Lessons from Iran

In the 21st Century, billions still suffer under the rule of corrupt, murderous despots. What many do not understand is that human beings suffer because they consent to do so. The “they” I speak of is the collective will of the nation and not of specific individuals.

Consider Iran. In 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became the Supreme Leader of Iran with the divine right to rule; an Ayatollah is not elected. Last week he pronounced his divine sanction on the reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and ruled that all further disputes over the presidency were to end.

On the surface, it is easy to label the victims and the victimizers here; and on one level, we would be correct. Yet, however satisfying our story of good guys and bad guys is, it doesn’t point us toward change.

Human beings exist in relationship to one another. A moment’s reflection tells us that, at least until now, the powers of Khamenei have flown not from divine authority but from the will of the population. Yes, I concede, there is at least a minority of Iranian people who have had enough of this theocracy and of Basij, its vicious militia/vigilante enforcement arm. But if you doubt that Khamenei rules by popular support of Iranians, ask yourself this question: “How powerful would Khamenei be if he lived in the United States? If he was an American, could he establish a theocracy?”

You might answer, “Very powerful, if he had the power of a brutal militia behind him.”  But that begs the question of how the Iranian theocracy formed and why many Iranians take up arms in its defense. A full answer is beyond the scope of this blog post, but we can simply say that many Iranians share a common understanding that their society should be formed as a theocracy.

In Iranian society there is a great deal of suffering, not the least of which is that Iran’s full range of human potential is not being expressed. Why would anyone choose to be a victim of such a society? One reason is that victims escape responsibility for their own choices and their own failures by saying, “It is for the good of God,” or “Divine will has ordained this.”

We can wish the Iranians well as they bravely strive to create a new, collective understanding of how their society should be organized. At the same time—as our own house is not in order—we can learn from them important lessons.

Once a tyrannical despot is in place, he or she is not easily dislodged. That is why our founding fathers put strict limits on the coercive power of government. The spontaneous forces and institutions that build a free and vibrant civilization are not easily rebuilt once they are destroyed. As we continue to relinquish our own freedoms, getting our freedoms back will not be simple. It will not be a matter of simply saying that we made a mistake and we want to start over again.

There is all the difference between activities that are organized around government and activities organized around a free-market. If, for instance, you go out to eat and have a bad meal, you simply do not patronize that restaurant again. If you go to the Motor Vehicle Administration, stand in a long line and are treated rudely, you have no other viable option. Our lives run smoothly and we are free to develop and express our human potential to the extent that we are free to choose. Yet, collectively, we are rushing to turn over to the government more and more aspects of our daily lives—automobiles, health care, energy, etc. When the limit on what government can do is determined by a vote and not by a principle, freedom is surely lost.

Before we silently sneer at people who worship Ayatollahs, we might wonder what flawed human beings we Americans worship? Through what distorted lenses do we see? To whom do we turn over our own responsibilities so that at the end of the day we have someone to blame?

The Republicans and the Democrats—and those who worship them—play this Kabuki dance: Whoever is out of power gets to blame the other party for all the ills that befall the country. Daily, Republicans and Democrats and the pundits bang each other over the head with foam mallets; and the public reinforces its collective belief that it really does matter which party is in power.

But, how can it matter? Both parties—acting without principles—have been taking the county in the direction of larger budget deficits, more ruinous foreign adventures, and less domestic freedom for many decades. As we choose to be distracted by this Kabuki dance, we neither educate ourselves or our children on the principles that support prosperous and free societies.

If we are Democrats, we claim to be victims of Bush. If we are Republicans, we claim to be victims of Obama. All of this is a lie. We have created, through our own collective ignorance, the mess we see. We would rather blame than be mature enough to take responsibility and become a free people.

Before it gets better, things are going to get a lot worse in the United States. The stakes we face are incalculably greater and the consequences harder to overcome than a bad restaurant meal. Our Iranian brothers and sisters are teaching us just how high the stakes can be.

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8 Responses to Lessons from Iran

  1. Tesh says:

    As did the Jews and the Weimar citizens.

    I like the Kabuki analogy. It’s very apt and evocative.

  2. Tesh,

    Yes, the lessons are all around us.

    Speaking of Germany, I saw last night Tom Cruise in Valkyrie. I had low expectations after reading some of the very critical reviews. I thought the movie was excellent and a reminder that even under incredible circumstances some choose to act with courage and principle.

  3. Tesh says:

    We need that reminder now and then. Especially when the main media offerings are examples of the contrary.

    Maybe I can get over my reflexive dislike of Cruise to check it out. Thanks for the mini review. 🙂

  4. Bob G says:

    Dr. Brownstein,

    Your 9th paragraph is extremely powerful. I hope it is not glossed over by those who read the post. I think that there is an interesting dynamic which can offer a glimpse of hope that can be derived from this paragraph. I am not sure that most are collectively in favor of giving the government more control over their daily lives (surveys show this). However, too many do not realize that this is happening in an incremental way because the system of governance has become rules based instead of principles based (as you astutely point out). Many have been duped into believing that sacrificing core principles for the maintenance of power (i.e. stsyong in office) is a good thing. The hope is that as people wake up, they will invoke term limits on legislators. This will be our greatest challenge as well as out greatest hope.

  5. Bob,

    The public seems to be convinced that somehow the very same institutions that created our economic problems can solve these problems as well as do all sorts of other amazing things such as allocating capital. By the time the public realizes that this is not true, I think term limits will likely be too little, too late.

  6. Bob G says:

    Dr. Brownstein – your point is well taken but I am not sure that the public believes that so much as they are shielded from an honest, open and transparent debate due to the “taxis” being rigged to minimize and marginalize any threat to the current power structure which has created the mess. The drinking of “kool-aid” is easy when the system is desgined to keep dispensing it.

  7. Lon says:

    Interesting stuff, but I must say it doesn’t sound like you’ve seen the full story on how Iran got to be how it is today. The calamities they’ve experienced over the last 60 years are directly a result of the arrogant and immoral intervention and interference of Britain and the USA. They were headed in a much better direction before we deposed Mossadegh in the 50’s and supported the brutal regime of the Shah. The power of the Ayatollah came out of the desperation of the people to rid themselves of our Shah. Yes, when people suffer enough, they tend to support opposite – seeming extremes to counter the source of that suffering. Given a choice between brutal monarchies or communist revolution, many have chosen communism, and of course that has never turned out very well, but when your suffering is bad enough, you take what seems to be the only path with enough power to change it. Many in Iran supported the rise of Muslim fundamentalism not because they wanted that kind of rule, but because it seemed the only power that could oust the Shah, not realizing how bad it would then get under the new rule. But the important thing to note is that arrogant, fearful, power hungry men – men without principles – made this happen. Sure, many in Iran may to some degree support Theocracy, but only because we showed them what western “democracy” had in store for them – slavery and brutality. I highly recommend ALL THE SHAH’S MEN by Stephen Kinzer for good in depth information on how all this happened.

  8. Lon,

    I am aware of our intervention in Iran and I agree with that it had terrible consequences.

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