Upheavals, Iran and New York Intellectuals

By Beichman, Arnold | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 15, 2000 | Go to article overview

Upheavals, Iran and New York Intellectuals


Beichman, Arnold, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The last decade has been arguably the most dramatic in modern European history and Timothy Garton Ash, the Oxford historian-linguist-raconteur with a talent for journalism, has been a firsthand observer of its most unsettling vistas, including the killing fields of Kosovo.

History of the Present: Dispatches from Europe (Random House, $29.95, 405 pages) is a collection of essays by Mr. Ash first published in the New York Review of Books, their themes largely unaffected by the passage of time. (There is a useful chronology at the head of each chapter.) While they comprise a history of "only yesterday," these essays are also a "history" of the future.

Mr. Ash sees in Europe's 21st century expanding ethnic and linguistic nationalist problems of which we already have had more than a taste: Spain and the Basques, France and Corsica, Britain and Northern Ireland, Russia and Chechnya, the secession of Slovakia, the breakup of Yugoslavia. And there's Ruthenia in Eastern Europe. Never heard about the Ruthenians? You will, says Mr. Ash.

Lionel Trilling once said that to "scale the moral and aesthetic heights in the novel one has to use the ladder of social observation." He was talking about Henry James. Mr. Ash's superb reportage has that same enthralling novelistic quality.

* * n

Few observers are as equipped to report on present day (but not modern) Iran as Elaine Sciolino. She was on the same plane that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini back from Paris to Teheran in 1979 following the Shah's overthrow. She was there when the U.S. Embassy was seized, and during the many years of the bootless Iran-Iraq war. She was an eyewitness to last year's riots against Iran's theocrats. And in her book Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran (Free Press, $26, 384 pages), she is a cautious optimist: "[O]ne day Iran may find a way to restore some sort of relationship with the United States - if America is willing to listen."

Despite the author's caveat, the problem is not America's willingness to listen. The problem is globalization. Dictatorships like Iran, China, North Korea, Iraq have all learned since the fall of Gorbachev the Reformer and the defeat of South Africa's apartheid regime, that you simply can't trust the people; you give them an inch, and they want full human rights. (After the 1953 East German uprising against Soviet occupation, the German Communist playwright, Berthold Brecht, with mock solemnity announced that the "Government" had lost its confidence in the East German people and that the "Government" had, therefore, decided to "elect" a new people.)

The author's interviews with Iranian men and women are extraordinarily instructive. They demonstrate that Iranians are smart, many are highly educated, and that they chafe under ayatollist rule which fears modernization. The so-called "moderate", President Mohammed Khatami may impress Western journalists with his chatter about Alexis de Tocqueville but Ayatollah Khamenei is in charge, a man who knows that to allow women to doff the chador and paint their toenails red is the beginning of the end.

The author's own news report of Mr. Khatami's U.N. hard-line speech of Sept. 6 refutes her "if America is willing to listen" thesis. The question is: How long can Iran's terrorist regime force the Iranian people to live in the past?

* * *

I have no idea how many books have been written about that hardy band of thinkers known as New York intellectuals but in Arguing the World: The New York Intellectuals in Their Own Words (Free Press, $25, 222 pages), Joseph Dorman's bibliography lists some 20, and heaven knows how many Ph. D. dissertations about them have been or are now being written. What is the fascination with these people, in particular Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe and Irving Kristol, all of whom have starred in a documentary filmed by Mr. …

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