Argument

Tehranimal Farm

How George Orwell explains Iran.

If the dread visions of George Orwell pertained only to far-off lands suffering under revolutions betrayed, they might be obscure to us now. Orwell's triumph was to bridge the imaginations of East and West by setting his Soviet-inspired satires of political cruelty, control, and deception in familiar England. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four touch truths so universal that they unsettle the citizens of established democracies. Orwell pertains everywhere, but, even in the absence of the Stalinist superpower that honed his perceptions, a handful of states continue to provide unabashed variations on the "Orwellian" -- particularly Iran.

Orwell provided the world a new vocabulary for modes of oppression. When, in January, Iranian authorities pressured Café Prague, a popular hangout for Tehran's students and intellectuals, to install cameras whose footage the state could access, the cafe's owners protested by closing down their business. Their explanation: "We take comfort in knowing that we at least didn't let Big Brother's glass eyes scan and record our every step, minute, and memory from dawn till dusk."

Meanwhile, on the western side of Orwell's bridge, Iranian journalists working for non-Iranian media -- in particular, BBC Persian -- accused their government of forging websites and Facebook pages in their names, built around salacious themes. Close readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four will recall not only the Party's fabrications and forgeries, but the cheap pornography it distributed to the "proles" of Airstrip One, Orwell's dystopian England.

As if to confirm Iran in its Orwellian moment, Washington-based opposition cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar, well-known for portraying Iran's theocrats as animals, generated fresh controversy by caricaturing Iran's former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as Napoleon, the porcine leader and hypocrite of Animal Farm. "Comparing Orwell's story with the 1979 revolution," Kowsar explains, "you'll see that no Iranian politician has ever changed the rules to his own benefit like Rafsanjani."

And though the agents of the Islamic Republic may not actually read Orwell, they appear, on a subconscious level, to regard him with unease: An article on the government-affiliated Press TV website, which described the British monarchy as anti-Muslim, carried a Freudian slip of a photo caption, since corrected, which read:

The history of Islam has gone through sensitive [eras] in the British Isles … during the reign of rulers such as George Orwell and Elizabeth II, marked with a rise in Islamophobic sentiments.

It seems a pity, against this background, that Orwell wrote so little about Iran (or, indeed, about Islam). Having coined the term "cold war" in print, he died in 1950 at age 46, predeceasing only slightly a signal episode in that struggle that would have tested his political convictions and gone some way to determining his reputation in Iran.

The 1951 attempt by Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., as well as his overthrow two years later in a CIA-backed coup, would have thrust Orwell's values into vivid juxtaposition -- even conflict. The case would have tested his anti-imperialism (which did not always mean admiration for anti-imperialist leaders, because he disliked Gandhi), his distrust of the Soviet Union (into whose "sphere of influence" U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower's administration believed Mosaddegh was leading Iran), and his socialism (when Britain's welfare state relied on cheap Iranian oil) -- not to mention his contempt for lies and dirty tricks.

As it happens, Orwell's reputation in Iran is relatively unencumbered by history, but difficult to gauge. His satires are easy enough to acquire in Farsi, but all books published in Iran pass through censors' hands. Nevertheless, books are not efficiently policed, and it may be possible for Iranians to buy cheaply reproduced, uncensored editions, especially from street-sellers.

Even a normal life span might not have taken Orwell as far as 1979, though his readers -- given the strong anti-theistic streak in his satires -- may believe they already know his thoughts on theocracy.

Because of the role Orwell's best-known novels came to play in the Cold War imagination, attempts to apply Orwellian analogies to Khomeinist Iran are apt to stoke a recurring debate about the applicability of Cold War thinking to the Islamic Republic, a critique neither wholly satisfying nor entirely possible to dismiss.

Iran's leadership itself seems unsure how to handle Cold War comparisons. In 2000, after it became fashionable in the West to compare Iran's nominally reformist President Mohammad Khatami to the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei announced that the United States had devised a plan to subvert the Islamic system along Cold War lines. America was mistaken, he warned, for Khatami was no Gorbachev and Islam was not communism. Furthermore:

The popular system of Islamic Republic is not the dictatorial regime of the proletariat.… [Americans] have underrated the pivotal role of the religious and spiritual leadership in Iran.

