I’ve got mail

by Michael Bérubé on June 27, 2007

I have an essay (.pdf) in the latest issue of The Common Review, on Harry Potter and my younger son’s adventures in the world of Hogwarts. But never mind me—the real news is that this is apparently the week for Azar Nafisi Football, Round Two!

On Monday, as I returned from my brief family vacation, I was greeted by the arrival of the latest issue of the American Quarterly; its lead essay, by John Carlos Rowe, is entitled “Reading Reading Lolita in Tehran in Idaho.” If you’ll recall Hamid Dabashi’s critique of Nafisi from way back in ‘06 (elaborated later in the year in this interview in Z), Rowe writes, as he explains at the outset, “to work out the scholarly and historical terms that are often lacking in Dabashi’s more strictly political analysis.”

“Nevertheless,” he adds,

even as I wish to distinguish my approach from Dabashi’s, I want to agree at the outset with his conclusions. Although I do not think that there is a direct relationship between Nafisi’s work and U.S. plans for military action in Iran, I do think Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran represents the larger effort of neoconservatives to build the cultural and political case against diplomatic negotiations with the present governmentof Iran.

I’ll get back to Rowe’s essay in a moment, but first, here’s yesterday’s arrival in the mail: the Common Review, with my little essay– as well as an essay by Firoozeh Papan-Matin, defending Nafisi from Dabashi! Comme c’est curieux, comme c’est bizarre, quelle coincidence!

It’s not available online (neither is Rowe’s, unless you’re a member of the American Studies Association with access to Project MUSE but wait! 6/28 update!  Papan-Matin’s essay is now in the tubes), but here’s the gist: noting that Gideon Lewis-Kraus, writing in Slate, seconded Dabashi’s claim that Nafisi’s book offers a “kaffeeklatsch version of English literature,” Papan-Matin countercharges that

the charge against Nafisi for fomenting a “kaffeeklatsch” worldview has disturbing parallels to 18th-century snubbing of female literati as mere “bluestockings”– and the charge rather callously ignores the extreme social and political conditions that forced Nafisi underground. It is far more accurate to call her “book group” a meeting of subversives or even revolutionaries. Indeed, this group provided the occasion for its secret members to participate in reading as a subversive activity.

As for Lolita, which led Dabashi into positively Althousean speculations* on the meaning of the book’s cover, Papan-Matin writes:

it should be emphasized that for a group of women choosing to read such a book in a country ruled by the Ayatollah, the choice was an extraordinarily brave one. Does it need to be pointed out to critics such as Dabashi that the participants in this underground group knew that they could be arrested if they were discovered and charged with reading such a book? Apparently it does.

This much is not very surprising; Nafisi has been the staging ground for debates between the “democratic” liberal left and the “anti-imperialist” Z left for the past year or so, though on this front she may be temporarily displaced as Global Literary Lightning Rod for a little while now that Salman Rushdie has been knighted, and we can turn our attention back to the question of whether Rushdie is a liberal secular democrat in good standing, or just another neocon-imperialist stooge. (The gender politics surrounding the Nafisi book, however, seem to have no parallel in the Rushdie debates.)

But what made this latest round interesting to me, quite apart from the American Quarterly / Common Review syzygy, was Rowe’s conclusion. No, not the expected conclusion, which looks like this–

Is Azar Nafisi part of a neoconservative conspiracy to co-opt neoliberal rhetoric for its own purposes, including the manipulation of “culture” as a weapon in the ongoing war for the “hearts and minds” of Americans and the citizens of those states we hope to convert to our forms of democracy? The extrinsic evidence of her position as director of the Dialogue Project at SAIS [the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies], her support from the Smith Richardson Foundation, and her participation in the public relations’ [sic] campaigns of SAIS to promote the United States as the “protector” of the Free World is compelling. The intrinsic evidence of Reading Lolita in Tehran is even more convincing, suggesting not that Nafisi has fallen into the conservative “traps” readied these days for unwitting liberals, but that she actively participates in the agenda of an overtly “depoliticized” cultural study that is in fact profoundly political. My purpose is not to pose as a cultural “whistle-blower,” some policeman for Political Correctness. Nafisi is free to write what she wishes and advocate whatever retrograde and fallacious aesthetic ideas she chooses.

Well, that’s gracious. A bold and necessary statement against the retrograde and fallacious idea that women should be able to read books of their choosing anywhere in the world, perhaps, or the retrograde and fallacious idea that the cultural sphere should have relative autonomy from the state?– but not the work of a cultural “whistle-blower.” Anyway, as I say, that’s not the conclusion I find interesting. This is:

I first began reading Nafisi’s book in Idaho, where Kristin and I spend most of our vacations. High in the Rocky Mountains, in the tristate border region of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, we are often told by our neighbors that we are in “God’s country.” Fiercely independent ranchers fight the hated Bureau of Land Management, National Forest Service, and National Park Service, imagining that these federal agencies are determined to erode the ranchers’ freedoms. In stores and restaurants, bearded frontiersmen, or at least their late modern simulations, pay cash for everything, drive pickup trucks outfitted for any possible emergency, and pride themselves on their abilities to field strip and rebuild anything from an agricultural pump to a handgun and to hunt and “dress” in the woods a grizzly bear, elk, or moose– all of which can still be hunted in that region. Suspicious of strangers, especially California “tree huggers” whose tourist dollars really keep the local economy alive, the locals tend to be profoundly religious, openly racist, and incurably sexist. To be sure, Idaho is hardly a match for the repressive regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but “God’s country” is certainly as fanatically political and ideological in its fantastic commitment to its version of “liberal individualism.” Reading Reading Lolita in Tehran in Idaho is an object lesson to the attentive cultural critic that the danger of totalitarianism in the United States, equivalent to what Nafisi finds in the Islamic Republic of Tehran, is far closer to Code Red on the great frontier of the American West and in the White House itself than from those postmodern slackers in the halls of academe or on the back shelves of the Library of Congress.

