Monday, June 28, 2004

WMD, pain and remembrance!

There is nothing better, as Nietzsche reminds us, to serve as antidote to spiritual anguish than physical pain. I have been feeling excruciating discomfort and thus unable to write much. The advantage though is that one begins to become slightly more attuned to the pain of others. The old man or woman walking slowly in front of you, for instance, who would normally cause slight annoyance, begins suddenly to appear in a different light.

The Iranian attitude to sickness and pain has been a puzzle for years. Most city women, for example, think it cute to feign illness. But when they are in real pain, or seriously ill, all of the sudden they go mum, exhibiting Job like patience. Countless thousand women here suffer seriously from various auto immune disorders, but you wouldn’t know that listening to the litany of endless petty complaints, unless you dot the i’s or visit one of the many meat factories masquerading as hospitals.

So today, there were two demonstrations in Sardasht and Khoramabad to commemorate widespread Chemical murder of Iranians and to call for a speedy trial for Saddam. There are tens of thousands still suffering here with boils on their bodies and acute respiratory ailments amongst so many other afflictions.

It is a strange world we live in, don’t you think? Iraqi’s are invaded, bombed daily and killed because their regime was deemed a threat to the global community. “Bad man” we were told, “that Saddam.” “He killed his own people.” “Attacked his neighbors.” “Used chemical weapons.” Bad, bad man, indeed, that Saddam!

But whom exactly did he attack? Whom did he gas? Who helped him gas our citizens? Who were his allies? Which ones among his old allies are still running the show in the West?

Who amongst you reading this knows the excruciating torment of one of the countless victims? Who amongst you personally knows someone dead or still suffering because of a non conventional (chemical) poisoning?

So the next time any of you—my dear, esteemed members of the international community-- decide to lecture anyone about the potential threat posed by WMD, just remember, some of us here might be able to forgive, but none of us will ever forget.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Sailors, summer dresses, coffee shops

The capture of the British sailors has not been given much publicity here in Iran. But as usual, the politically minded conspiracy buffs have been at it. The usual suspects abroad too have had their own interesting takes on the episode. Here is Mr. Ledeen for one with his usual. Juan Cole’s version here.

I am beginning to be disappointed with our potential Gauleiter in Tehran. (Pity though, he prefers Positano. So collectively heartbroken we are!) I mean, he is such a sharp fellow, educated, witty and likable. Surley he must by now have developed a measure of familiarity with some features of the dominant Iranian psyche.

The fault must lie with the company he is said to be keeping. Our Monarchists aren’t known to be amongst the most luminous chandeliers in the house, or the most illuminating. And as we all know, no American hack is ever to be faulted for his shortcomings or mistakes. God forbid anyone acknowledging error and assuming responsibility in this day and age! So unbecoming! Those damn foreigners who are perpetually manipulating and deceiving our hapless, trusting, good natured souls toiling so unappreciated to direct the affairs of the planet.

To his credit though, Ledeen does try to place Iranian citizens at the center of his exegeses every now and then. Sometimes, I get a feeling that 70 million people are simply invisible when the analysts discuss Iran. Every detail of the discussions always focuses on various factions within the government, their plans, all the plots they hatch, as well as the potential consequences for the life of the global community.

That there are millions here with desires, expectations, wants and needs is hardly ever an issue. That there are competing social forces, impulses and passions--human, understandable and predictable--also irrelevant. That the factions might be responding to some form of domestic pressure is again mostly ignored, unless of course, it is some hard line, fanatical constituency that is deemed responsible for the policy under scrutiny.

Take this BBC exposé on the impending crackdown on summer dresses and this Al-Jazeera report on the bleak future of our coffee shops. Certainly, a part of the problem does originate with the more traditionalist faction’s new found confidence about the Regime’s abilities/ options thanks to the turmoil in Iraq. Law and order is the business of day. More patrols on the street on daily basis than all you would have encountered in months this past year.

And, yes, I always worry about my female relatives and fellow citizens during the summer. They are (and look) miserable. And I think people should have every right to dress as they see fit without interference from the authorities and other busybody members of the community. (Of which there are plenty) But let us also pause to examine the meaning of summer dresses and coffee shops in Iran.

Iranians are some of the most image conscious people you’ll ever encounter.

It is not simply a summer dress, you see. It is the entire package. Women love their hair and bodies here. They toy with them for sports. First, consider this background info: a factory worker earns about 80,000 tomans per month. ($90) A teacher 60-100,000. A driver, 12 hour shifts in nasty traffic and pollution, about 100-150,000. A retired high ranking military officer 180-300,000! Now armed with this random sampling, consider a woman walking the streets with a fancy summer dress.

