In the wake of international accusations over Iran’s nuclear program, I want to return to a column last week by staff columnist Navid Farnia ’10, which was a critique of the panel presented by the Cornell International Affairs Review on the Iranian Election.
I should make it clear that I’m not speaking for the Review here; in fact, I became involved with the publication to challenge many of the problems I saw in contemporary college International Relations discussions, many of which Farnia points out, including a tendency to unquestioningly adopt a “solidarity” with specific peoples of the world to strategic ends in the often-pernicious American game of international politics.
My problem is that criticisms of American bravado often end up parroting exactly what they claim to challenge. Farnia attacks the inauthentic nature of American camaraderie with Iranian protesters, but later claims as an Iranian to know that “the Iranian people should have the freedoms that they don’t have under their current government.” What gives someone the authority to know more than a regular American what the “Iranian people” want? What gives someone the authority to say “no one can or should speak for the interests of Iranian people but Iranians themselves”?
When does anyone have the authority to speak for other people? Does one’s identity as an Iranian-American really create it?
I agree with Farnia that there is a tendency to speak about peoples of the Middle East with a patronizing tone, a tone that includes broad swaths about “freedom,” “revolution” and “success,” notions all fully operative in Farnia’s assessment. The very idea that in Iran there is a “will of the people,” as he puts it, shows a great indebtedness on his part to the liberal American political tradition. As we see in America during the health care battles and Iran after the election, “the people” in any country seldom speak with a unified voice, and though Farnia accepts this complexity, he glosses over it at every turn.
The reason my criticisms here may cross the line of friendly discussion (and I apologize if they do) is that these mistakes are not innocent to the actual workings of politics. One can find Iranian-Americans who supported the Shah, and kicked out by the Islamic revolution, actively support a return to monarchy, with human rights issues just as intense as those under the current leadership. Likewise, it is these very identity politics that some in the American-Jewish community call upon in their efforts to advocate for America’s support for Israel without a sense of what that actually means for Israelis.
More importantly, the narrow identity politics assumed by the endless debate about who has the authority to speak for whom is slowly coming unglued. What would happen if the “will of the people” in Iran supported a nuclear attack on another country? What if America sanctioned Iran over their nuclear program and intra-Iranian violence was the result? Where would Iranian-Americans stand in these moments where it really counts?
There would be a mix of stances, because some Iranian-Americans support secular monarchy, others support the Islamic republic and, as with anything, the pluralities of “feeling” that develop within a diaspora are endlessly complicated.
The same, however, is true of Americans with no claimed ethnic connection to the country. They would, and do, feel mixed about how to respond, because in a society like ours with such a relentless and sensationalist media, we are alternately asked to feel solidarity on one day and revulsion the next towards peoples “over there.” It is an inevitable feature of contemporary mediated experience.
For all of us — Iranian-Americans and other Americans — the ways we experience what happens across the world are always present but never clear. We get them via reports from family or friends traveling, from tidbits of CNN snatched in a waiting room and from panels at universities like the one last week. We cannot pretend, based on the patronizing attitudes of many, that isolating the different interests of specific national communities is possible, or even desirable anymore, because it is clear how much those communities interact due to the prevalence of diasporas.
It is for this reason that international affairs events are not only a platform to talk about American interest, but an arena in which to hone a responsible feeling of connection with people far away because, as it happened in Iran in 1953 and is happening right now, we elect politicians who do have an impact “over there.”
Maurice Chammah, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, is the managing editor of the Cornell International Affairs Review Journal. He may be reached at email@example.com. Guest Room appears periodically.