I’m not clear on exactly what that final sentence means, so, dear readers, I humbly ask for your help. (I think it’s saying that we have more to fear from totalitarians in the Western US and the White House than from postmodern slackers in the halls and on the shelves, in which case I completely agree.) But I can say this much: I was unaware that Idaho and Iran could be compared (even though the former is hardly a match for the latter) with regard to their fantastic commitment to versions of liberal individualism. However, having just returned from the remote outer banks of North Carolina, I can testify that something certainly needs to be done about the reactionary beliefs of locals who are not nearly as politically enlightened as the vacationing college professors on whose tourist dollars they depend.

Oh, and don’t forget to read my little essay on Harry Potter! It even has a paragraph on the problem of false consciousness.

_________

  • Dabashi’s reading of the cover runs as follows: “The denoted message here seems quite obvious: these two young women are reading “Lolita” in Tehran– they are reading (“Lolita”), and they are in Tehran (they look Iranian and they have scarves on their head). The connoted message is equally self-evident: Imagine that– illicit sex with teenagers in an Islamic Republic! How about that, the cover suggestively proposes and asks, can you imagine reading Lolita in Tehran? Look at these two Oriental Lolitas! The racist implication of the suggestion– as with astonishment asking, ‘can you even imagine reading that novel in that country?’– competes with its overtly Orientalised pedophilia and confounds the transparency of a marketing strategy that appeals to the most deranged Oriental fantasies of a nation already petrified out of its wits by a ferocious war waged against a phantasmagoric Arab/Muslim male potency that has just castrated the two totem poles of the US empire in New York.” I’ll put this one up against Althouse’s “Freudian” reading of the secret meaning of onion rings any old time. (For the record, I’m not a fan of Nafisian literary criticism. I just don’t think her book engages in any appeal to deranged Oriental fantasies.)

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1

Shelby 06.27.07 at 4:55 pm

If one is allowed to comment without having read any of the relevant works (except Lolita and a bit of Dabashi’s 2006 critique) this all seems like a classic example of the ivory-tower pseudointellectualism of which the professoriate is so often accused. (I direct this at Nafisi’s interlocutors, not Michael.) Certainly the idea that Idaho woodsmen overly proud of their independence and self-reliance can be called “totalitarian” is bemusing.

The fragments that Michael excerpts from these various critics seem to say a great deal more about the writers than about their subjects — so much so that I wonder why he selected them. Because the writers are not very interesting, whereas the subjects might be in the hands of a more talented scribe. So: Task for Michael: Enough Harry Potter! On to Azar Nafisi!

2

JR 06.27.07 at 5:36 pm

The sentence is gibberish.

Starting after the first “that” and trimming out some of the parenthetical phraes, we have:

“[T]he danger of totalitarianism in the United States … is far closer to Code Red … than from those postmodern slackers …”

The danger is closer TO Code Red than FROM the slackers? It’s meaningless.

3

Keith 06.27.07 at 5:52 pm

The sentence should read:

“Reading Reading Lolita in Tehran in Idaho is an object lesson to the attentive cultural critic that the danger of totalitarianism in the United States, equivalent to what Nafisi finds in the Islamic Republic of Tehran, is far closer to Code Red on the great frontier of the American West and in the White House itself, rather than from those postmodern slackers in the halls of academe or on the back shelves of the Library of Congress.”

If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that Mullahs in Iran, Idahoean hicks and George W. are more of a threat to coherent literary criticism than some girls in Tehran who like Nabakov for his witty wordplay. or something.

4

Randolph Fritz 06.27.07 at 5:53 pm

I think Rowe is suggesting that American “individualism” is less individualistic than generally supposed and, perhaps, in underlying motivation, has something in common with Iranian Islamic radicalism. He’s pretty clumsy about saying it, however.

I think the best remark I ever saw on the popularity of Harry Potter comes from Patrick Neilsen Hayden: “They’re enormously popular, despite some flaws, partly because they’re charming and funny, but specifically because of their fabulously well-controlled pace of revelation.” Read the whole thing.

I also think Rowling is, in fact, a very literate and literary writer; she just doesn’t wear her erudition on her sleeve, which seems to conceal her from most literary critics.

5

Patrick 06.27.07 at 6:00 pm

The sentence is grammatical, but incredibly clumsy. I’ll paraphrase, “Reading RLiT reminds me that George Bush and other homegrown totalitarians threaten U.S. citizens’ rights more than academics do.

It’s off the point, since the implicit comparison I (and, I believe most other readers) inferred was between the threats posed by the Iranian regime to U.S. freedom and those posed by people here–Bush and his ilk are more dangerous, not because they’re more totalitarian, but because they’re more proximate.

And it’s profoundly offensive. When tourist dollars form the basis of the local economy, the locals, (especially those in the service industries) frequently exhibit contempt for the summer folk. (They call them “fudgies” on Mackinac Island, for example.) This contempt points to the crappy pay, the intermittant and unpredictable employment, the lack of benefits and the exorbitant cost of housing and land that come with the shiny new SUVs and luxurious summer digs. Combine that with a contemptuous attitude so many tourists (even sophisticated cultural critics) display, and reciprocal contempt becomes understandable, even if it leads to dangerous ideological alliances.

