Monday, September 27, 2004

LaLa Land: the exuberance!

There were above average number of white attires in our city yesterday and relatively decent size gatherings and small protests last night in front of the University of Tehran, and “24 Esfand” street with (tame) disturbances and scuffles along the way involving the Basijis, and various other elements of our security apparatus. BBC had a report on the events. (Farsi) And this in Iranmania among some of the few other outlets which covered the events. I don’t think the medias have accurately reflected the general mood of euphoria, excitement and trepidations evident in our city.

The exuberance has everything to do with one Mr. Ahura Yazdi, a man who seems to have popped out of nowhere. With a promise of swift return on the 1st of October (some backpedaling for now!) and a quick, peaceful and painless end to the reign of our ruling clergy, Mr. Yazdi has managed to capture the imagination of a relatively large segment of our population, considering the short span of his activism.

Of course, so too has he managed to become the object of wrath, scorn, derision and laughter among an even larger segment of our public.

I think the Yazdi phenomena and some of the different reactions evident among Iranians might offer observers a sense for some of the cultural limitations which facilitated the establishment over 25 years ago of the Islamic Regime and the continuation of its rule since.

To get a sense for the issues I try to get at, I would like to highlight the reactions of a few bloggers I read frequently. Indulge me please, and forgive my sweeping generalizations and the caricatures. Yes, I know better, but I would like to make a point.

Note first the attitude of an outsider, Diane Warth of Karmalised as a frame of reference. I choose Diane because she basically has the same relation with her own society as we do with ours. She is disenchanted with US government policies-- both internal and foreign, and exudes a profound sense of anger and disappointment. Her general misgivings about the present direction of American society is something we intuitively understand. She is not all that happy with her fellow citizens either and just like Iranians, she too knows how to use invectives effectively.

So Diane comes to confront one Mr. Ahura Yazdi. But what does she do?

She starts digging. She establishes connections. Asks myriad why questions. Wants to know the significance of dates. And so she goes on and on much like the famed energizer bunny.

And what do we do? We immediately start belittling the fellow, wanting to find signs of his mental disabilities and personal shortcomings. The older, more renowned writer picks a rambling speech of Mr. Yazdi, to prove his case. The younger one picks a series of “stupid” one liners to prove hers. The more noteworthy expat activist professional translates the ramblings, further painting a portrait of a mentally unstable idiot in action. And a thoughtful one with a more nuanced approach still manages to find the man borderline nutcase, and a further proof of our cultural backwardness.

I spent a couple of days recently in front of the Satellite TV in a friend’s house closely watching Mr. Yazdi and listening to some of the discussions. I too noted all the rude insults, the sheepish praises, the expressed hopes and false hopes, but came away with a rather different set of impressions. For the record, Mr. Yazdi struck me as a classic “foreign” businessman, single minded, nuanced, pushing some right buttons, avoiding dangerous ones , and generally as sane as any of us come in these unsettling times.

He is a royalist, yes. And you know by know that I have no use for kings and queens (well Queen Tomyris excepted!) But he strikes me as someone with a very well considered plan (as well considered as any foreign PsyOp destabilization operation ever gets!) with quite an improvisational, dynamic approach in the classic (American) sense. (I am willing to be proved wrong on this. But just an educated guess for now)

But an idiot he is not. I don’t think so any way. So why are so many people ready to think about him in such way?

In one sense, the reaction has been the hallmark of “modernity,” in Iran. Ever since Iranian chattering classes came to notice the Order, the industrial and technological advances and the political freedoms we have come to associate with the West, they began to pose the question in terms of “why aren't we more like them?”

A perpetual tug of war follows; an enduring love-hate relation. Yet, the answer in some ways has always had a large doze of “because most everyone here is an idiot,” component. And the political discourse has frozen in the mold since.

The peasants are superstitious and idiotic. The rulers have been idiots. Those fighting for change are idiots. Those who resist change are idiots. Religious folk are idiots. The secularists are idiots. The rich and powerful are idiots. The poor and disposed are idiots. In short any one who is not like me, doesn’t think, walk or talk like me—that person too is an idiot, a liar, and probably a charlatan and a hoax. Can you imagine, 25 different networks for a small community of expats. Dot the i's.

Massive social engineering and near universal individual metamorphoses have been on the agenda of practically everyone in our “society of idiots” since the Constitutional revolution. The pitch is: think big, dream big, change big. Or you risk succumbing to the lure of the idiot within.

In short, a tendency to think ideal and avoid the real. The dreamers of beautiful Dreams, who dismiss all else as ugly, belittling everything only to settle for the grotesque. The inhabitants of an insane sort of maximalist bubble who end up almost always settling for the minimal. The hypercritical perfectionists who destroy well but build very little.

Truth to tell, I too struggle constantly with this charming disposition.

Look, sometime it is difficult to have satisfactory answers. IWe all know what it is to be angry, disillusioned, and disenchanted with less than stellar record in our achievements. But so long as we struggle with the “right,” questions, at least there might be a chance of beginning to come up with some alternative solution to our present predicament.

Yes, a few thousands saw the picture of Mr. Khomeini on the moon a few years back, overzealous to believe in the promises of a Savior. I was there when the folk were looking towards the sky. I have vivid memories of the episode. I didn’t see anything then. But in my first astronomy class a few years later I did chuckle briefly when I encountered the cartoon of that face on the moon people have been seeing for centuries. Look up any standard textbook and see for yourselves.

But isn’t it too easy to always see “naivetĂ©,” and “cluelessness?” Isn’t it too easy to always go for the assumption of baser instincts? To be the perpetual explorer of defects? The seeker of personal weaknesses? To always reach for the charge of “abnormal?”

Take a look at this resume and the background. Must one see only an idiot here to disagree with the fellow? Isn’t it possible to engage an adversary without simplemindedness and coarseness of spirit? A tendency to both always underestimate one’s interlocutors, while also exaggerating the powers of enemies…no rhyme or reason.

In the next post, I will attempt to articulate a series of cultural obsessions that we--both the opponents as well as the supporters of Mr. Yazdi-- share. The same obsessions, mind you, that find slightly different manifestations in various forms. The sort of obsessions which continue to cause irreparable damage to the prospect of change here while wreaking havoc on all prospects for saner, more civil life even under this Islamic Regime.

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