In his essay ‘Iran, Solidarity, and the Left,’ Danny Postel examines the 2003 student-led protests against the Iranian government that occurred in Tehran and the coverage of those events by legitimately leftist media. Students were savagely beaten and threatened by agents of the government, often with disappearances that have yet to be explained. Searching the typical progressive websites, he found no mention at all of these events, and after searching through a large portion of the political blogosphere, Postel found only one account of the event, reported by Andrew Sullivan. Where was this account found? On the website of the National Review, a right-wing magazine. (This is also interesting since Sullivan is now a commentator for The Atlantic, a moderately left-leaning magazine.)
Postel goes on to quote Matthew Yglesias, also now a columnist for The Atlantic, who said that ‘Normally, the global peace movement and political left would respond to oppression by an authoritarian, theocratic regime with outrage and protest.’ Instead, there was a seemingly bewildering silence from these communities.
He tries to explain the reason for this silence in the essay and theorizes that while no one on the left could sympathize with the homophobic, anti-Semitic theocrats in Tehran, they seem to hate the American right more. Members of the left, in Postel’s view, are unable to align themselves with the imperialist powers at work on the right, especially when considering that this imperialist rhetoric is emerging from the Bush Administration.
Postel goes on to draw comparisons between the Iranian student protesters and the American left, claiming that neither are pro-imperialism, and therefore the American left should not remain silent merely because their rhetoric would seemingly parrot that of the Bush Administration. He claims that opposing imperialism is essential, but not sufficient. In addition to speaking out against the Iranian government, as the administration is doing, Postel suggests that the left expose their rhetoric for what it is: hollow words, said not to benefit Iranian students but to gain the power and oil that lies there.
This calls to mind ‘On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic,’ an essay by Robert L. Scott. He identifies that the point of view that asserts that man is unable to be certain but must ‘act in the face of uncertainty to create situational truth entails three ethical guidelines: toleration, will, and responsibility.’ Within the context of the first of these principles, toleration, Scott claims that when one’s ‘undertaking involves the belief and action of others, one spoils his own potentiality for knowing…if one fails to respect the integrity of the expression and the action of others.’ The left’s lack of understanding, in Postel’s view, does not respect the beliefs or behaviors of the protesters, and therefore is unethical.
The will to make a change is Scott’s second guideline. He asserts that inaction, failing to take on the burden of participating in the development of contingent truth, ought to be considered an ethical failure. Postel would of course say that the inaction on the part of the American left in supporting the Iranian student protesters as an ethical failure, for they are not helping to define an emerging truth: that from at least Postel’s point of view, the behaviors of the Iranian government are abominable and worthy of public outrage in the part of Americans.
Scott goes on to say that one must be responsible as well; one must ‘recognize the conflicts of the circumstances he is in, maximizing the potential good and accepting responsibility for the inevitable harm.’ Postel strongly argues that the American left does understand the circumstances they are in with regards to the Iranian conflict since they have decided to remain silent rather than produce rhetoric that aligns with the Bush Administration’s condemnations of these acts. But in his view, they are not maximizing the potential good since he feels that much more could be achieved by vocally speaking out against Iran and siding with these protesters. In his mind, they are natural allies regardless of the Administration’s point of view.
Essentially, Postel is claiming that the action of the American left with regards to the Iranian student-led protests have been unethical, and using arguments that reflect the work of Robert L. Scott, is urging the left to start acting in a more responsible way, to maximize the greatest good, and to speak out.