6

Sebastian Holsclaw 06.27.07 at 6:01 pm

To be sure, Idaho is hardly a match for the repressive regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but “God’s country” is certainly as fanatically political and ideological in its fantastic commitment to its version of “liberal individualism.” Reading Reading Lolita in Tehran in Idaho is an object lesson to the attentive cultural critic that the danger of totalitarianism in the United States, equivalent to what Nafisi finds in the Islamic Republic of Tehran, is far closer to Code Red on the great frontier of the American West and in the White House itself than from those postmodern slackers in the halls of academe or on the back shelves of the Library of Congress.

The frightening thing is that these two sentences should be a better parody of ivory-tower cluelessness than anything I could come up with, but are apparently meant with complete seriousness.

The ‘Code Red’ stuff is just cryptic as used.

Does Rowe really mean that we are in danger of government control of what books we are allowed to read “equivalent to what Nafisi finds in the Islamic Republic of Tehran”? Or that there is a danger of totalitarianism “equivalent to what Nafisi finds in the Islamic Republic of Tehran”? Or that the danger of totalitarianism is worse than the danger of what is found in Iran?

It is as if Rowe got so swept up in over-wrought parallelism that he forgot what his point was.

7

Thers 06.27.07 at 6:22 pm

I’m not clear on exactly what that final sentence means, so, dear readers, I humbly ask for your help.

I would lend a hand, but I’m slacking in a postmodern fashion right now and am barely able to summon up the energy to post a comment on a blog. Ennui!

8

Johan 06.27.07 at 6:34 pm

9

Michael Bérubé 06.27.07 at 6:34 pm

Task for Michael: Enough Harry Potter! On to Azar Nafisi!

Actually, Shelby, I prefer J. K. Rowling to Azar Nafisi in some ways. I think she’s got a broader sense of the uses of the imagination. But maybe that’s just because I’m comparing a fiction writer to a literary critic. . . . So maybe I should hold off on this task until someone writes Reading Harry Potter in Tehran, and someone else fingers it as part of a vast neocon conspiracy. I believe that Harry Potter has already been identified as a shill for Blairian thirdwayism and U.S. global hegemony, so the skids are greased, one might say.

10

bitchphd 06.27.07 at 6:37 pm

On the linked essay–there’s a fabulous picture book aimed at kids around six, ish, called Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One. It gets at some of this stuff about the elements of story and narrative in a more didactic way than Harry Potter, and is a nice intro to talking with kids about how narratives work for parents who are inclined to like doing these things.

11

bitchphd 06.27.07 at 6:37 pm

Oh, plus, bonus: it’s about mice. *And* it’s feminist.

12

SEK 06.27.07 at 6:37 pm

Haven’t read Rowe’s essay, but from what you’ve quoted, Michael, it looks like scare-quotes around the first iteration of “independent” reveal the irony:

Fiercely “independent” ranchers fight the hated Bureau of Land Management, National Forest Service, and National Park Service, imagining that these federal agencies are determined to erode the ranchers’ freedoms. In stores and restaurants, bearded frontiersmen, or at least their late modern simulations, pay cash for everything, drive pickup trucks outfitted for any possible emergency, and pride themselves on their abilities to field strip and rebuild anything from an agricultural pump to a handgun and to hunt and “dress” in the woods a grizzly bear, elk, or moose – all of which can still be hunted in that region.

Now the rest of the paragraph makes sense, right?

13

SEK 06.27.07 at 6:39 pm

11: Do all kids love mice? I remember the reading room being quite divided on the merits of Stuart Little.

14

Michael Bérubé 06.27.07 at 6:43 pm

<i>Now the rest of the paragraph makes sense, right?</i>

Not entirely. I got the irony about those “independent” ranchers the first time through, without benefit of scare quotes, and I’m still not quite seeing the parallel to Iran.

15

bitchphd 06.27.07 at 6:47 pm

13: Probably not, but they should. That was me being self-indulgent, you see.

Although I suspect the appeal of mice and other little creatures as protagonists is (or should be, dammit) obvious: kids are themselves small and often feel powerless, and yet….

16

SEK 06.27.07 at 6:50 pm

14: That all these fanatics have fantastic beards?

This seems to be John’s point:

[T]he locals tend to be profoundly religious, openly racist, and incurably sexist.

Both here and in Iran, so books like Reading Lolita in Tehran — which isolate the problem (and the beards) over there — miss the fact that it’s not the much-bemoaned postmodern relativism we should worry about; rather, we should fear homegrown fanaticism of the sort which resembles, in its stupidity and ferocity, the very thing neo-conservative-appropriated books like RLIT want to use as justification for military action. Clear as day, I tell you!

17

Michael Bérubé 06.27.07 at 7:05 pm

Scott, you’re doing yeoman’s work in unpacking that last paragraph, and I thank you for it. We’re all in your debt. But, see, the strain of the attempt has muddied even your prose, which is usually as clear as the mountain streams in Idaho. We should fear homegrown fanaticism, yes. I agree. But are you really buying the premise that books like RLIT want to use stupid ferocious fanaticism as justification for military action? How can a book want such a thing?

And Dr. B., thanks so much for the mice-and-feminism suggestion, and for your kind words on my behalf on that there unfogged blog.

18

Randolph Fritz 06.27.07 at 7:13 pm

“Does Rowe really mean that we are in danger of government control of what books we are allowed to read”

If the radical-right Christians have their way, we bloody well will be. Which I suppose is the point.

19

LizardBreath 06.27.07 at 7:19 pm

Michael — I do apologize if that Unfogged comment thread was offensive. (I’d have apologized over there, but I figure the odds of your reading here are better.) No offense was meant by anyone, and particularly the comments I wrote weren’t meant to express a negative opinion of your writings about Jamie generally, just a concern that they might be difficult to read for someone with a child with profounder limitations. To the extent that I clumsily said anything broader than that, I apologize.

