Monday, October 31, 2005

Stepping back: cultural signposts

To better present what might be at stake with these latest huffs and puffs coming out of Iran, I thought I should start with a bit of a background.

The culture of Iranian chattering classes, as it exists today, suffers from a number of maladies that become debilitating when dealing with political matters.

One is what can be categorized as the plague of our superficial, Condescending Gaze.

Let’s consider an illuminating visual exemplar in an apolitical context to better sense what I am driving at. A famous Iranian singer, Googoosh, recently went to California to give a concert. Among the fans, there was a man holding a sign.

This simple WELL COME BACK sign then began to be widely circulated among some Iranian bloggers as proof of the illiteracy of Iranians in California. Everyone shared in on a good laugh. A very routine practice, I might (needlessly) add here.

The issue is not whether the Iranians in California might indeed be in need of lessons in English. The missing component is that requisite hesitation or self-doubt and some consideration of whether or not the space might actually have been intentionally placed so as to not only Welcome the singer, but also invite her to Come Back at some later date.

The expressed attitude here, of course, means that in any given day, instead of giving each other the benefit of the doubt, or working collectively and honing our skills or improving our abilities with a team spirit, we Iranians are perpetually busy belittling each other.

It might be over the clothing we wear, our educational achievements, or the type of work we do and the way we look or the way we speak or walk, and how we earn our living or the car we drive, and our family background… you get the message.

Uncompromising and unforgiving, indeed!

Now amplify this by a magnitude of thousands due to a political fragmentation and an outrageous degree of polarization; all the civil strife, and the radical insecurity of life under bullies or our competing views of the past, present and future coupled with years of authoritarianism and assorted foreign interventions and intrigues and a siege mentality or the mind-boggling ethnic diversity as well as the Islamic regime’s unpopularity and you can thus begin to appreciate how those omnipresent charges of incompetence, stupidity, provincialism and silliness leveled at the ruling class originating with their fellow Iranians might actually be slightly exaggerated.

Obviously, the folks in power are relatively young-- as ruling classes go-- with about 27 years of experience in power max. And they are radical, obnoxious and murderous, no doubt. But there is such thing as a learning curve and the ability to formulate lessons learned from the past mistakes, etc.

What I am trying to communicate here is that while I might be perfectly willing to tolerate a certain sense of superiority on a personal level--for people are fully entitled, I think, to feel and do as is necessary to have that advantage to survive--when it comes to politics, underestimating one’s adversaries can be deadly. Especially when dealing with such ruthless creatures as the Iranian ruling regime.

A couple of generations have had to learn the hard way. And we continue to ignore these lessons at our own peril.

This weakness, I suppose, is what Mr. Pollack had in mind when he accused Iranians of suffering from “an exaggerate sense of self importance.” We are all of us the best in whatever it is we do—and oh yes, there is also our exceptionally unique edge to consider-- and everyone else is naturally an idiot. (In case you’re wondering: yours truly too suffers from his fair share of this charming disposition!)

Some of you have probably guessed what the other side of the coin might be. Yes, that annoying Adulatory Gaze.

The one that seeks perfection, innocence and infallibility and inevitably always succeeds in locating them where there is none. And then the sheepish praises, false hopes and the almost perpetual disappointment in the aftermath along with feelings of betrayal.

In the vernacular, we call this Ifrat va Tafrit. Wild mood swings of extremism with no middle ground whatsoever.

The other aspect of our life that is so terribly intolerable is what is routinely described as that notorious “kaleidoscopic” politics of Iran. Mr. Pollack again offers a nice summation:

Every person has his or her own unique perspective; it is rarely the case that individuals, let alone groups, share identical perspective, and every time you change the circumstances of an issue—or switch to a different issue—it is like twisting the kaleidoscope: all of the pieces immediately realign in a different fashion.

To better see what might lie at the root of this sort of politics, I am going to elicit the help of one of my favorite readers, Craig. For if we Iranians had a fraction of his refreshing honesty, who knows where we might have been!

Although I must say, I also half suspect our present misfortunes to have begun exactly with his attitude some day long-ago in our past.

In reacting to the news of the alleged desecration of Afghan bodies, Craig comments:

OK, I don't like the burning of the bodies thing, on general principals. But to be honest, it doesn't bother me a great deal. It's illegal and probably immoral but it's not like they burned those guys alive, you know?

Anyway, the MOTIVATION for doing that was to provoke an attack. That's according to the journalist who released the story.

Perfectly natural when the issue is one of existential threat! But now consider this: if the members of a given society come to perpetually feel threatened in this identical existential sense; then at some point moral considerations of right and wrong begin to lose all relevance in toto.

Now you can factor in the multipliers.

In a country such as the US, given that the routine and the mundane are hardly ever affected short term by partisan politics, the daily life itself does not immediately suffer. But in a country like Iran, with a history of authoritarian regimes which have always aspired to regulate private spaces, the effect on the polity has been disastrous.

Hardly anyone believes in anything anymore. There is no moral compass at work to guide anyone.

It has become all about catching other people’s hands in that proverbial cookie jar. And charging others with hypocrisy and smearing them or laughing at them. And, of course, a great deal of jealousy or envy and other negative passions come to play a role here given the degree to which the traditional religious mores and prohibitions which might have had a tempering effect have become so utterly decimated themselves as well.

Almost any nasty deed is a go nowadays since someone else and somewhere, at some point, is bound to have done even worse.

Iran has thus become a nation of millions of brilliant liars who do anything and everything just as long as it suits their purposes. And all our deeds are deemed different because naturally we must have meant well.

Practically everyone has obscene expectations now and is unlikely ever to be satisfied with much of any sort of offerings. So, it is hard to know where one stands these days and what could be accomplished. It has generally become a free for all in some grotesquely discombobulating ways.

This, my long winded way of saying: the Islamic regime in Iran stands on a very shaky ground domestically and some of it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what they can or can not do.

Nothing that it does now will placate or appease large segments of the Iranian population. And I am not quite convinced anyone else can either.

The moment they begin to lose control, the very foundations of that society would be blown sky-high and not much of any force can put it back together again any time soon.

And unless some fundamentals are altered—by way of reintegrating the Iranian economy into the global community—at a pace which would allow the Iranian regime to maintain control while enabling it to offer some level of enhanced comfort to an increasingly entitle population in order to buy their acquiescence, there shall not be much of a future for this ruling class.

A ruling class, mind you, which just like the rest of those it purports to lead, doesn’t seem to be interested in much of anything beyond wealth, power, status and prestige-- at whatever cost.

Now might have been as good a time as any for a good offense for the shrewd and the cunning!

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