They are not just reading Lolita in Tehran. They are also reading Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper, Jurgen Habermas and Richard Rorty. A Velvet Revolution inspired by Western liberal philosophers is under way in Iran. The theocratic regime of the mullahs is violently suppressing student demonstrations for freedom of speech and women's rights. Dissidents are being jailed, beaten, tortured and disappeared. We hear very little news of these horrors, and there has been only a muted response from American and European liberals. Young Iranians are dying for liberal values we take for granted in the United States: democracy, freedom of speech and assembly, women's rights, plurality of views, the right to peaceful dissent.
A fiery new book by Danny Postel, Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran, takes issue with American liberals for their listlessness. There is as much at stake now as there was in Bosnia and Kosovo in the '90s. Iran is as ripe for dramatic change as Czechoslovakia was in 1989. Part of the problem, Postel argues, is that the George Bush neo-cons have stolen the agenda of American liberalism with their rhetoric of freedom and democracy, a discourse that sounds idealistic but clearly is not, as evidenced in Iraq.
Iranian intellectuals see this more clearly than we do. They want the support of intellectuals and NGOs, but not any sort of interference from the U.S. government, certainly not armed intervention. It's a fine line, one that Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has emphasized by calling on "human rights defenders, university professors, international NGOs" to support the human rights struggle in Iran. "All defenders of human rights," she has said, "are members of a single family." And Akbar Ganjo, another eminent dissident, has put it in no uncertain terms: "We don't want intervention, we only want the moral support of the global community for our fight."
The Iranian drama is a great opportunity for American liberals to reassert their proud tradition of defending human rights at a time when radicals on the left and the right can't see past their hatred of each other. The Left ignores the democracy movement in Iran, just as it ignored the democracy movements in Eastern Europe that led to the collapse of those tyrannies. The Right is using rhetoric to make its case for war. The liberal philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian dissident who has been imprisoned and now lives in exile, told Postel, "... freedom is possible even in a world of secret police and of the rule of autocrats. Freedom is a universal human possibility. In a country like Iran, where you have a vibrant civil society, the most unlikely things happen on the margins of politics."
Sounds familiar to me: that is the sound of philosophy, art and liberty that toppled the Berlin wall. There was no military invasion there, just a unanimous call for human rights.
Liberals, dust off your John Stuart Mill and Tom Paine, and quit cowering before hacks of the con, neo or not. Say it loud, I'm liberal and I'm proud, and there will be freedom but no war in Iran.
Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).