Start at the head: It has to be either highlighted or dyed blond. Price: 50,000 and up!
Eyebrows tattooed at roughly 25,000, done on the cheap. A head scarf, usually transparent and colorful, anywhere 5,000 and up! Foreign makeup, to include tons of whiteners as foundation, bright lipsticks, eye shadow, etc, (in the thousands) Strong perfume (in the thousands) The obligatory nose job and/or all the injected collagen (lips, eyes, cheekbones) in the millions! And the colored lenses too for the eyes.

Diamonds, rubies and Safire adorning the fingers, in the millions; long nails with polish usually in the color some of you might recognize as teenage bright --regardless of the age. Manteau anywhere from 14,000 to 100,000 and up.

And don’t you dare forget the feet. Iranian women love their feet, some of the cleanest, and most decorated anywhere on the planet. Usually open toe sandals (again a few thousands and up) plus long toe nails, polished and pedicured: Minimum 10,000 a session. Let us throw in the cost of the mobile phones (hundreds of thousands) and the little dog too! We did forget the summer dress itself, didn’t we? Use your imagination and calculate the price tag for any number of possible combinations in any given day.

Lest you think I am caving into that baser instinct of envy, just consider that regardless of how we define our party affiliations and political philosophies here, there is a consensus that ours is a highly corrupt society with nepotism, and official contacts determining the state of our economic well being. Or so goes the dominant discourse.

So while, in my humble opinion, the money and power are a lot more diffused today than anytime in the modern history of Iran, there are always those lingering question about where and how the slew of women might have come up with the sort of money they are the walking advertisements for!

Add in the car and use your deductive abilities to fill in the shape of the house satisfying to the expectations of our princesses along with all the furniture, appliances, trips and the summer resorts…well, now you might get a sense for what must go through the minds of the poor souls walking around in plain black chador with oodles of groceries in tow on their way to the butcher shop for some red meat at 4,500 tomans a kilo!

Now remember that this revolution was always about justice and more equitable access to resources. Hundreds of thousands have been killed. Others are forced to tolerate authoritarianism and bullying. Tens of thousands are either physically disabled or suffering gravely due to chemical poisoning by the Ba’athists and their Western allies. Tens of thousands were also butchered by the Regime as it consolidated its hold on power. Family members have been pit against their kin.

Factor in the poverty, inflation, and unemployment, and the fact that even the more right of center opposition groups are attacking economic measures the regime employs to realign itself with the competitive global life today in anticipation of entry to the WTO, i.e., factory closures, employing temporary contractors, lay offs, etc,. O.K., you’ll get a sense for the confusing mess everyone has to deal with.

There was a time, people believed in something here, however crude or misguided. No one believes in much of anything nowadays really—except money and silly ostentations. And I don’t mean to sound old fashioned. Wouldn’t you want to go to a coffee shop, for instance, simply because you might find the taste of good coffee just delicious as you chat or read a book? Well not here. As many coffee shops as we have, there is not a decent, hot cup of coffee to be found in kilometers. Why? Because it is not about coffee! It is hardly ever about the thing or the pursuit in and of itself.

There is no immediacy about life here. People just want things for the heck of it, or because neighbors or relatives have them. We demand things and feel entitled. Not much long term planning about anything. It has become a highly improvised existence for most. Everyone just wings it, dealing with the consequences tomorrow. This is the cultural background to what goes on around here. Now, you can factor in the ruling clergy.

I don’t want to make it sound as if our rulers have no plans. They wouldn’t be ruling us if they didn’t have a finger on the pulse of this nation and all the myriad fears and aspirations that animate us. Let’s face it, they run an occupation authority and they have managed to sustain it despite long odds for more than 25 years. No simple feat as Americans are discovering in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But if I know my Iranians, chances are, the navy guys happened to chance upon the Brits and decided to get them and see what happens. From here on, they are going to play it by the ear. My hunch is the authorities will be releasing the British soon, unless of course, the omnipresent Iranian chaos gets the better of everyone. It has been known to happen before.

And just in case you might be tempted to dismiss everything I just wrote as biased( and no kidding, I am biased), think about a simple question. There are musical instruments in Iran. No Islamic edicts against music nowadays, several hundred music schools and thousand of students and countless musicians. Additionally, as I’ve argued, this a society highly adept at improvisations. So, when was the last time you heard of any outstanding Iranian jazzers?

