Friday, August 26, 2005

Follow up on Nafisi: Paul Berman's take

I learned recently that Paul Berman has a chapter in his upcoming book Power and the Idealists on Azar Nafisi. It's too bad I hadn't gotten around to reading it before I did my blog post on her book earlier this week.

Berman, as you may know, is the author of Terror and Liberalism, and is one of the most formidable (I think) 'liberal hawks' currently out there. Like Hitchens, Berman started out as a leftist, but has in recent years turned fiercely against what he sees as inconsistencies and blind spots in the thinking of today's left-leaning intellectuals. Unlike Hitchens, however, Berman is still a Liberal, in principle and practice (I don't really know what Hitchens is anymore).

[Read this article in Dissent from 2004 to get a sense of the flavor of Paul Berman's politics on the recent Iraq War. (He supported it, and the first Gulf War.)]

I felt some frustration about the turn of the argument in Berman's Terror and Liberalism -- it seemed pretty unfair to suggest that the Romantic poets and revolutionaries of years past were somehow predecessors of today's Jihadists (how does he go from Beaudelaire and Camus to Osama Bin Laden?). Berman was himself a Leftist earlier in his life, so penalizing both the Romantic writers who celebrated violence and the Old Left (who celebrated those same Romantic writers) seems a little like (over-)compensating for a mistake.

From what I gather about the new book, it's aiming to go beyond the Terror and Liberalism argument in some ways. At least with figures like the German politician Joschka Fischer (read the section from the last chapter of Berman's book on this page), the goal is not to bury his opponents in a rhetorical jousting match so much as to tell the story of their failure with some measure of understanding and sympathy for their noble ideals.

Azar Nafisi might also be one such failed idealist, though Berman's interest in her stems from her mistaken early belief that the Islamist revolution that took place in iran 1979 -- with Communists as allies -- would somehow end up as a victory for the Iranian left. Berman's account of it draws heavily from Nafisi's narrative, except Berman injects a discussion of the various political parties and factions that is absent from Nafisi:

The Tehran airport was bedecked with slogans written in black and red: DEATH TO AMERICA! DOWN WITH IMPERIALISM & ZIONISM. She took a position as a professor of literature at University of Tehran, where the Marxists were especially strong. And yet, in those early days after the Shah's overthrow, to be alive was not necessarily bliss, nor was it Heaven to be young. The revolution came to power because Ayatollah Khomeini and his radical Islamists put together a broad front with the Iranian Communist Party (the Tudeh) and the Marxist Fedayin Organization, together with a couple of popular organizations taht favored liberal democracy, and the mixture of mosques, Marxists, and liberals turned out to be powerful. The Shah fled for his life. But Khomeini and his mullas stood at the head of this absurdly wide United Front, and, once the mullahs had succeeded in establishing the United Front's revolutionary government, they and their Marxist allies turned against the liberals and crushed them. Then the Islamists turned against the marxists. A battle for control of the university and of course every institution of Iranian life got underway-- mullahs against Marxists and everyone else. And the Islamist victory, as it crept across the landscape, turned out to be dreadful.

As I mentioned, the particular details -- like the sign at the Tehran airport -- comes out of Nafisi's book, while the political parties referenced are all introduced by Berman. (Presumably Nafisi knows their names all too well, and omitted reference to keep the focus of her story on literature, and on her experience with the women in her 'underground' literature class.)

I don't know enough to disagree with Berman's account, but I would say this: if you were a leftist in those days, agitating against the Shah, is there any doubt that you would have been willing to work with Khomeini? Given the strength and influence of the Soviet Union, the rantings of a few Mullahs probably seemed considerably less intimidating than the Shah, whose undercover police (SAVAK) was truly brutal, and whose corruption was notorious.

No one had any idea then how brutal the Islamic Republic would or could be. In this chapter, Berman faults Nafisi at times for not being quite analytical enough about the true nature and significance of the Iranian Revolution, and for writing a narrative of her life in those years focusing on her local and personal experiences rather than ideology. I think that's a little unfair; she's not trying to be Hannah Arendt. It was Nafisi's decision to abandon the tack of political resistance to the regime -- to go small, and to focus on the personal -- that allowed her to survive under it for 18 years.

That isn't to say that Berman is somehow anti-Nafisi. Actually, he depends on Reading Lolita in Tehran in this chapter far too much for that to be the case. Perhaps it might be correct to say that Berman's use of Nafisi in Power and the Idealists serves his own purposes more than it does hers.

* * * * *
More Berman: Don't Applaud the Motorcycle Diaries

Why Germany Isn't Convinced (more on Joschka Fischer)

A long exerpt from Terror and Liberalism at Prospect Magazine

My own post on an article of Berman's from Bookforum, from back in March.


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