View from the Loft 

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Friday, March 26, 2004

Imagination vs. Fundamentalism

Our book group recently read and discussed Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. (For an interview with Nafisi, go here.) In it, Nafisi describes how, after the revolution in Iran that put a totalitarian theocracy in power, she and seven dedicated students met secretly to discuss Western works of fiction. The theme of the class was the relationship of fiction and reality.

Nafisi argues that works of fiction can open up a space for the individual even in a society that mandates uniformity through the threat of humiliation, imprisonment, and physical punishment. "We were not looking for blueprints, for an easy solution," she writes, "but we did hope to find a link between the open spaces the novels provided and the closed ones we were confined to."

This was Iran in the 90s, the Iran that required women to wear robes or chadors and veils in public at all times, sending out the morality police to look for violators of the laws. Four to a car, these policemen and women would swoop down on an offender, perhaps arrest her and have her flogged. Female students were searched prior to their admittance to the university grounds as guards searched their bags for forbidden items such as makeup or CDs; their faces were checked for makeup, their shoes for proper design. Nafisi says of her students--indeed, of all women in Iran at that time:
The regime that ruled them tried to make their personal identities and histories irrelevant. They were never free of the regime's definition of them as Muslim women. ... We had become the figment of someone else's dreams.
Through the lens of four novels--Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, and Pride and Prejudice-- Nafisi studies the relationship of the individual to society under totalitarianism and the relationship of the imagination to freedom and subversion. It's an astonishing, beautiful read. My discussion below and in succeeding posts (there's just too much for a single blog entry) won't begin to do justice to this complex book: I'm confining myself to just those ideas, with a few personal asides thrown in. Without the personal stories of Nafisi's students, her many examples of life under the regime and how they rebelled against it in small and large ways, and Nafisi's wonderful, lyrical, passionate writing, you won't get a flavor of the book. But it was a springboard for me, and a revelation, and I want to explore my own reactions and insights here.

Lolita: The Confiscation of a Life

Nafisi sees Lolita as the story of "the confiscation of one individual's life by another." Lolita's life is stolen from her, as is her identity, when Humbert sees in her only what he wants her to be: even he says (as quoted by Nafisi), "What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation ... having no will, no consciousness--indeed no real life of her own."

Lolita's stolen life--and, as Nafisi reminds us, her stolen life story as well--parallels the lives stolen from women under the extreme fundamentalism of Khomeini's Iran. They are not seen as individuals, possessed of their own will, their own centers of consciousness, but as abstractions that make up part of the societal ideal ("ideal" to the regime's way of thinking). The results of this inability to see a person as a person, and the inability to feel empathy that follows, can be seen in any totalitarian regime--and also in, say, a nation's foreign policy, or in its willingness to bomb civilians. Similarly, whole groups of people are routinely figments of someone else's dream--or nightmare. Think about racial, ethnic, and gender stereotyping, for example. What is it but the confiscation of the individual's actual life and personality, the effacement of the actual person in the furtherance of some idea of that person? We see it today in the way the religious right discusses homosexuals, to name but one example. They have created an image that is more real to them than any actual gay person could ever be.

Feminism understood and objected to the confiscation of women's lives, the erasure of the individual woman insofar as she was always made subordinate to "woman's role" (and later to "woman's psychology"). Women were put on a pedestal or vilified as dangerous; women were weak and mentally inferior to men, women were spiritual and yet dangerously sexual, women must be protected and yet they were threatening. In Iran, all these supposed characteristics of women drove the Draconian laws intended to keep women in their intended place.

Certain Christian fundamentalists would like to achieve what their Islamic counterparts achieved in Iran; as Nafisi says, "They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution." The fundamentalists want to invade our bedrooms and tell us what we can and can't do there; they want to censor the media; they are trying mightily to take away from women control over their own bodies; the list goes on. (For an eye-opener, check out this site.)

