Two Sides of a Coin
Middle America and Iran
On a flight to Greece, I read "What's the Matter with
Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America" by Thomas Frank.
Frank explains that as an anti-slavery state, Kansas was the home of John
Brown, people fighting segregation (Brown vs. the Board of Education in
Topeka) and the populist movement.
Yet, little by little, conservatives became the
dominant voice in Kansas politics. Frank attributes to the conservatives
statements about values rather than programs. He points out that the
pro-life movement identified precinct captains first in key cities, then
in key counties, then in every city, and then in every county. They were
led by someone who works on a bottle-capping assembly line in Wichita.
This person became empowered not only to find precinct captains throughout
the state who would turn out the vote for pro-life measures, but also to
find pro-life candidates and get them elected.
Since the pro-lifers in Kansas were new to politics,
they looked for mentors. And even though these newcomers were initially
against big business, business subsidies, and trade agreements, the
Republicans were more than happy to mentor them. The pro-lifers were happy
to work with Republicans to pass their value-laden legislation. And
Republicans in turn worked with them to get subsidies to big businesses,
the passage of trade agreements, and a reduction of programs that helped
Kansas' working poor.
Again, Frank's hypothesis is that the voters of
Kansas responded to values, not programs. They responded to people who
appear to be a lot like them — family-oriented, small-town oriented, with
working-class roots and a willingness to stick up for the little guy.
While the Democrats in Kansas approached voters with programs that rested
on these values, the Republicans chose candidates and framed programs so
they reflected the values themselves. In other words, a Republican
candidate might be a Yale graduate with a father who was a U.S. president
and a grandfather who was a senator, but the party made sure that its
candidate was seen in a baseball cap / cowboy hat working on his ranch.
On the way back from Greece, I read "Reading Lolita
in Tehran: A Memoir in Books" by Azar Nafisi. (It is a better book than
"What Happened to Kansas.") Nafisi was a student activist who demonstrated
against the shah and then left Iran. When the shah fell, she and her
husband returned to support the revolution.
She explained that the student activists felt that
the shah was out of touch with Iran. His values did not reflect the values
and the lives of the average Iranian citizen. When he was overthrown,
several leaders who competed for the leadership of Iran. But in the end,
the students, and indeed the entire country, decided to emphasize the core
values of the Koran — and thus, Khomeni emerged from his exile in Paris.
During her first years of teaching Western literature
at a university, Nafisi wasn’t aware of the chaos that was occurring all
around her. After some debate, the revolutionaries decided to base their
government on the Koran. One of the first laws that they repealed was the
right of women to own property outside of marriage. Then a women's age of
consent for marriage went from 18 to 13. Then it was further reduced to 9.
In the middle of the night, people began to
disappear. At first, they were friends of the shah. Then they were not of
the Muslim faith. Then people who printed non-religious books began to
disappear. Authors began to disappear. Newspapers were closed. Journalists
First, the student groups began to require women to
wear chadors, and then the government itself required women to wear the
all-enveloping garment. And soon women were beaten, taken to jail, raped,
and even executed if they were not seen as modest enough.
Again, the government was based on values. How could
you be against the protection of women? How can you object to a woman
being shielded from leering eyes? How could you object to someone not
following the brand of Islam that the government deemed was correct?
That's how they were able to get the people of Iran
to support the "reforms."
books talk about the lessons that fundamentalists in the U.S. and Iran
have learned about using values to reach the electorate. But there are
values that we share with everyone — the value of a home, the value of a
good education, the value of healing the sick. And these values can help
unite us in working toward the improvement of our own community.