The silence of the left

If you get tired of Butler and Spivak – this is better.

The most astute argument presented by Postel is his revelatory account of how Western leftists, by prioritising their own opposition to American imperialism, have abandoned Iranian liberals in their fight for freedom and democracy. Postel vehemently renounces the argument that support for pro-democracy interests in Iran somehow amounts to supporting the neo-conservative agenda. He presents engaging ideas as to how Iranian liberals have accomplished this very task. He relates in detail how Iranian human rights activists such as Akbar Ganji shun any contact with the United States government when visiting the country and focus solely on engaging with scholars, human rights organisations and civil society groups. Postel recounts an incident in which Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, during a visit to the U.S., was confronted by an anti-war protester who suggested that she stop talking about human rights abuses in Iran because her arguments could be appropriated by the neo-conservatives. Ebadi’s response was clear and unequivocal: “Any anti-war movement that advocates silence in the face of tyranny can count me out.” Iranian intellectuals, despite being in the direct line of fire of the neo-conservative military agenda, are demonstrating that fighting the expansionist military agendas of the Bush administration does not require silence about the injustices perpetrated by the Iranian regime.

And not only does it not require silence, but Iranian intellectuals and liberals and feminists and secularists don’t want silence. They urgently, badly, energetically don’t want it; they want the opposite; they want noise. Noise from us. Noise from the left, noise from liberals, noise from people who oppose tyranny and injustice and oppression of women. They do not feel pleased and grateful when large swathes of the Western left are silent about all that, much less when those large swathes throw metaphorical rotten eggs and squashy tomatoes at people who are not silent about all that; they feel displeased and ungrateful and angry. The large swathes of the Western left who are silent about all that and congratulate themselves on their silence are under a very serious misapprehension.

This same conundrum confounds Western liberals. They, as Postel documents, have been silent in the face of repeated student protests in Iran, imprisonment of Iranian activists and numerous other human rights violations that should have logically attracted their support. They are so locked in the singular prism of anti-imperialism that they are unable to make peace with the idea that it is liberalism rather than radicalism that is the true fighting creed in Iran. They are even less amenable to the reality that “the denunciations of U.S. Empire in Iran today are the rhetorical dominion of the Iranian Right, not the Left”. As Postel states, “it is the reactionary clergy who wield the idiom of anti-imperialism and regime hardliners [who] legitimate the suppression of Iranian students”. This aversion to recognising reality in Iran has exacted a huge cost; it has delegitimised the Western left and exposed its disinterest in championing the cause of Iranian liberals and pro-democracy fighters who suffer daily at the hands of an increasingly repressive regime. Postel exposes how the insistent prioritisation of anti-imperialism over all else has produced a repugnant inversion of itself – a new form of imperialism equally blind in its U.S.-centric perspective as its ugly counterpart…This book is a timely indictment of the Western left’s apathy, which justifies itself by constructing a deceptively dualistic model of Western engagement with the world. The time has come for the emergence of a new “radical” liberalism that rejects such misguided political perversions and reclaims the right to both engage with the struggles of human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists in Iran and elsewhere, and denounce the Bush administration’s tyrannical politics of military intervention.

Damn right.

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