Sunday, June 20, 2004

The denial bubble!

I finally made time to sample the analytic astuteness of one hot amateur star, Wretchard of the Belmont Club. Great prose! And impressive he is, I must admit, in a prosaic sort of way. He is not a star for nothing, you know, in that elite club of the Angry Altruistic Pontificators of the North American Blogosphere!

Wretchard’s is a universe that would leave any sane being furious really. To think, all the invested blood, treasure, and effort simply to keep the oil lanes open for others, paying a security premium of up to eight dollars to boot, with no reciprocity from the billions of ingrates who have no probity to recognize what angels they continue to annoy.

Imagine a universe in which some of the most irksome impediments to the emerging new order that promises heaven on earth are those nastiest and most alien of all human impulses: people’s impetus to “defend their homes,” and avoid becoming “collateral damage.” Wouldn’t it be nice if the journalists of the Washington Post and others could simply just ignore these mundane matters?

Wouldn’t it be an utter relief if the U.S. could only “act like a traditional conquering power, flattening all before it,” in order to crush nasty enemies all around? Oh, those pestering constrains created by human decency and global revulsion!

And that bewildering universe of enemies meshing in together; the universe in which “the most senior of Saddam's holdouts, Izzat Ibrahim, has pledged allegiance to Abu Musab al Zarqawia,” which “if true” would naturally also mean that the Iranians have “swept up the masterless ronin of the former dictator and enlisted them under new management: in short, Iran may now own the Ba'athist remnants.” Just like that, you see. With stroke of a pen-- an “if true.”

You would be mad too, wouldn’t you; if you were to perceive your universe in such a way? Of course, certain questions would be then simply irrelevant or at best reflections of visceral anti-Americanism.

Who helped the Ba’athists gas our relatives and friends in Iran? Where did the loans and chemicals come from? Who were the real friends of the Ba’athists for years? Who are the ones re-organizing some of them today to spy on their enemies? Which Rumsfeld is seen shaking hand with Saddam? Which Reagan refused to stop the flow of aid to the butcher of Baghdad? Even after he gassed the Iranians and the Kurds?

Whose alliance with Usama was trumpeted for years as a most brilliant strategy intended to unleash the forces of freedom globally? Who pressured the Saudis, in the first place, to sink in billions in the traditional Islamic Madrasas in order to create generations of Jihadists—the very same people who are now making life a living hell here? Whose best friends are the petty tyrants all over the Middle East? Who helped organize and arm the Islamists globally? Is there an essential continuity of policies even today?

Is there a trace of any of these questions when examining the past? Is there ever an accounting with some? Or are the Wretchards of this world perpetually right and their altruism always misunderstood and unappreciated?

What can we do really with those who continue to inhabit a denial bubble and expect us to swallow their inanities uncritically and/or face being flattened?

Only in American movies, dear readers, can you really expect people simply to “just die,” and to vanish quietly, passively, and en masse. Luckily, people are increasingly losing taste for what America produces nowadays in Hollywood.

There is much room for mutual learning, inter-cultural exchanges and the commerce necessary for building a better future in this region; of the sort that, if ethical, fair and respectful, could promise to be both fruitful and lucrative for most.

The old allies —the Jihadists and Cru-sadists, though, along with their star sycophants-- are going to have to first take a hike before we can begin to focus on our myriad burdensome problems here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The zany, fatuous bowdlerizers

I don’t know what it is about life in Tehran, but I find myself oscillating constantly between despondency and the irate urge to bludgeon something. I mean, the stupidity, and the utter senseless banality of it all.

In case you pay attention to football, the Euro 2004 tournament started a few days ago and we are being treated to two matches a night. I have been jumping up and down like a madman each night, and not out of any great joy about the games, mind you, although they are highly entertaining.

You see, the coverage here has been getting on my nerves, infuriating me, really. Why you ask? You know how when there is a lull in the game, the camera pans across the stadium doing close-ups of some of the more quaint, titillating enthusiasts? Well, someone in his infinite wisdom has decided to expunge all traces of these dedicated sports fans from Iranian screens.

Thus there is no limit to the ridiculous length some editing team, I presume, goes in order to avoid showing the spectacle while trying nimbly to minimize disruptions to the flow of the games.

So, here they are—the authorities, paying money from the coffers of this nation to buy the rights to broadcast the games (unless the games are pirated, of course. I don’t know!) And they are paying additionally the wages of an editing team dedicated to erasing instantaneously all traces of fans from the stadiums, or at the very least exhibits of some cheering colorful face or a sun tanned body!