Yet, in reaction to the 2009 Green Movement demonstrations (which themselves drew tactics and aesthetics from the "color revolutions" of the post-Soviet sphere), Iran's leadership warned against "velvet revolution," in reference to the collapse of Moscow's dominance of Czechoslovakia. (Needless to say, state harassment of Café Prague takes on added significance in this light.)

If Orwell's satires apply plausibly to the Islamic Republic, it may be because Soviet and Iranian history "rhyme" in ways that complement his worldview. Orwell's materialism and anti-theism were, unlike the Soviet variety, anti-utopian, while Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's vision of Islamic government was theistic, anti-materialist, and utopian.

Orwell saw in both religion and political utopianism a failure to imagine lasting happiness convincingly. In his 1943 essay "Can Socialists Be Happy?" he described the utopias of H.G. Wells and Jonathan Swift as uninspiring, and Christian and Islamic visions of paradise as somewhere between unappealing and nightmarish. A persuasive description of happiness, he argued, necessarily involved pleasures fleeting and incomplete.

Yet Orwell had no trouble imagining the elation of revolutionaries in their moment of triumph, and he conveys movingly the animals' overthrow of drunken farmer Jones in Animal Farm. The animals' happiness doesn't last. Mirroring closely the history of Russia from the 1917 revolution to -- appropriately for this article -- the 1943 Tehran conference, Animal Farm's allegory to the Islamic Republic is limited by specifics, but complements the broader narrative of revolution betrayed.

Khomeini resembled Orwell's Napoleon only insofar as he shifted the aims of a once-popular revolution, but he differed from Orwell's pigs in that he seems to have had no pecuniary motive and appears to have lived, more or less, by the strictures he set for others. Here, Khamenei has a point: Islam, as understood by Khomeini, was not Soviet communism. Nor does Iranian history provide any ready analogue for Old Major, the Middle White boar representing Karl Marx, who prophesies revolution from his deathbed.

On the other hand, the tripartite rivalry between Animal Farm and the neighboring farms of Foxwood and Pinchfield does mirror the early Islamic Republic's dual enmity with the United States and the Soviet Union, while Napoleon's exile of his revolutionary companion, Snowball, corresponds to the Islamic Republic's marginalization and house arrest of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was expected to succeed Khomeini until he clashed with the founder over his bloody excesses.

Orwell depicts the axis between religion and power in the form of Moses, Jones's tame raven, who consoles the other animals in their hardship by promising them afterlife in a paradise called "Sugarcandy Mountain." He flees the revolution in its happy stage, only to return -- with the pigs' acceptance -- once the ideals of the revolution are lost. While the Khomeinist story arguably reverses this narrative, it may interest readers to know that, in opposing the Shah of Iran, Khomeini urged his followers to act "like Moses before the Pharaoh of our age."

Nineteen Eighty-Four, by contrast, makes for a smoother satire on modern theocracy. The novel's protagonist, Winston Smith, lives in Airstrip One, a devastated future Britain belonging to Oceania, the English-speaking bloc in a world of unending tripartite conflict. Under the totalitarian surveillance of Big Brother -- a dictator who may or may not exist -- he is employed in the demoralizing work of fabricating, forging, and falsifying historical records, backing up a notionally infallible party line, and destroying the reputations of heretics.

Citizens of Oceania are required to gather regularly for mass expressions of hatred for Oceania's enemies. There are public hangings. But apart from political behavior the state expects, Winston observes, there are "no laws." ("There are no laws here!" is a common expression of frustration with the style of Khomeinist rule in Iran, though not literally true.) Winston's private rebellion in the form of a love affair, as well as his acceptance of a forbidden book, leads to his arrest and torture in the Ministry of Love by the "urbane" Inner Party member, O'Brien. (Urbanity, this author has heard from people detained in Iran in 2009, is a trait of Iranian Intelligence Ministry officials, who speak well and dress to the height of fashion. The ministry, amusingly, was founded in 1984.)

O'Brien's breaking of Winston takes the form of an inquisition in which Winston's heretical thoughts are examined and resubordinated to consensus. "God is power," O' Brien tells Winston, adding, "We are the priests of power."