20

bitchphd 06.27.07 at 7:36 pm

Not at all, Michael. We lit-crit types have to stick together in arguing that our cute kid stories are TOTALLY about the uniqueness of our own specially cute kids, lest we be lumped in with those annoying parents who buy wipe warmers and held accountable for the decline of American values.

21

SEK 06.27.07 at 7:42 pm

But are you really buying the premise that books like RLIT want to use stupid ferocious fanaticism as justification for military action?

I don’t think the book itself says this, but as Rowe’s premise, I could easily buy it, as it doesn’t seem out of character. The appropriation that would draw John’s ire, the appropriation of Lolita (albeit indirectly) his bemusement. (The irony of the Right declaiming Iran for banning a book elements within it would gladly ban is particularly delicious, and probably too much for John to resist.) In short, I can see how he steps from praising RLIT to denouncing Iran to supporting military action against Iran. I don’t buy that argument myself, but it sounds like something John would.

The wrench in the gears is the phrase “its fantastic commitment to its version of ‘liberal individualism.'” I assume he’s saying Idahoans are no more beholden to “liberal individualism” than Iranians (than the Iranians aren’t?), but I can’t be sure. I see his point about Idahoans, just not as it compares to Iranians. (This is one of those moments when I wish every journal had itself an editor like Jeffrey Williams.)

22

Michael Bérubé 06.27.07 at 7:46 pm

No need to apologize, Lizardbreath! On the contrary — I understand that Jamie stories might be hard to read for that reason, and I agree on philosophical grounds (with an assist from Eva Kittay) that the question should always be how best to think about people with more profound limitations. So that we can all gang up and argue against Peter Singer, you know.

23

dsquared 06.27.07 at 7:49 pm

But are you really buying the premise that books like RLIT want to use stupid ferocious fanaticism as justification for military action? How can a book want such a thing?

Like so much else baleful in the world, it’s Christopher Hitchens’ fault. For it was he who spread the (completely untrue) rumour that “Reading Lolita in Tehran” was dedicated to Paul Wolfowitz, and went on from there to try and make the case that the author would thereby endorse a neoconservative foreign policy aimed at rendering Tehran a safe place for Nabokov.

24

Michael Bérubé 06.27.07 at 8:02 pm

Like so much else baleful in the world, it’s Christopher Hitchens’ fault.

Ah yes, Daniel, I’d forgotten about that rumor. Say, is it true that Hitchens is going to play Professor Slughorn in the film version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? Can we get that rumor started now?

The wrench in the gears is the phrase “its fantastic commitment to its version of ‘liberal individualism.’” I assume he’s saying Idahoans are no more beholden to “liberal individualism” than Iranians (than the Iranians aren’t?), but I can’t be sure.

I think he’s saying that Idahoans are fanatics in their own way, and we shouldn’t isolate the problem and the beards over there, as you suggest in 16, Scott. But to this I have two objections. One, Rowe doesn’t go after the Christian Right — like the Christian Identity folks who’ve settled in Idaho as Taliban West. He goes after those fiercely independent ranchers instead, who may indeed be mistaken about their independence from the state (which does a great deal to make their ways of life possible) but who are not, in the end, identical with the Christian Identity fanatics. Two, in “situating” his argument about homegrown US fanaticism by way of his summer vacation place, Rowe does basically what Patrick says in the final paragraph of comment 5. It’s funny, you know, how few local residents of vacation spots in Idaho (or North Carolina) have tenure.

25

Martin James 06.27.07 at 8:02 pm

Rowe is so dumb Napoleon Dynamite could kick his ass without his nunchucks.

26

Luis Alegria 06.27.07 at 8:03 pm

Mr. Berube,

A wonderful essay on “Harry Potter”, thank you. I have forwarded it to my daughter, another Potter fan.

27

Luis Alegria 06.27.07 at 8:17 pm

Mr. Dsquared, Mr. Sek, et. al.

US foreign policy since 1941 was all about making the world safe for Nabokov, this isn’t some plot by “neoconservatives”.

It seems to me you fellows have gone overboard with dislike for the present administration, and lost sight of your essential agreement with the US right – yes, you do agree with them, you just hate them too much to admit it. There is plenty of that vice-versa of course.

28

SEK 06.27.07 at 8:20 pm

Michael:

Rowe doesn’t go after the Christian Right—like the Christian Identity folks who’ve settled in Idaho as Taliban West. He goes after those fiercely independent ranchers instead, who may indeed be mistaken about their independence from the state (which does a great deal to make their ways of life possible) but who are not, in the end, identical with the Christian Identity fanatics.

You’re right, of course, but I think what you’re missing is that he doesn’t distinguish between them. Both are born of the same (white, patriarchal, European) ideology, they merely manifest differently. The first in the rebirth of early American Protestantism, the second as its secular counterpart, as transformed by Emerson and Frederick Jackson Turner. Quite a bit of shorthand, and assumes a familiarity with his thought to the detriment of his argument, but I think it’s there. I’m merely an explicator here, and don’t buy many of the connections John makes here (as I told him back when he was still on my committee). There’s an elegant simplicity to much of what he writes, one which the facts too often belie for my comfort (as is the case with many of the theory-trumps-history approaches).

Two, in “situating” his argument about homegrown US fanaticism by way of his summer vacation place, Rowe does basically what Patrick says in the final paragraph of comment 5.