Who authorizes this mendacity, I wonder? What religious edict could possibly be at work here? What are they afraid of? What purpose could it all serve? Whom do they think they are fooling? What are they really saving this society from?

The sheer imbecility of a ruling class that thinks it can continue to pretend they are in any position to control life in all its diverse, multi-faceted, multi-colored beauty! How much sillier can they possibly get? Haven’t they had enough of the monochromic, dreary and bleak universe they preside over? Can’t they see what mess they have created through all the censorship and the (senseless) struggle to block out representations of a woman’s hair here, or shoulders there?

Surely they must know what is happening all around them on a daily basis here. How could anyone miss the scenes? Take a walk on any street and you will see how badly they are losing on all fronts. They are not in control of much of anything, really, as hard as they try to be.

I believe officials of this Islamic Regime, and indeed all who foolishly attempt to impose ill conceived greater plans on our lives, are well advised to be attentive to the magnificent wisdom of a Polish writer, Zbigniew Herbert. I recently encountered a poem of his thanks again to my learned Polish guide.

There comes a time when matters can no longer be settled, nor citizens cowered by words, propaganda, demonizations, censorship, fear, intimidation or humiliation. We are way passed the stage now. The question has become one of taste. And I assure you, it does not matter how it might look at the moment or how long it might take.

They will lose. They are bound to lose. They will lose their hold over our lives, their positions of power and in some cases their lives or limbs. No one, no matter how well armed or brutal, can possibly stand to compete against the alluring feast that is life.

The Power of Taste

It didn't require great character at all
our refusal disagreement and resistance
we had a shred of necessary courage
but fundamentally it was a matter of taste
Yes taste
in which there are fibers of soul the cartilage of
Who knows if we had been better and more
attractively tempted
sent rose-skinned women thin as a wafer
or fantastic creatures from the paintings of
Hieronymus Bosch
but what kind of hell was there at this time
a wet pit the murderers' alley the barrack
called a palace of justice
a home-brewed Mephisto in a Lenin jacket
sent Aurora's grandchildren on into the field
boys with potato faces
very ugly girls with red hands
So æsthetics can be helpful in life
one should not neglect the study of beauty
Before we declare our consent we must carefully
the shape of the architecture the rhythm of the drums

official colors the despicable ritual of funerals
Our eyes and refused obedience
the princes of our senses proudly chose exile

--translated by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter

Saturday, June 12, 2004

In the Mail!

Disappointment with the (last) post on Chalabi: Mr. Limitedinc writes,

“What type of micro essay is that?!!! You say that you are going to lay down your opinion about Chalabi, and here I am waiting for it -- and you go all around the topic. It was a donut essay -- there was a hole in the center. So, what do you think happened with Chalabi, and in general, what to make of that strange career? I mean, something about the whole deal was odd from the beginning. Why, for instance, were the Wolfowitzes so willing to not look at Chalabi's past, as a swindler? How could they ever have thought that a man with that past was going to be the head of Iraq? Really, it never made sense from the beginning. It is like Garibaldi having spent the first part of his life defrauding the bank of England, or George Washington having been a bank robber.
I don't believe that it was accidental that they put that trust in him -- I think they thought, and think, they had him by the balls. He is too much like other American sponsored puppets with "fatal" weaknesses -- like Noriega. And where is the mention of the fierce battle between Chalabi and Brahimi about the UN-Oil swindle? This is a murky affair that keeps getting murkier, just as all the affairs these guys have been involved in the Middle East -- from the October Surprise to now -- have ten or eleven aspects, one or two of which are to be explained by pure greed. I think you underestimate the absolutely low level of these players -- like Feith. Leo Strauss be damned, these people are out for future business opportunities, and what better key to various fortunes than setting up a man who not only has stolen on a massive scale in the past, but has surrounded himself with his confederates in the present. I think the appropriate text here is definitely not Xenophanes on Socrates, but Nick Pileggi on mafia control of Las Vegas in Casino. “

Actually I said Chalabi-gate, not Chalabi. But fair is fair. Give me a few days, and I’ll try to do better.

Our smart, witty, combative Irani, Niki, has a new like-minded Iraqi boyfriend, Raed, and they have begun a couple’s blog that promises to be twice as spirited as each of their blogs. Talk about the unintended consequences. It seems as if in so many ways, Iranians and Iraqis have been brought together. We’ll see how things might look in about a decade or so.

Our Polish blogger assured me that Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski is one must read Polish writer if the world were to end soon and I believe she wasn’t exaggerating. Settle the question for yourselves: read a short delicious piece, A Venetian Portrait.

