Friday, November 02, 2007

Jimmy Carter: The Man from Plains

I still remember the January 1976 when President Carter gave his inauguration speech. I was student then and living in International House. I watched on television him with a few other Iranian students in the little pub in our dormitory. I think, although we were all there on student visas, we were more excited than our American friends. We Iranians were the only foreigners who cut our classes just to listen to the speech. We were excited and hopeful. The changes we had long anticipated might occur at last. He ran on the human rights ticket and we knew Iran was the target. Our generation considered itself a legitimate heir to the fruit of fifty years of struggle for which the previous generations had paid a heavy and dear price. For us, President Carter was a means to that end.

Last weekend, in the Angelika Film Center in SoHo, I and my old friend Cyrus, who, incidentally, was with me that January day in International House, saw the film

on Jimmy Carter’s life after his presidency.

It was nostalgic, too nostalgic. Our hopes are gone, the revolution went completely off course, our homeland is not an “island of stability,” our history is rewritten for us as if we never existed among the civilizations, we are portrait to the world as terrorists and even barbarians, we do not enjoy full human rights even in this country as US citizens, and above all, all our youthful energy and cheerfulness has turned gray.

That day I was standing at the entrance of the pub and, while listening to the speech, hundreds of pictures formed in my mind. I fancied our future life. I thought about democracy, about going back home, teaching in Jundi Shapur University in Ahvaz, living on a collective farm with my students, teaching Medieval Iran, and cramming over the Shahnameh. What I did not dream of was that I would still be here twenty-seven years later still waiting to see what the “presidents” have up their sleeves for Iran, that I would still be here after twenty seven years going to hear what President Carter had to say, although it does not matter anymore. This time I am mature enough to know that even if he would have been president, it would not matter very much; there is a world apart between what the politicians say and what they mean. This time I have learned there is a phenomenon called hypocrisy which masks itself as pragmatism.

The film focused on only one aspect of President Carter’s life, his Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid, which he published in 2006 and for which he was criticized harshly. After the book was published, it soon became a bestseller and Carter very candidly appeared on radio, television, and university campuses to answer the questions. It was interesting to know that the majority of questions objected the use of the word “apartheid.” The objections were not as to the unfairness of the labeling Israel with such a derogatory term as much to the one-sidedness of the argument. The protesters, ranged from Harvard scholars to university students, who thought that President Carter had ignored the suicide bombers. One would wonder if apartheid would be justified if it happened as retaliation. Oddly enough, Carter did not bring up the issue, nor he did not bring up the issue of fair punishment. (He used that argument for the Iraq war). Nor did he not bring up the unequal war either, though he simply said, “I’m not talking about Israel, I’m talking about Palestine which is under the apartheid by definition.” He did however, say that the situation the Palestinian live under is a total violation of human rights and in many cases is worse that South Africa under the apartheid.

There was one question regarding his failure to get the hostages in Iran released. An interviewer asked why he did not use military forceful (e.g., did not bomb Iran) to that end. To that question he answered “Yes, I could have used stronger force, but in that case not only would the hostages have been killed, but thousands of innocent Iranian as well; I did not use a military attack and the hostages were ultimately back home safe and Iran did not get destroyed.”

While in both cases the answers were convincing enough, there remains the fact that these questions indicated a pattern of contemporary American thought: “Lets destroy at any costs whatever comes between us and our interests.” What amazes me was not the callousness of the ordinary people to demand a thing, as much as President Carter, who is considered as a champions of peace and human rights and indeed a Nobel Laureate, not to see that that is the kind of mentality which produces apartheid and which causes the human rights to be dismissed. Even a superficial glance at the cases in which human rights are violated tells us that it took place just to secure some party’s interests in its powerful position. Once again, President Carter, just as when he was in the White House, failed to address the issue, since his commitment to human rights is more likely along the same lines as when he was in the White House, just to mask his real intention: to Islamize Iran to prevent the spread of Communism. I hope we should not wait long to find out what is behind this mask. For sure peace is not the main issue, or else he would have brought up its basic and primary hindrances: selfishness.

After the movie we went for dinner, where my husband, Evan, joined us. Cyrus was uncharacteristically in complete disagreement with me. He even accused me lining up with the monarchists in my position on Carter, when I reminded him how of his New Year trip to Iran and his famous toast to Shah and Empress Farah: “To you, Your Majesty, and your beautiful country, an island of stability,” just a few months before the revolution. Cyrus, agreeing with my husband, thought that President Carter did not know about the situation. Did I believe the President of the United States, which brought Shah to power and stayed on top of everything since 1953 did not know that such an uprising was taking place? Was it a failure of CIA in collecting the information or a lack of cooperation between the White House and the CIA or the chaos in the political apparatus of the country? Our heated discussion ended well. Cyrus, dropping the charge of being a monarchist, thought I was being idealistic, which I am, and said I should be pragmatic, which I won’t be. My husband took his side and thought things had gotten out of hand, and maybe he was right. In our way home, when there was no Cyrus around to place me in such a minority, he could not come up with a good answer as to what about now. Are things out of hand? Could he not tell those students in Brandeis University, “Guys, wake up! We do not, and we should not, have the right to bomb a country for some finite number of people being taken hostage. We have a responsibility far greater than that. We have to maintain peace, which would never be achieved if we acted upon our whims and our likes and dislikes and relied on brute force. I have a Nobel Peace Prize!”

At home the sense of nostalgia was too overwhelming to be pushed back. What if when he was president he had been as candid as he was being now? What if he had not listened to his team of advisors? What if he had not thought it wise to support the religious fanatics to take over the most secular country in the region? What if he had have been more courageous and really pushed for human rights and have pushed Shah for a real change and elections rather than resorting to deception?

However, there was one good thing: the last question, from a Brandeis student, was, “What should we do to get peace in the Middle East?” “Well, form a committee of ten, with some of your faculty among them, and go there for yourself and see it for yourself, and judge it for yourself.” At least he gives a little credit to knowledge as essential to achieving peace. I am grateful for that.

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