Monday, May 15, 2006

Some political scientists at the University of Toronto have started a letter-writing campaign on behalf of a former colleague, Ramin Jahanbegloo, who has been imprisoned by the government of Iran on trumped-up "espionage" charges. Crooked Timber's Henry Farrell points out (approvingly, mind you) a rather unusual feature of this campaign: the organizers
ask that you be careful to adopt a respectful tone and avoid political condemnation. Bear in mind that our purpose is to secure Ramin’s safe release, not to make statements of principle, however valid.
Now, imagine if, for example, the letter-writing campaign had instead been aimed at getting the US government to release the accused Taliban and Al Qaeda members imprisoned at its Guantanamo detention facility. Is it even conceivable that the organizers would have asked participants---let alone expected them to agree---to "adopt a respectful tone and avoid political condemnation" of George Bush, the Republican Party, US imperialism, and so on?

Worse still, Jahanbegloo himself was pretty clearly imprisoned for failing to "adopt a respectful tone and avoid political condemnation" of the Iranian government's actions. The campaign's organizers are thus effectively undercutting the case for their own hero's release. After all, if they're willing to forgo "statements of principle" about the Iranian government when expediency dictates, then why shouldn't the Iranian government expect the same of Jahanbegloo?

Of course, none of this really matters unless one believes people's political positions should exhibit some kind of principled consistency. For the vast majority of the population, however---and I include political scientists, such as the ones who organized this campaign---all politics is "identity politics". That is, one chooses one's political stances the way one chooses one's clothing styles---as a way of affiliating oneself with certain groups of people, and distancing oneself from others.

By this criterion, the decision to counsel restraint in addressing the Iranian government makes perfect sense. Who, after all, are the sort of people who launch into tirades about the evils of the Iranian government? Certainly not the sort one is likely to find at the Political Science Department of the University of Toronto. Happy though they may be to stand up for one of their erstwhile colleagues, they would never do so in a manner that might make them appear more like a frothing neocon, or a born-again redneck, or a white-shoed Bush Republican, than---well, than the sort of people they are. (And why do all those disparate groups of people---neocons, Christian fundamentalists, plutocrats, and the rest---so often sound exactly the same when talking about Iran? Why, to avoid sounding like University of Toronto political science academics and their like, of course....)

Unfortunately, wearing one's political views as a fashion statement doesn't necessarily lead one to exhibit rigorous intellectual consistency at all times. Ramin Jahanbegloo, a former University of Toronto academic, Harvard fellow, and admirer of Noam Chomsky's---Chomsky having coincidentally just completed a friendly visit with the Iranian mullahs' fanatical Lebanese proxies, Hezbollah---would no doubt understand completely.