And a joke sent in by a dear friend I thought I should share:

Three strangers strike up a conversation in the
airport in Bozeman,
Montana, awaiting their flights. One is a Sioux
Indian from Lame Deer.
Another is a Cowboy on his way to Billings for a
rodeo. The third is a
fundamentalist Arab student, newly arrived at
Montana State University.
Their discussion drifts to their cultures.
Soon, the two Westerners learn that the Arab is a
devout, radical Muslim and the conversation falls
into an uneasy lull.
The cowboy leans back in his chair, crosses his
boots on a table and tips
sweat-stained hat over his face.
After a long silence, the Indian clears his throat
and speaks, "At one time,
my people were many, but sadly, now we are few."
The Muslim student raises an eyebrow and leans
forward, "Once my
people were few," he sneers, "and now we are many.
Why do you suppose
that is?"
The Montana cowboy shifts his toothpick to one side
of his mouth
and from the darkness beneath his Stetson says in a
drawl, "That's 'cause we
ain't played Cowboys and Muslims yet, but I do
believe it's comin'."

Another writer has some reflections on 911 which in a roundabout way relates to what the joke’s Cowboy might actually have in mind,

“On the day the world came tumbling down I told a friend (did I say it out loud, or did I say it in my head; since I never got a reply, can’t tell to this day):
This is the most horrific crime! This is despicable! Not a single species on this planet can do this! It is sick, isn’t it? But, what if they do it again? What if they can? Like, they come back tomorrow and hit another city, like Chicago. Then they come back again the next day and hit San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles all at once. What if they told us that we should overthrow the American government, or else they will come back and hit other targets, to be chosen at their own discretion? What if they keep coming back, day after day, week after week, and month after month? What if we can’t stop them, and they just kept coming at us? What if they started announcing their attacks in their newspapers after a while? And started discussing the scheduling and the tonnage of the bombings in their legislature? What if their scientists were given prizes for improving the potency of the bombs they’re dropping on us? Where will we hide our children? Our mothers? Our sisters? Our brothers and fathers and grandfathers? Where can we go? What can we do? How can we fight back?”

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Chalabi, neo-cons, tsars and paranoid politics!

Now that tempers have cooled somewhat, I thought it appropriate to have my say on what has been dubbed the Chalabi-gate.

I have no way of knowing whether he might be a double agent. I have no way of adjudicating the competing claims about whether Iranians could have actually pulled off one of the most successful intelligent operations ever by goading the “Great Satan,” into destroying one of their regional arch-enemies, Saddam Hussein, while ensuring that US is bugged down in Iraq facing sever restrains on its future maneuverability as well as a loss of its global credibility.

But I am skeptical of the narrative. Why? For the same reason as I have been reluctant to swallow the claims about the hijacking of America by a handful of neo-cons on behalf of Israel. Those of you who have been reading my blog might have wondered why I never use “neo-cons” in any of my posts. So, I’ll share my reasons and let you be the judge.

You see I do know there are neo-conservatives out there. As a matter of fact, I have read their oeuvres for years. I used to consult this website filled with petitions, great links, book reviews and other stuff, before it all disappeared, shortly ahead of some of the denials and prevarications! The site never reappeared even after Kritol attempted to put a stop to the non-sense; or so he might have thought.

I also know there is a sizable Jewish contingent amongst the neocons. But do I really believe they are doing all they can to enhance the security of Israel at the expense of the American tax payers and their reputation? No is the short answer. You see, I have never been persuaded by the charge of dual loyalty.

Israeli government and society has a lot to answer for in the court of public opinion and the conscious of her own citizens—much like the rest of us. But manipulating the US through “operatives” is not one of them for me. And I am not moved by the charges either. The fact of the matter is that the world today is not the simple worlds of the homogeneous societies of the fictionalized past some of us are wont to believe.

When others charge dual loyalty, I only see coetaneous affection. The emotion is not as rare as you might suspect. The advantage that the Likudnik contingent in and out of the Bush Administration enjoy over say the Burkina Fasoans is that there is a convergence of interest in the policies being implemented by the ruling regimes in both countries for now and it is a hot topic. Something normal in any politics and naturally also subject to changein due time. Happens all the time, you know.

But Politics for me is a lot more than what, in this overtly simplistic narrative, would really amount to omnipotent rulers/apparatchiks being able to affect through the proverbial court intrigues the entirety of social/political life- redefining it at will. And while I do believe in vigilance in the sense that as citizens we have the duty to remain attentive to the policies of out ruling regimes, the personalities [and their quirks and petty travails] involved in formulating strategies; well, quite frankly I find this paradigmatic obsession sort of boring really.

