‘It’s a Limbo’: Grad Students, Frustrated by Harvard’s Response to Bullying Complaint, Petition for Reform


Community Groups Promote Vaccine Awareness Among Cambridge Residents of Color


Students Celebrate Upcoming Harvard-Yale Game at CEB Spirit Week


Harvard Epidemiologist Michael Mina Resigns, Appointed Chief Science Officer at eMed


Harvard Likely to Loosen Campus Covid Restrictions in the Spring, Garber Says

Finding ‘Freedom’

Presidential politics elsewhere may have more to teach us

By James M. Larkin

Along with what is fast becoming an irredeemably bleak legacy, the Bush administration will leave behind a lexicon that even our “change” candidates have taken to using. In it, “terror” is defined as a shadowy coalition of America’s (Muslim) enemies, not a feeling; “compassion” is not a virtue, but a hidebound, evangelical conception of charity. Amid this catalog of inexactitudes, the most egregious example must be terror’s foil, “freedom”: In its reduction to the neoconservative excuse par excellence and a shoddy façade of altruism, all the chauvinism of the White House word-smiths is laid bare; at once, all their broad divisiveness is realized and perpetuated.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a name less inappropriate than it might appear. Iraq’s neighbor to the east is a favorite target of Bush rhetoric, in part because of its strategic contributions to the Iraqi insurgency, its abortive nuclear ambitions and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s maniacal defiance. Iran’s status as a dangerous state is unmistakable, and the White House’s apprehension toward it legitimate.

At some point, though, caution stops and demonization begins. In 2006, when the Iranian nuclear myth was still gospel in Washington, Congress shuffled through the ‘Iran Freedom Support Act’ in response, legislation that permitted the exercise of sanctions by the White House “to support a transition to democracy in Iran.” The notion of these sanctions as in the service of freedom is not just an example of Ministry-of-Love levels of doublespeak, but plainly disingenuous: even under Iran’s potent religious leadership, democratic processes function there relatively freely, and very much like our own.

Even before Ahmadinejad’s more tumultuous visit to Columbia University last fall, the Kennedy School of Government invited his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, to speak in 2006. Protests swirled around the event, with invocations directed at the ex-president to condemn his replacement’s recklessness. None of the invective, however, dealt with the man’s actual political position as a pacifist and a pro-Western reformer. In 1997, Khatami won election three-to-one on the strength of young people passionate about the prospect of change (sound familiar?). Yes, theocratic authority overcame its democratic counterpart and stunted Khatami’s suite of reforms, but his very viability speaks volumes about the power of the vote in the putative “Axis of Evil.”

Ahmadinejad himself is an extremist, not a tyrant, and must be understood as a product of the same political apparatus that is churning in California and New York today. After Khatami’s impotence was proven, his young proponents didn’t change their minds or leave town, but became disillusioned enough not to turn out to polls (how about this?). The end result was a victory for Ahmadinejad and the conservative mullahs in the form of a 62 percent majority—a victory larger and more legitimate than either of his current American counterpart’s.

Now that this president’s reactionary fervor has played out on the world stage and as Iran’s economy slows, the system seems primed for more upheaval. According to an article in The New York Times yesterday, the Iranian political elite grows more frustrated every day with Ahmadinejad; insistent on progress, they have begun to clamor and sadly, be repressed. Meanwhile, the president clings to his popular image as principled and righteous among the more religious majority. Even under the alien auspices of a theocracy, the similarities of the Iranian electoral system to our own are salient here today as ever.

Just as we must ensure that Islam at large not be conflated with the broken neologism “Islamo-fascism,” when we hear an official trot out some turn of phrase casting Iran as an “enemy of democracy,” we must be careful of confusion. He refers to the absence of pro-American representative government, and ignores the factual if fragile mechanism for political participation in place. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is troubling, but it was endorsed and he empowered by democracy; in the end, he will have to reckon with the same. So when White House language describes Iran as antagonistic to the ideal of liberty, what it means is not that political liberty does not exist there to some extent, but that it is dissatisfied with the result of that liberty. The similarities persist: sometimes, so are we.

James M. Larkin ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.