil

Not too long ago President Bush was calling Iran part of the Axis of Evil. Now Iran stands for the hope of the whole world. This stunning reversal is not due to any new formulation of policy or act of diplomacy. It is a tribute to the Iranian people and – no matter what may happen in the course of the next few days — we already owe them an enormous debt for reminding us what a precious and powerful thing human liberty is.

The Axis of Evil was a way of mapping the world, or of making the world conform to a very particular agenda. It implied and entailed a grand Theory of The World, and it relied on distortions that still inform the political debate and frame perceptions.

It’s part of a tangled web of lies and deceit we still need to undo.

Delivered on January 26, 2002, Bush’s Axis of Evil speech was one of the first loud drumbeats for the war in Iraq. David Frum came up with the phrase after being ordered by head White House speechwriter Mike Gerson to find some pithy way to make the case for toppling Saddam Hussein in the first State of the Union Bush would deliver after September 11th. In his speech, Bush described an alliance of rogue states and terrorists who threatened world peace and were intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction. That, we now know, was meant to scare us into war and stifle dissent. And it was the start of a terrible campaign.

Frum claims the phrase “Axis of Evil” was meant to recall Roosevelt’s urgent summons to action against the Axis powers. But it was clearly also an attempt to give Bush the Younger some of the historical stature and moral gravitas of Ronald Reagan, who drew a hard line against the Soviet Union in his “Evil Empire” speech. And yet for all his talk of liberating the Middle East, Bush never found his “tear down that wall” moment, perhaps because by 2002 the world had so changed from the time of Reagan that we were the only imperial power left standing.

Now, ironically, the Supreme Leader Ayotollah Khamenei claims this is a battle between good and evil, between “old friends and brothers” and “hungry wolves in ambush.” Western style diplomacy, says the Supreme Leader, is and always has been a charade: now the powers of the West “are showing their enmity against the Islamic Republic system and the most evil of them is the British government.” The Foreign Office lodged an official complaint; but Khamenei knows that right now his best chance is to tap into old resentments against the imperialists.

That requires another bizarre distortion of political realities on the ground, and a denial of the horrors perpetrated against ordinary Iranians. Maybe that makes those men evil, and maybe theocracy is one of the great evils the world has known. But that’s not really the urgent point and it’s not really time to debate it. This isn’t a morality play or a moot.

Bush’s Manichean rhetoric and its accompanying narrative of good, exceptional America fighting the evil masterminds who plot our destruction and that of the entire world was a Cheneyesque cartoon, a vast oversimplification. Even Peggy Noonan (no raving liberal, but a Reagan speechwriter) pointed out in her column today that what’s happening in Iran right now doesn’t conform to any images or preconceptions we have of Iran. History is being made before our eyes; but it certainly isn’t happening along any axis that George Bush or David Frum were capable of delineating, let alone seeing.

The scenes from the streets of Iran – of ordinary people out in the street, grappling with security forces, coming out against all odds to demonstrate, a young girl killed, people beaten and slashed and shot by the Basijis – should make us grope for new words, or leave us speechless. They defy neat descriptions and pat phrases. In Iran, right now, people are out in the streets, redrawing the map of the world.

Universal Rights are Not Just American

Obama issued a new statement on Iran today, saying that the United States stands with those who seek to exercise the “universal rights to assembly and free speech.” While this seems like exactly the sort of thing the Republicans have been urging the President to say all along, there are nevertheless some who are ready to take offense at the very idea that Iranians might value the same freedoms we do.

Just this week, for instance, Charlotte Hays took a swipe in the National Review at Obama’s “tepid response” to events in Iran, arguing that the President is “unaware of the historical sources of America’s moral strength.” This is because

the president hailed democratic process, freedom of speech, and the ability to select one’s own leaders as “universal values.” But they aren’t. A quick glance around the world’s totalitarian regimes, including most especially that of Iran, should convince anyone of that.

Only a very quick glance indeed could convince anyone of Hays’ argument. But let’s take a closer look. It’s downright odd to argue that human liberty is not valued under repressive governments because repressive governments suppress human liberty; or that since our ideas of democracy and freedom come “ from America and the West,” there can be no other, competing ideas of human freedom and democratic politics. Haven’t the people of Iran done enough in the past week to prove that they, too, aspire to self-determination?

In fact, as Afshin Ellian points out in a piece that appeared this week in the Wall Street Journal, the current regime in Iran represents a betrayal of the “basic freedoms” and values for which a previous generation of Iranians fought: “the basic freedoms of Azadi-e Baian, Azadi-e Qalam, Azadi-e Andish-e: freedom of speech, freedom to write, and freedom of thought.” Those are the values of an open society. It is myopic, chauvinistic and ignorant to say they are ours exclusively.

History by Proxy

I interviewed Pete Seeger a few years ago for a film I’m making. We started out talking about Woody Guthrie, but if you’ve ever heard Pete talk or spent any time in his company – and he’s very good company – you know that conversations with Pete Seeger have a tendency to wander amiably from subject to subject, sometimes with no apparent purpose, until (I’m not sure how it happens, but it does) you discover yourself talking about what you wanted to talk about all along.

Somehow we ended up talking about what I guess I’d call the power of witness, the power of people who hold up a mirror to the world, or to history, to brutality or injustice – and Pete remarked: We used to think the pen was mightier than the sword. Turns out it wasn’t. But the camera lens might be.

I’m reminded of this exchange as I watch the video of demonstrations and police brutality coming out of Iran in the wake of the election. The Iranian regime may not be worried about its international reputation; but the video and pictures are showing the world just what the crowds in the street are up against. We in the West can admire their courage, utter all sorts of noble-sounding sentiments and encouraging words, and try to figure out ways to stand with them; but more importantly, right now we must not look away.

That’s where our vigilance comes in. We pay tribute to the courage of the Iranians in the streets so long as we in the West have the courage not to look away.

This, at least, is where I’ve arrived, after watching the Twitter streams of news from Iran, and trying to figure out what we in the West, online, trying to help Iranians hold the line, can do — beyond re-tweeting information and videos and pictures, participating in attacks on Iranian government websites, providing proxies so Iranians can continue to post updates online, and joining in the criticism of mainstream media outlets in the U.S. for running stories about Sarah Palin and David Letterman or Britney Spears while in Iran the Basij militia shoot and beat and terrorize demonstrators.

What to do? Few of us can take an action that will have direct consequences in the streets of Tehran. This is the frustration of being a witness – one is an observer, in this case, an observer from afar, rather than a participant – but I think it’s also where the power of witness lies, just in looking at what is happening, and refusing to look away.

I know we have a real stake in staying true to that commitment, in keeping watch. What is that stake? I’m still groping for an answer that satisfies me. I want to say something about our shared humanity but I’m concerned that it’s too vague, a platitude, a cop-out of sorts. I know that we are changed by what we witness. So maybe by bearing witness to what’s happening in Iran right now, we gain some new stake in the world that’s being born even as the Islamic Republic of Iran dies.