Nafisi ends the Lolita chapter by touching on another Nabokov work, Invitation to a Beheading, a Kafkaesque novel whose protagonist, Cincinnatus, has been imprisoned and sentenced to death for "gnostic turpitude"; as Nafisi explains, "In a place where all citizens are required to be transparent, he is opaque." Nafisi writes:
In the end, when Cincinnatus is led to the scaffold, and as he lays his head on the scaffold, in preparation for his execution, he repeats the magic mantra: "by myself." This constant reminder of his uniqueness, and his attempts to write, to articulate and create a language different from the one imposed upon him by his jailers, saves him at the last moment, when he takes his head in his hands and walks away toward voices that beckon him from that other world, while the scaffold and all the sham world around him, along with his executioner, disintegrate.
This, then, is the power of art: it allows the individual an interior space for the imagining of something beyond an imprisoning reality. Thus does imagination trump the confining literalism of fundamentalism and the laws it imposes. When Christian fundamentalists take Biblical texts literally, they are refusing the power of the imagination, of myth, of poetry, for these things they mistrust and fear. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they know the subversive power of the imagination.

Next: The Great Gatsby: Dream, Obsession, Stasis

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Business Group's Ad Blasts Bush On Iraq Deceptions

Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, which includes present or former CEOs of Bell Industries, Eastman Kodak and Goldman Sachs, as well as CNN founder Ted Turner, placed a full-page ad in the New York Times"likening President George W. Bush to a corrupt chief executive officer who has forfeited public trust":

Timed to coincide with the weekend anniversary of the US-led war against Iraq, the advertisement ... said Bush's case for invasion "was built entirely out of falsehoods."

Highlighting the cost of the war in terms of hundreds of US casualties and tens of billions of dollars, the ad said the "state-sponsored deception" underpinning the conflict dwarfed the damage caused by the series of corporate scandals that recently rocked Wall Street.

"It's past time for finger pointing," it said.

"It's time for someone in this government to step forward and take personal responsibility for the deadly deceptions used to mislead this great nation into war.

"And that someone must be George W. Bush."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Internal Documents Reveal BushCo's Negligence

Go here to see the government documents showing that the Bush administration really didn't take the terrorist threat seriously:
The Bush Administration actually reversed the Clinton Administration's strong emphasis on counterterrorism and counterintelligence. Attorney General John Ashcroft not only moved aggressively to reduce DoJ's anti-terrorist budget but also shift DoJ's mission in spirit to emphasize its role as a domestic police force and anti-drug force. These changes in mission were just as critical as the budget changes, with Ashcroft, in effect, guiding the day to day decisions made by field officers and agents. And all of this while the Administration was receiving repeated warnings about potential terrorist attacks.
Particularly troubling is the news that after September 11, the FBI requested $1.5 billion for the post-tragedy supplemental, but Ashcroft cut the amount to $530 million.

Michigan House Turns Down Death Penalty

The Michigan House of Representatives defeated a measure to bring the death penalty to my home state, voting 55-52 against it. The proposed amendment to Michigan's constitution required 73 votes in the House in order for it to be placed before the voters.

It horrifies me that at a time when we have ample evidence of innocent people being executed, Michigan wants to take a step backward. We already have life without parole, and I don't see why that shouldn't suffice.

The shooting of two police officers was the impetus for this drive to amend the state constitution.

Basing law on emotional responses isn't a good idea. It's understandable that families of victims want revenge, but the state should act as a brake on some of our very human emotions. And let's stop calling it "justice" when it's really just revenge. Does another death bring back the victim? Does it help the family? Should we really still be exercising Old Testament eye-for-an-eye "logic"?

Don't tell me about "closure." "Closure," if it comes, comes on its own timetable. Many a victim's family member has been surprised to find that the execution of a murderer brings no relief of the the sense of grief and loss. Moreover, the state's taking of a life in order to satisfy the survivors strikes me as a very bad bargain.

The amendment would supposedly have called for the death penalty only in cases where guilt was unmistakable. Hmmm. How can one know, exactly? So far, nationwide, the state was quite sure, in 113 cases, that the perpetrator deserved the death penalty, but we now know that in fact those 113 people were innocent. What about those victims' families? And as for the survivors of the victims of murder, where's their "closure" when it's discovered that the wrong person has been put to death?

The death penalty should be abandoned by each and every state and by the federal government. It has never been shown to be a deterrent. It has never been applied impartially. It has never been possible to ensure that an innocent person will not be executed.

In this one case, at least, the Michigan state House has shown some wisdom.

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