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.


Ed Felten said...

There's a simpler and more charitable explanation. We all learned as kids that it's not clever to insult the teacher at the moment you're asking him to make an exception to the rules. This is true even if the teacher is a tyrant and the rules are unjust. There will be plenty of time to insult the teacher later.

I don't think they're asking people to respect the Iranian government, or even to refrain in general from criticizing it. All they're asking is that people mute their criticism temporarily at the moment that they're asking Iran to release this political prisoner.

Note that this tactic is particularly effective if the teacher jumps to the conclusion that you might actually respect him. Here the stereotype that academics might be sympathetic to a regime like Iran's could make the requestors' tactical silence even more effective.

Dan Simon said...

Ed, that may indeed be the argument that the campaign organizers would use if asked to justify their position. But the same argument could also be made about the Guantanamo prisoners, or any other "prisoners of conscience" whose release ever was, is or might have been the subject of a letter-writing campaign. Indeed, I would argue that George Bush has far more reason to be open to sympathetic pleas from deferential foreigners than does Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Now, do you believe that these same organizers would make the same request for deference if their aim were the release of the Guantanamo prisoners--or, for that matter, Tibetan monks imprisoned by China, or human rights activists imprisoned in Burma, or any other prisoners they might be motivated to campaign on behalf of?

Not only do I not believe it--I have never before heard of any such campaign adopting a supplicating, deferential tone towards any captor government. One reason, as I mentioned, is that such a tone implicitly undermines the case for respecting the right of the prisoner to do whatever antagonized his or her captors, and thus actually helps justify the imprisonment. Another is that governments that imprison people on unjust grounds tend to be rather harsh and callous, and hence to respond more to threats and appeals to self-interest than to flattery and pleas for mercy.

The question, therefore, is why in this case, these campaign organizers were apparently swayed by the "don't antagonize them" argument, whereas every other such campaign I've ever encountered--whether directed at the most bloodthirsty tyranny or the most moderate democracy, on behalf of the most saintly humanitarian or the most ruthless terrorist--has always (presumably for the reasons I outlined) adopted a stern tone of righteous condemnation of the imprisonment, rather than deferential pleading.

Now, I could have been even less charitable, and accused the organizers of actually sympathizing with the Iranian government enough to want to mute criticisms of it. But I'm fairly confident that the organizers are under no illusions regarding the Iranian government's brutality. I was left with only one explanation that made sense to me--the one I offered. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I've yet to see a more convincing alternative.

Dan Simon said...

By the way, here are a few fairly randomly chosen petitions and model letters advocating the release of various allegedly unjustly imprisoned people. You can compare the tone of these with that of the proposed Jahanbegloo letters.

Petition for the release of Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche

Petition for the release of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi

Amnesty International's proposed letter to George W. Bush advocating release of the Guantanamo prisoners

Amnesty International's proposed letter to Uzbekistan president Karimov advocating the release of Uzbeki dissident Saidzhakhon Zainabitdinov

An international petition seeking the release of Ramin Jahanbegloo

Anonymous said...

"Not only do I not believe it--I have never before heard of any such campaign adopting a supplicating, deferential tone towards any captor government."

Sorry - you are off the mark on this one. I am a member of Amnesty International's Urgent Action Letter-writing network and the very first of their list of "letter-writing tips" is:

"Always be polite. This rule is essential and invariable. Your aim is to help stop human rights abuses, not to relieve your own feelings. Governments don't respond to abusive or condemnatory letters (however well deserved)."

See how closely this mirrors the UofT statement:

"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."

You can be outraged all you like; but Amnesty International, perhaps the worlds' most experienced body in dealing with unfairly-detained individuals, knows that aggressive or confrontational letter-writing campaigns lead to tyrants digging in their heels, not release of political prisoners.

Anonymous said...

There's a simpler and more charitable explanation.

Ed, why would we want a simpler or more charitable explanation? In this situation we must apply Simon's Razor: the best explanation is the one which confirms our currently held prejudices.

Dan Simon said...

I'll simply refer you to the above link to AI's suggested letter to Uzbekistan's president Karimov. If you don't think phrases like "[t]his constitutes a grave violation of Uzbekistan’s international obligations to ensure fair trials" and "[t]he United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture has described the use of torture and ill-treatment in Uzbekistan as 'systematic' and has called upon the highest authorities to take action" constitute "statements of principle", then I'm afraid we'll just have to agree to disagree.