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Two Sides of a Coin

Middle America and Iran

By Kim Knox

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 were exiled.

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."

These 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.