I certainly see where the offense can be taken, but when he says “vacations,” I think he means “the three months of the year I live in Idaho,” so he’s not a tourist per se. I don’t remember exactly — it’s been a few years — but I think his family’s owned land up there for many, many years, and that instead of jetting off to Paris/Rome/Barcelona like the stereotypical academic jet-setter, he fly-fishes in the Midwest like ordinary folk. Again, not an excuse for the sloppy writing, just some context. (Also, he would no doubt be thoroughly amused that of all his former students, I’m the one defending him.)

29

Martin James 06.27.07 at 8:40 pm

“the three months of the year I live in Idaho… he fly-fishes in the Midwest like ordinary folk…

Speaking of fact checking – Midwest?! its Idaho not Iowa.

30

SEK 06.27.07 at 8:43 pm

I’m from the South, so it’s all North to me.

31

Russell Arben Fox 06.27.07 at 8:53 pm

Michael, thank you for that fine essay. I had somewhat similar experiences with my oldest daughter, as I read to her the Harry Potter books and talked to her about them over the years during which her imagination grew in complexity and depth; I wrote about it some here, a long time ago, but my thoughts weren’t anywhere near as complete as yours. My compliments–and my thanks, for being a fine example of a parent to a fine son.

32

MQ 06.27.07 at 8:56 pm

The left doesn’t disagree with the right that people should be able to read whatever book they like in Teheran. We just disagree that bombing, invasion, demonization, etc. is the best way to get there. In fact, I think that if you just leave Iran alone to grow and prosper then people will be reading whatever they like in a decade or two, while bombing it raises the likelihood that you will still be looking at a repressive regime many years hence. This is not some kind of tactical difference in methods, but a fundamental disagreement in outlook on the world. Especially since the right demonstrably cares a whole lot more about the bombing than the freedom.

It is interesting to recall that Lolita was banned in the U.S. from 1953 (when Nabokov first sought, and could not find, a U.S. publisher) to 1958. I’m sure in 1910 it would have been far worse. Give Iran some time to find their own way.

33

Ben Alpers 06.27.07 at 9:00 pm

For it was he who spread the (completely untrue) rumour that “Reading Lolita in Tehran” was dedicated to Paul Wolfowitz…

However, in the book’s acknowledgments (on p. 346), Nafisi does thank “Paul” for introducing her to Leo Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing “among many other things.” I have it on good authority that the Paul in question is Wolfowitz.

34

fardels bear 06.27.07 at 9:04 pm

sek: Idaho, the state in which he fly-fishes, is the “I” state that is definitely not in the Midwest. Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, sure. Not Idaho.

35

MQ 06.27.07 at 9:33 pm

You know, if Nafisi is actually letting herself be turned into a pet dissident for the anti-Iranian neoconservatives then she should be called out for it. Most other Iranian dissidents and activists have been very outspoken about avoiding that. Look at the brave example of Shirin Ebadi, who has had no problem being very consistent against both Bush foreign policy and repression at home.

On the other hand, I know hardly anything about Nafisi, so I should just shut up about it.

36

The Constructivist 06.27.07 at 10:13 pm

Wonder if more people in Idaho or Iran will be watching the U.S. Women’s Open this weekend, much less blogging it. (Certainly fewer than blogging the Harry Potter conclusion.) BTW, with all this concern about international invasions, I’m sure you’ll all be pleased to hear that the USGA put an article on all the international players in the field (more than Americans!) that characterized this as an invasion. We’l be back to the days of the “yellow peril” and the Cold War soon, I hope.

37

dsquared 06.27.07 at 10:13 pm

I have it on good authority that the Paul in question is Wolfowitz.

Well, ding that “good” authority a couple of points in your personal ranking of the credibility of authorities. Doug Ireland sorted this one out like three years ago.

38

SEK 06.27.07 at 10:21 pm

On the interesting question of which region of the US calls Idaho one of its own, I admit absolute ignorance. According to Wikipedia, it’s part of the West, not the Midwest, and not the Pacific Northwest, even though the latter is more westerly than states in the West. I’ll also note as there is no “Pacific Southwest,” California belongs to “the Pacific States,” as do Arizona and Nevada (to the immediate south of Idaho), despite the fact that they must wait for The Big One before they’ll be in spitting distance of the Pacific.

All of which is only to say: none of these regional associations makes much sense, and (to reiterate), from the South, it’s all North, even if some of it is West.

39

Ben Alpers 06.27.07 at 11:00 pm

Thanks for the link, dsquared! I hadn’t seen that exchange with Doug Ireland.

Since I’m not naming my “good authority,” I should respect Nafisi’s refusal to name her Paul.

40

Russell Arben Fox 06.27.07 at 11:04 pm

1) Idaho is most properly identified as one of the “Rocky Mountain States,” or as part of the “Intermountain West” (both of which generally include Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico), as distinguished from the “Pacific West” (California, Oregon, Washington state) or the “Pacific Northwest” (just Oregon and Washington, maybe parts of northern California at a stretch).

2) Those who know the region well will break it down further: you have Northern Idaho, or the Idaho Panhandle, which is part of the “Inland Empire” of eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon, and western Montana, and you have southern Idaho, which is part of Mormon Country (Utah, of course, as well as Wyoming down to about Evanston).

That’s more than you ever needed to know, of course.

41

agm 06.27.07 at 11:49 pm

California belongs to “the Pacific States,” as do Arizona and Nevada

Pffft. Arizona and New Mexico (mentioned in a later post) are part of a well identified region, the Southwest. Of which only a small corner of Texas is too.