It is ironic for me that at a time US is attempting to grapple with her emerging new role in the uncertain post cold war milieu, pursuing as she is a “masculine” policy of force projection to reshape the entire face of the Middle East, her political discourse has come to reflect some of the worst traits exhibited by the dominant “mentality” in our region. And some of us remain as un-persuaded now as when we confront the conventional wisdom about what transpires in our part of the world.

Much as I like the emphasis on human agency, that a handful of “advisors,” can subvert the vast interlocking bureaucracy of the planet’s oldest stable Republic which boast gargantuan budgets, a bedeviling system of checks and balances, sophisticated security apparatus, myriad spy agencies, stable judiciary, assorted think thanks and a formidable network of medias, among others, to me, is reminiscent of some of the sillier notions we have had to contend with in Iran—the sort of nonsense the Russians under various Tsars knew well as well. The reason I bring Russians into this is that I have been thinking about them lately because of this new book of Mrs. Pahlavi, the wife of the last Iranian potentate.

It is almost always the same thing in the “old world,” one begins to suspect. The self deception manifest in wanting to only see innate native Goodness thwarted by manipulative advisors, and the backwardness of the unwashed--infinitely malleable and forever duped by the scheming of this or that manipulative group.

The mentality betrays an utter failure to understand that there are objective measures and forces in politics, even necessities, discernable desires, wants and needs that must be grappled with, organized, channeled and occasionally controlled; self-definitions that must be acknowledged and above all, the imperative to recognize that there are forces that once unleashed can not be really controlled, with or without central planning.

It goes well beyond good intentions, bad advisors, intrigues and conspiracies. To this day, our Monarchists either blame corrupt advisors or superpower conspiracies and agents for having thwarted magnificently planed Iranian developments. It was always the misdeeds of bad advisors too with the Tsar in Russia and probably elsewhere. Old, boring story! New I suppose for the impatient youngsters looking for quick glory in a new century. Politics, as we see everyday here, becomes reduced then to the art of hurling insults and character assassinations.

So here we had the Shah with the greatest plans unfulfilled. But if you look a bit more carefully past the hype, what is obvious is that a regime which implemented a land reform mostly formulated by Harvard experts in Russian History and Economics in response to the brewing mass discontent suffered predictable consequences.

With minor adjustments, authorities tried to bring us a new, improved version of the Stolypin reforms and behold the almost identical results, albeit an Islamic version of the October events: a Shah, just like a Tsar who past before him, in utter ruins.

And now there is an almost identical orientation evident in a land whose permanent political class intends to claim entire millennia at will. Not a shock really. It is difficult to be surprised by much of any sort of silliness coming from parochial ruling elites in America these days given their vainglorious delusions of grandeur.

I mean, if all it really took were a handful of men formulating policies behind closed doors of academic conferences plus one minor actor/optimistic president in order to bring down the entire Soviet Empire, then why should there be a reason to disbelieve that it is possible for a handful of agent provocateurs to push policies on an Empire in order to bring down the indefensible, decrepit order of much of the Middle East on behalf of Israel? Or Iran? Politics of intrigue and paranoia, I suppose!

Are there forces with ulterior motives behind the growing attacks on Chalabi? The question is probably much older than and quite as fascinating as Machiavelli’s narrative about the fate of Cesare Borgia and in particular one minister Ramiro. In certain circles I would suspect nightmares. Court politics is an exhausting game. No one is immune. The machinery is cold and unforgiving. No one should feel as if non-expendable. Politics though, for me, goes well beyond what transpires among the ruling elites.

Besides, if the neo-cons were half as genuinely influenced by Leo Strauss and his secret master plan for all life as we know it, as some claim, wouldn’t they have an easier time understanding the dangerous consequences of toying with negative passions in modern societies? I guess absent forceful intervention in the debate by the more thoughtful academic Straussians, we might never know for sure.

No matter though. Recently, I was struck by the tone of genuine surprise, anguish and disappointment in Rubin’s published article here. And I have been angry with him while sympathetic with his fears. So I keep wanting to ask him: what the hell did you think was going to happen? If your work brings you into the business of peddling policies that effectively unleash certain unpalatable passions globally, can you then realistically expect to be spared the consequences because you might personally be a nice guy? I mean the sheer bookish, naiveté of the folks on a rampage to social engineer a totally different global order! Hubris doesn’t begin to sum up what’s at work here.