Here, parallels from the early days of the Iranian revolution leap to the fore. O'Brien boasts that the Party is not interested in wealth or luxury -- which Khomeini wasn't. He asserts that the Party determines the laws of nature, recalling revolutionaries' claim to have seen their imam's face in the moon. His warning that "The proletarians will never revolt.… The rule of the Party is forever" reflects the Islamic Republic's current claim to have the permanent mass support of the pious poor -- whose 33 years of political quiescence validate the Khomeinist experiment in perpetuity.

Happily for Iranians, no country is Airstrip One, and Iran is unlikely to fulfill O'Brien's prophecy of "a boot stamping on a human face -- forever." Yet the slights the state continually directs at Iran's secular, urban liberals -- such as holding a public hanging at the Artists Park or interfering with their refuge at Café Prague -- are exercises in dominance and submission. Orwell's O'Brien gives a convincing explanation for why dictatorship (whether for God, the proletariat, or its own ends) can never afford to be benign:

"How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?"

Winston thought. "By making him suffer," he said.

"Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own?"

Even the curtailing of small pleasures embodies this sadistic logic and demonstrates that all animals were never equal in Khomeini's rural imagination.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

France on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Think Americans hate their politicians? The moody French are disgusted -- and looking for a new de Gaulle.

If polls reflect the pulse of a people, the French appear to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In late January, the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po released the findings of a nationwide public opinion study. More than half the respondents think that France is now locked into an "irreversible decline," while three out of five fear that globalization threatens France. Two-thirds describe France's democracy as "malfunctioning," while an even greater proportion insists that politicians seek only their own personal gain -- a revelation, perhaps, on the order of Captain Renault's shocking discovery in the film Casablanca that gambling was going on at Rick's.

Yet there is one finding less easy to dismiss: Nearly nine out of 10 respondents lament the absence of "authority" in France and think that the country needs a "vrai chef," or real leader, to "re-establish order." Historian Michel Winock, who has written extensively on the history of political extremism in France, is disturbed by these findings. The survey, he warns, contains all the necessary ingredients for making the volatile brew of populism. For this reason, the poll's results are unfortunately far from groundbreaking: France's past is littered with ligues, or movements, that have sought to harness the power of popular disenchantment with politics.

The tinder for the cauldron is plentiful. Jacques Chirac, who served as president from 1995 to 2007, was found guilty in 2011 of diverting public funds for political purposes while he was mayor of Paris in the 1980s. His successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, is enmeshed in a number of corruption cases that include, among other juicy details, thick envelopes of cash exchanging hands at the mansion of the L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Perhaps even more importantly, critics have accused Sarkozy of playing the populist card by repeatedly raising the issue of national identity and enflaming the French public's fear of Islam. And though President François Hollande has proved immune to such politics, he has also left the impression, even in the wake of France's intervention in Mali, that he is not à la hauteur, or equal to the challenge, of events.

More worrisome, for Winock, is that disgust with traditional politics and the longing for order spill far beyond the ranks of the extremist National Front of Marine Le Pen. He fears that there may well be movements yet to be formed, demagogues yet to be heard, that will act on the deepening sentiment that the entire system is morally and ideologically bankrupt. Moreover, the poll's findings agree with trends in France dating back to the early 1990s that reveal both a growing distaste for the individualist ethos of 1968 and a "growing demand for public order." In fin-de-siècle France, there was a deepening of what Chirac called la fracture sociale, or social inequality, provoked by persistently high levels of unemployment, particularly among the beur population -- youths whose families are of North African origin -- along with growing unease over the place in French society of its 5 million or so Muslims. With the explosive wave of riots that swept the cités, or suburbs, in 2005, the fracture sociale appeared unbridgeable.

Yet, at the same time, the poll raises not just fears, but questions. Clearly, the French are desperately seeking a real leader. Less clear, though, is precisely what kind of leader they want. France's past, it turns out, offers more than one candidate.

The best known, perhaps, is the Bonapartist model. When the smoke and confusion settled in the wake of 18 Brumaire Year VIII -- or Nov. 9, 1799, for those unfamiliar with the French revolutionary calendar -- Napoleon Bonaparte bequeathed France, and the world, a certain idea of leadership. His successful coup against the First Republic inaugurated the opening phase of a dictatorship that convulsed the West's physical and political landscapes. No less importantly, the Napoleonic experience forged a new type of leader, one who embodied the nation's destiny and bridged its political and ideological divisions. The image of the man on horseback, immortalized in Jacques-Louis David's painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps, was irresistible for a country as thirsty for national glory as it was for public order. Equality was granted; as for liberty, it could wait.