42

JP Stormcrow 06.28.07 at 12:15 am

I’m not clear on exactly what that final sentence means, so, dear readers, I humbly ask for your help. (I think it’s saying that we have more to fear from totalitarians in the Western US and the White House…

My geographically-motivated take on that murky last sentence in Rowe’s commentary from Cedarn, Utana:

Given the proximity of his vacation to the stomping grounds of that fiercely independent rancher, he-who-must-not-be-opposed-by-anyone-in-the-administration, I would gloss it as:

ZOMG!! Dick Cheney is totally going to win and not let us read the “wrong” books!

He would have phrased it less opaquely if he had not been distracted by a loud amusement park right in front of his vacation lodgings.

43

4jkb4ia 06.28.07 at 12:23 am

The pdf was beautiful.
I think my husband can identify with “Harry Potter” precisely because of the mixture of the un-numinous and the good vs. evil themes. Between the last two books he insistently wanted to know which O.W.L.s Harry had passed. “I don’t know, honey.” This mixture is also present in Star Trek, to which he has been loyal for forty years. Although Star Trek takes a lighter point of view than BSG, it is often pointedly about us, living today. The need to be loyal to every detail which has ever happened, lovingly curated by the fans, may make the series less numinous and treating broad SF themes as well.

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4jkb4ia 06.28.07 at 12:26 am

I liked RLIT, but I think a large part of the reason I liked it was that I rarely read any serious literary criticism.

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4jkb4ia 06.28.07 at 12:35 am

Oy!
Star Trek treats broad SF themes less than in the original series. The conflict on Vulcan in Enterprise was promising.

That the Islamic revolution in Iran was seen as primarily “anti-imperialist” was something I didn’t know. However the argument of RLIT may be that if given a chance and the experience of Islamic government, the younger generation will give more weight to human rights broadly defined. Also the book showed a divide between urban, educated Iranians and the sort of Iranians who would support Ahmedinejad, just as it once was in Iraq and it is in China. It is easy to see that a policy similar to the one in Iraq does not mean that these people will eventually govern.

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DILBERT DOGBERT 06.28.07 at 2:25 am

The wogs start east of the crest of the Sierras. California is the West of the West. As far as I am concerned Idaho is East.
What struck me reading RLIT was the sad thought that those women either had to knuckle under or leave and most left.

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Tracy W 06.28.07 at 2:27 am

The intrinsic evidence of Reading Lolita in Tehran is even more convincing, …that she actively participates in the agenda of an overtly “depoliticized” cultural study that is in fact profoundly political.

I’ve read “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and it strikes me that it is a rather politicised book, and intended to be so by the author, and that the author herself viewed the book group in a political way. (I do not have an opinion on whether it is “profoundly political”).

A quote from the book:

Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us the way we sometimes didn’t dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets or reading Lolita in Tehran. And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us. (chpt 1)

What’s overtly depoliticised about talking about the “tyranny of … politics”? What could Nafisi have written that Rowe would have read as openly political if Rowe doesn’t see the open politics in Reading Lolita in Tehran? Did Rowe actually read the book?

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bad Jim 06.28.07 at 3:13 am

“Reading Reading Reading Lolita in Tehran in Idaho in Pennsylvania” would probably not have been a better title for this post.

The question of whether aesthetic ideas can be considered fallacious reminds me that whenever I see the word “bluestocking” I think “roundheels” and have to remind myself of the difference.

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Michael Bérubé 06.28.07 at 3:33 am

<i>What could Nafisi have written that Rowe would have read as openly political if Rowe doesn’t see the open politics in Reading Lolita in Tehran? Did Rowe actually read the book?</i>

Well, yes, he did, and his essay offers a pretty detailed critique thereof (though I don’t agree with it). But my guess is that Rowe imagines that he’s played some kind of trump card by noting that the claim that there should be a private realm that is independent of the political <i>is itself political</i>. Aha! Run circles round you logically, he does.

Dsquared, thanks for that Direland link! But everyone knows that “Paul” is dead. The book’s cover gives it away.

50

Ben Alpers 06.28.07 at 4:04 am

Arizona and New Mexico (mentioned in a later post) are part of a well identified region, the Southwest. Of which only a small corner of Texas is too.

Actually, many of my fellow Oklahomans consider our state to be in the southwest. Nobody else does, however.

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joeo 06.28.07 at 4:12 am

Nafisi doesn’t deny that the Paul is Wolfowitz:

>Without being coy I reserve my right to keep the identity of Paul private and not let my relationships become political inferences either in support or against certain views.

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abb1 06.28.07 at 7:55 am

US foreign policy since 1941 was all about making the world safe for Nabokov…

Hahaha, thanks for brightening my morning, Luis, I needed that.

But are you really buying the premise that books like RLIT want to use stupid ferocious fanaticism as justification for military action? How can a book want such a thing?

Incidentally, the term “useful idiots” was coined a long time ago to describe a certain kind of intellectual activity taking place in a certain political context. In the current geopolitical situation Nafisi and Rushdie certainly qualify.

53

magistra 06.28.07 at 8:09 am

The complaints about J.K. Rowling sound very much like what being said about Enid Blyton thirty years or more ago. Which is unfair, because Rowling is a considerably better writer. (I don’t think many adults ever read Blyton for fun).

But it is interesting, because if you want a genealogy of Rowling in terms of classic British children’s books then she strikes me as being E. Nesbit (Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet) crossed with Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books and then interpreted with a more modern sensibility. I don’t think she’s drawing on a more recent fantasy tradition, either US (e.g. Ursula Le Guin) or British (e.g. Alan Garner).

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SG 06.28.07 at 8:32 am

I hate Rowling because she always knocks Hermione unconscious or takes away her strength just when the crucial moment comes. So Hermione has all the good ideas, is itching to get in the fight, and is removed so that Harry gets all the glory. I hate it. Rowling should know better.