It is more like what Aristotle would call Akrasia. The incontinence and the self indulgence we have come to expect from the contemporary permanent political class in America, whose members move seamlessly through the revolving doors that link the academia, media, corporate boardrooms, government circles and think thanks together, with no compunction about breaking rules to get what they want.

What we see here is a thoughtless will to power, without regard for responding to the burgeoning needs, desires and wants of the global community as well as certain inattentive to the creativity that sustains and nurtures collective life.

There is no overstating the consequences of cutting oneself from the creative impulses of billions of decent, hardworking citizens who are the best hope there is for forging a better future. If you dismiss their desires and genuine concerns as mere outburst of the sick, and the ill, or humor others as mere “clueless” reincarnations of a Neville Chamberlain, then what you have really done is to leave yourself at the mercy of forces with no real hope for controlling them indefinitely, while at the same time, having done your part in reducing politics to a disjointed series of paranoid encounters.

So while I think it disingenuous of some to try to kill any debate about the efficacies of policies pursued in this region by crying wolf, the fact remains that there is a nasty wolf after all. The intensity of violence has not yet peeked to the level witnessed in the East, but it appears diffused and dangerously on the rise. A balkanization of global life is depressingly close. I am pessimistic. It is going to get much worse if there is not a concerted effort to alter policies.

We can study and debate soft vs. hard power until we are all blue in the face. But political elites unable to see past their own noses and immediate ambitions are going to suffer the same fate as that of the Tsar and the Shah. The descent to the realm of the paranoid politics is only a warning sign of the things to come.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Japanese wisdom & the impending catastrophe!

Our genteel, compassionate Polish blogger sent a note of concern because of the rumors circulating about the impending big quake in Tehran after having read, apparently, the latest angst-ridden post of our aptly named sleepwalker. Yes, we are all worried. But isn’t life, after all, about the choices we make—choices that become all the more oppressive when the prospect of death looms in the horizon?

You can discern a lot about various cultures by the way each broaches the subject. Now, I simply adore the Japanese wisdom manifest in Murasaki Shikibu’s wonderfully poignant masterpiece, Tale of Genji. It is a love story of sorts and the fortieth chapter, the Rites dealing with the impending death of Lady Murasaki has some brilliant, haunting passages. I think you can still get a sense for the profound beauty even without the rest of the book:

It was the tenth day of the Third Month. The cherries were
in bloom and the skies were pleasantly clear. One felt that
Amitabha’s paradise could not be far away, and for even the
less than devout it was as if a burden of sin were being lifted.

As the first touches of dawn came over the sky the scene was
as if made especially for her who so loved the spring. All
across the garden cherries were a delicate veil through spring
mists, and bird songs rose numberless, as if to outdo the flutes.

One would have thought that the possibilities of beauty were
exhausted, and then the dancer on the stage became the handsome
General Ling, and as the dance gathered momentum and the delighted
onlookers stripped off multicolored robes and showered them upon
him, the season and the occasion brought a yet higher access of

These were the familiar faces, the people who had gathered over
the years. They had delighted her one last time with the flute and
Koto. Some had meant more to her than others. She gazed intently
at the most distant of them and thought that she could never have
enough of those who had been her companions at music and other
pleasures of seasons. All of them would soon be gone, making their
way down the unknown road, and she must make her lonely way
ahead of them.

Though very thin, she was more beautiful than ever-one would not
have thought it possible. The fresh, vivacious beauty of other years
had asked to be likened to the flowers of this earth, but now there
was a delicate serenity that seemed to go beyond such present
similes. For the empress the slight figure before her, the very
serenity bespeaking evanescence, was utter sadness.

All through the night [Gengi] did every thing that could
possibly be done, but in vain. Just as light was coming
she faded away.

He might tell himself, as might all the others who had
been with her, that these have always happened and
will continue to happen, but there are times when the
natural order of thing is unacceptable. The numbing
grief made the world itself seem like a twilight dream.

I know the conventional wisdom has it that we live in a morbid land. The conventional wisdom, however, is often just that—terribly conventional. Ours is a highly sensual one; though, I must admit we have not as yet learned to speak openly about it in terms appropriately expressive of the orientation. And just like all cultures, there are subgroups with their own competing virtues and vices.

There is a game I like to play every day as I roam the streets. I look at the houses, high-rises, shops and the people who cross my path. “How many of you” I ask them in my head, “are worth my freedom?” How many houses? How many children? How many shops? How much lamentation? How many parents? And the severed connections? Then all begins to get murky.