Half a century later, Napoleon's nephew, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, re-enacted the 18 Brumaire. When he overthrew by force in 1851 the Second Republic that he had served as president, Napoleon III launched what scholars identify as the chief ideological vehicle for political populism. It was an authoritarian movement that adapted democratic practices like universal manhood suffrage and referendums, all with the goal of legitimating the rule of a charismatic leader who stood above mere politics.

At the end of the 19th century, Bonapartism morphed into a more toxic movement, Boulangism, that heaved a different model of the vrai chef into the world. In fact, this year marks the 125th anniversary of the stunning rise and flaming fall of the man who bequeathed his name to this ideology. In many ways, 1888 seems a rehearsal for France's current predicament. The fledgling Third Republic was lurching from one political scandal to the next, anxious over its ability to compete in a new global marketplace, preoccupied by the influx of immigrants, and prey to racist demagogues whose target was not the Muslim, but the Jew. Public disgust with politics was widespread, as were doubts about the very viability of the republican model.

At that moment, Gen. Georges Boulanger strode across the national stage -- or, more accurately, rode across it on his white steed. Hailed by many on the left as well as right, seen as the guarantor of national glory and restorer of political authority, the general, who cut a dashing figure on horseback, handily won a series of national elections. By the end of the year, Boulanger's popularity seemed so great that many observers waited for him to simply claim power by marching on the National Assembly. He failed to do so, but he had nevertheless united for a brief moment a remarkably varied collection of groups united only in their desire for a strong leader, their hatred of traditional democracy, and their readiness to overthrow the established political order.

This has since become the standard French model of populism: nationalistic, anti-liberal, and anti-democratic. And it was the very model that many believed Charles de Gaulle revived when he came to power 55 years ago. The extraordinary presidential powers he placed at the heart of the Fifth Republic -- an authoritarian presidency based on the Bonapartist tools of universal suffrage and referendums -- were designed to institutionalize the sway of a vrai chef. But it turned out that Gaullism without de Gaulle was mostly an empty ideological shell, while even the monarchical powers of his republic were unable to resist the social and economic changes sweeping across his country.

In turn, de Gaulle leads us, quite literally, to a third kind of leader. In 1946, he made a pilgrimage to a village in France's Vendée region. At a modest gravestone, the leader of the Free French paid homage to the great republican leader Georges Clemenceau. Defender of Dreyfus and enemy of the church, Clemenceau is most famous, or infamous, for his authoritarian policies when he was in office. Although a republican, he fiercely suppressed massive labor strikes in 1905 to restore public order, and his near-dictatorial rule as prime minister in 1917 yanked France from its growing defeatism and pulled it to victory.

Whereas Clemenceau was an atheist and man of the left, and de Gaulle was a Catholic and man of the right, the two men shared a few crucial traits that suggest what a vrai chef means for most French. They were equally indifferent to their own wealth, equally scornful of party politics, equally committed to the greatness of France, and equally convinced that they alone could guarantee that grandeur. These qualities are always unusual, to be sure. But their absence is felt with particular anguish today. Hollande's rating in public opinion polls in 2012 seemed locked in a death spiral. For many French, it seemed that the president's nickname, "Flanby" -- a custard desert popular with children -- was all too apt. While his numbers have improved since he ordered French planes and soldiers to Mali, they are not inspiring. Slightly less than half of the respondents in a recent poll think Hollande capable of making the right decisions for France, while scarcely one in three believe he can unite the nation.

Clemenceau once remarked that war is too important to be left to the generals. But as France's past reminds us, this does not mean politics is too important to be left to politicians -- or, put differently, that real leaders cannot be politicians. Unlike the men of the Bonapartist or Boulangist tradition, Clemenceau and de Gaulle were supremely political and selfless. The frame of their political vision dwarfed their own ambitions. Both men saw themselves as leaders not of a party, but of the nation; as guarantors not of their private fortunes, but of France's republican fortunes. The frame for Clemenceau and de Gaulle, in a word, was France. It may well be that this is the sort of vrai chef the French are seeking today.

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