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bill in turkey 06.28.07 at 9:42 am

‘if you want a genealogy of Rowling in terms of classic British children’s books then she strikes me as being E. Nesbit (Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet) crossed with Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books and then interpreted with a more modern sensibility.’

I’d say more Jennings and Derbyshire than than Mallory Towers. The Dumbledore of the earler books is a dead ringer for Mr. Carter; and I’d say that there are a good few parallels between Snape in HP and Mr. Wilkinson in JaD. But maybe that’s just me…

sg is dead right about Hermione, of course. But its the familiar problem of having to cripple the too-powerful superhero in order to make sure there’s a proper challenge. Cf – for example – Hiro’s crippling loss of confidence in Heroes, or Willow’s Magic addiction in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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Laleh 06.28.07 at 12:54 pm

Never thought I’d agree with you about anything, Michael, but I loved your Harry Potter essay, and would have loved it if you were as nasty to Byatt as she was (very stupidly, I might add) to Rowling.

And I still don’t agree with you or all her defenders on Nafici. I am Iranian and lived through the worst purges of the immediately post-revolutionary time, and even then, during those horrid times, you could still buy Lolita and whatever else you wanted and read. It was reading Iranian novelists that was dangerous, not European ones, as Nafici makes out.

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SG 06.28.07 at 2:36 pm

she’s not crippling the superhero. She’s crippling the woman. It’s like watching Inspector Gadget. Painful!

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JR 06.28.07 at 4:35 pm

59

JR 06.28.07 at 4:35 pm

60

JR 06.28.07 at 4:36 pm

Homonyms have been cited at Crooked Timber.

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JP Stormcrow 06.28.07 at 6:07 pm

Capitonyms have been carved on crooked timber.

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CattyinQueens 06.28.07 at 9:31 pm

I love Dr. Berube and the other Dr. B! Y’all remind me why talking about books–texts of all kinds– still matters!

SG and #55, yeah, Rowling sometimes does what you mention to Hermione (I call it “Scullying,” because it’s what Chris Carter did to Scully on X-files, which was infuriating). But I think Book 2 is the worst offender on that; since then, we see the MANY MANY times Rowling has other characters remind us that Hermione is the most clever and that Harry relies on her a lot. Sure, it’d be nice if there didn’t have to be exposition on that all time, but it’s also nice that there is. I love reading over and over that Harry’s friends are more clever than he is. And Rowling/Dumbledore also remind us constantly that Harry’s exceptional status is context-dependent. He’s both the chosen one and not the chosen one, and we’re really not allowed to see it as one or the other.

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SG 06.28.07 at 11:21 pm

True, true, cattyinqueens. It’s not as bad as disney, where I think they have a nasty person specially employed to walk around looking at people’s work and saying “Make that woman weaker!” In Treasure Island they made Captain Ahab a sassy woman, and then changed the entire plot and purpose of the entire story so they could make her dependent on the boy for the rest of the story. Evil!!!

Nonetheless, in tandem with the public school environment it creates a boys’ own adventure atmosphere which I hate.

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Seth Edenbaum 06.29.07 at 4:49 am

Okay, some context. or rather some discussion of context.
How does Nafisi compare with Marjan Satrapi, or other younger women who grew up after the revolution. What is the difference between the experience of those who lost freedom and those who learned about it, as it were from scratch? Satrapi has said she feels not quite at home in the west. How can this be? What are the opinions concerning all this of Samira Makmalbaf and those like her?

What is the significance of the open letter to Princess Farah
“Kindly Come and Do Us a Favor, Oh Lady” from one of the women’s rights activists arrested in March of this year? Why was Azadeh Forghani less than impressed by the gesture by her one time ruler?

What does it mean to listen to The women of Hamas. Is this feminism?

These are all questions of experience and context. And a little empirical study. Are Azar Nafisi represent the same interestsas the widow of the Shah? I don’t know, but it’s a good question. And it’s one the author of this post ignores, because he doesn’t think he needs to pay attention.
Ideas aren’t enough.
From the first comment:

“this all seems like a classic example of the ivory-tower pseudointellectualism of which the professoriate is so often accused.”

yup. Again

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Seth Edenbaum 06.29.07 at 4:51 am

apologies for the typos, but the point is made.

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bill in turkey 06.29.07 at 9:21 am

‘she’s not crippling the superhero. She’s crippling the woman’

Well, I dunno. I think its pretty obvious that she’s doing both: in crippling the superhero (which Hermione pretty clearly is) she’s also crippling the woman.

But I guess I put the point I was trying to make a bit ineptly. I wasn’t trying to say – although maybe it came across that way – that it doesn’t matter that JKR cripples Hermione, because its just an instance of a standard genre convention.

What I was trying to say is that Rowling has got herself into a bit of a pickle by endowing Hermione with all the powers she does, and that the explanation of the crippling is not some kind of underlying misogyny (which on the other hand I think might be going on in Disney)but that – having set the scenario up as she has – is that that’s what the genre then requires.I do agree, though, that its problematic that in doing that she is thereby crippling a strong female character.

I also think its intersting that the reason there’s any sort of problkem here at all probably derives from something which sg draws attention to: ‘ the public school environment… creates a boys’ own adventure atmosphere ‘ – setting up Hermione as the really impressive character strikes me as an attempt to undermine (subvert?) this, although in a way that is problematic because of all the other stereotypes it plays into.

In other words – writing fiction sets all sorts of intellectual challenges and in an extended serial some of the solutions one comes up with cause one problems later on – and what makes it especially difficult is that one can’t go back and adjust the beginning later on.