To get back to the concerns of our somnambulist: His post exemplifies all that is decent about Iranians and also everything that I find offensive to my sensibilities. I mean, who can argue with his affirmations of life, love of family, and the desire to live? The bounds of affection are difficult to break, aren’t they?

And there is that desire to live just another day. A chance to discover new friends, to taste delicious fruits. And to ride a horse, smell a flower and dine with a loved one. To read a favorite passage and the chance to be awed by a new book, a movie and the simple joys of watching enchanting eyes, or expressive faces and a sunset. The prospect alone of listening and dancing to a moving melody is an invitation almost impossible to resist.

But then there is that perchance for rumor mongering. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear of “reliable sources” and their inside scoops about various inanities. And that simple easy act of dismissing everything which happens to not tickle one’s fancy. The pitch is almost always the same and tolerating yet another one becomes terribly, terribly taxing.

Let’s work through some of them: earthquakes are notoriously hard to predict. There are working hypotheses about the empirically verifiable precursors to quakes. These include the changes in the gravitational pull, alterations in the released volume of Argon and Helium, and yes even the existence of ionized clouds, and so many other indicators waiting to be worked through. But then there are questions of the nature of measurements, disagreements, and the need for constant experiments. Ultimately though, it is always the question of what we choose to do with all the data collected and the interpretations of the troubles, plaques and pestilences.

Everything hinges on assuming responsibility for our deeds and being driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and by boundless curiosity. It is never an either/or proposition. You can clearly see in his post an example of how Wonder has ceased to animate us. The social fragmentation, the politically charged atmosphere, the polarized life, and all the civic discord and authoritarianism have taken a toll on our Spirit. And in that we are not alone. You can encounter identical mindset in action in many blogs written by those outside Iran.

I mean, how hard is it to go through life and rediscover cluelessness each time you encounters something not to your liking? How difficult is it to dismiss anything not phrased exactly as how you and your small clique would like it framed? An unimaginative universe emerges that provides instant, easy and satisfying answers. But do we really want to live in such a universe?

I am not religious. But I like to see how different minds deal with riddles. So it doesn’t bother me if some in Iran worry about Adam, Eve and their navels. Much in the same way as I occasionally peruse the Jewish debates about the relationship between prayer, Israel and circumcision. Or the debates the Christians engage in as to whether the resurrected Christ was really circumcised, or not. Or some of the more “exotic” Hindu, Manichean or Zoroastrian concerns that some might dismiss as superstition.

You see, for me, the same desire for providing at least some answer to those riddles, also gives rise to the need to run experiments in order to find out if you can really predict earth quakes. None of this would happen if you create a milieu where any encounter with questions not to your liking is humored, ridiculed, and instinctively dismissed.

Consequently, exactly as it is in Iran, there emerges a life dominated by “reliable sources,” rumors, politically motivated half-truths and high death tolls (Bam) as well as utter, total lack of personal responsibility for anything of substance.

I don’t know if there might indeed be a quake in Tehran any time soon or not. What I do know is that this government won’t be able to handle the catastrophe. I know millions of people will surely die. I know there will be massive explosions because I hear gas leaks every day and night. I know our emergency services are not sufficiently trained, and organized. As it is, they are poorly equipped and ill prepared for any disaster of some magnitude.

But how many houses were built by this government? Not many I assure you. How many times the builders, each and every one of us, chose to bribe the officials to circumnavigate the building codes—however inadequate—instead of following them? How many (of us) used inadequate material to cut costs? Is there any accounting? Why not?

It is always some one else’s fault, isn’t it? And the politically charged atmosphere gives us the added impetus to ridicule and to dismiss anything that runs counter to our personal tastes. The result: the first casualty has become that Spirit which would allow people to ask hard questions, to run experiments, to search for more effective organizing principles; to search for answers to questions as yet not thought through. That Spirit might offer us an exit and a higher probability of at least beginning to get prepared to deal with the disasters of monumental proportion looming in the horizon.

At the end of the day though, I come back to the questions I ask of my city-- the building, the shops and my fellow residents-- every day: how many of you am I willing to lose?

The answer is simple for me. I can’t bear the thought of watching from some distance the day after millions of our citizens perish because of a lousy quake. I learned from the Japanese that sometimes the “natural order of things,” is so preposterously unacceptable that nothing—and I mean nothing can seduce you into going on with your prosaic, humdrum routine.

So, in case you were wondering, there will be no skipping town for me any time soon. We either die together, or we muddle our way through the catastrophe—together--however injured or crippled.