BTW – if there’s anyone out there thinking that there’s something peculiar about devoting so much thought to popular culture and to children’s books in particular: if it was good enough for Plato, it’s good enough for me.

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SG 06.30.07 at 1:37 am

bill in turkey, I think you might be reading the wrong book, or things have changed radically in the world of Harry Potter since the 4th movie. Harry Potter is the superhero; Hermione is just a very smart girl. She can’t even time travel by herself!

Which is exactly why it is exactly like Inspector Gadget. He has all the powers but his girly sidekick saves the day, and at the end of every episode, regular as clockwork, he gets the credit. I was sighing with disappointment at that when I was 10 years old. Harry Potter is the same.

And yeah, this may be a genre convention, but Rowling should know better. It could have been hermione potter and Harry whatever-her-surname is. But it isn’t. So bugger you, Ms. Rowling.

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Julia 07.01.07 at 6:49 pm

I didn’t read Rowe’s essay but I did read Dubashi’s critique of Nafaisi’s book. Dubashi says:

in the span of the same period of time (the 1990’s) that Azar Nafisi deigned to live in Iran and sought to save the soul of a nation by teaching a privileged few among them “Western Classics,” Iranians had produced a glorious cinema that has captivated the globe in awe and admiration, produced a feminist press and literature rarely matched in any other country, and elected more women to their parliament than those in the United States. The [by Nafasi] narrative eradication of Persian literature and Iranian culture while writing in an entirely Iranian context mutates into a more global dismissal of world literatures at large, any literature or culture that might pause and pose an element of resistance to imperial designs and their ideological foregrounding.

I didn’t like Reading Lolita in Teheran for the same reason Dubashi didn’t. Nafasi sounds like she and one professor/friend at the university are the only two feminists in the nation. Her telling of her own political history is really muddled. She was in a far left Iranian group in the U.S. and supported the revolution against the shah. Nafasi’s book gives a particularly bad account of the politics of the Iranian revolution. I’ve seen some Iranian feminist cinema and it’s much better than Nafasi’s book.

And attacking Rowe’s essay based on a couple quotes taken out of context is really unfair.
I was a student of Rowe also.

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Michael Bérubé 07.02.07 at 1:46 pm

Well, Julia, I don’t want to be really unfair, so I . . . hey, wait a second. Did you say you didn’t read Rowe’s essay? Um, so how do you know I’m taking quotes out of context? ‘Cause it seems to me that I reproduced three pretty substantial passages from that essay. Golly, I’m almost tempted to say that your comment is somewhat unfair.

But that’s OK — it doesn’t really matter. Everyone knows that once Seth Edenbaum weighs in, the thread is over.

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Julia 07.02.07 at 5:15 pm

Michael,
You said that Nafisi’s critics are criticizing her idea that ” the cultural sphere should have relative autonomy from the state?” None of Nafisi’s critics say that. What Dubashi and other says is that her account of Iranian women’s literary and other arts activities is innacurate. In her memoir Nafasi sounds like herself and maybe 1 other women friend are the courageous women and others don’t exist.

Iranian poet Friday Hassanzadeh said, “In recent years, women writers [in Iran] have been more popular than men writers for they are better to able to express the hidden realities of family and society. Women writers like Roya Pirzad,Fariba Vafi, and many others have won the most famous literary prizes and people buy their books in spite of financial problems. The books of women writers reach the 20th or 30th edition within a very shorttime. But as for poets, our great poets are still Forough Farrokhzad and Simin Behbahani from the 1940s and 1950s. Meanwhile, among our
great directors, women like Rakhshan Bani Etemad, Samira Makhmalbaf,and Tahmine Milany have achieved international success and fame. Andour best playwrights have been women too. Increasingly, more women than men are studying in universities.

Dubashi, Hassandeh et al have said there are many courageous women in Iran–writers, film directors, playwrights. They have participated in resistance to the ayatollahs for decades, including the decade after Nafasi left. Nafasi didn’t stand alone the way she portrays in her memoir which I find highly inaccurate. Dubashi and other says if one looks Irananian woman’s huge resistance to the ayatollahs, then the portrait Nafasi makes in her memoir of the single women leading her band of students is very limited one.

In the time when Bush et al. has been calling Iran the Axis of Evil, then getting an accurate account of that country is very important. Nafasi does not give us that accurate account we need.

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s.e. 07.02.07 at 10:28 pm

“What’s Neoliberal about the Liberal Arts?”

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Michael Bérubé 07.03.07 at 1:59 am

You said that Nafisi’s critics are criticizing her idea that ”the cultural sphere should have relative autonomy from the state?” None of Nafisi’s critics say that.

Ah, not exactly. I noted that Rowe wrote, “Nafisi is free to write what she wishes and advocate whatever retrograde and fallacious aesthetic ideas she chooses,” and I asked, only half-facetiously, whether the idea of the aesthetic as a relatively autonomous realm might be one of those ideas.

As for Dabashi: let’s say I grant your point that there’s more going on in Iran than Nafisi acknowledges in her book. How exactly does that justify Dabashi calling her a “comprador intellectual” who is no different from Lynndie England? For another look at Dabashi’s relation to Iranian dissidents and feminists, check this out this hot-off-the-presses review. I look forward to seeing abb1 follow Dabashi in denouncing Akbar Ganji, Shirin Ebadi, Roya Hakakian, and Azadeh Moaveni as useful idiots as well, because I gather that that’s just the kinda thing he does. I’ve come to appreciate it.

Which reminds me that if Laleh is right to suggest, in comment 56, that Nafisi faced no penalties for teaching the novels she taught, then she and Papan-Matin are either deeply mistaken or simply lying. That would be interesting!

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