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Progressive academics oppose progress
Cronin blames Modernization for Iran’s troubles
Most Western academics today depict themselves as being Progressive, which — by definition — means that they oppose tradition and support change. Yet change, in their minds, seems to apply to the West only. When it comes to non-Western countries, these academics depict Modernization as an evil act that unsettles social, economic and political peace. This is how Progressive champions of change in America — like Senator Bernie Sanders — insist on breaking boundaries at home, while simultaneously supporting the global status quo that allows dictators to inhibit change, like in Iran.
In her book, Iran, Oxford University’s Stephanie Cronin blames Westernization for the collapse of an otherwise happy Iran. She thrashes Modernization as a Western construct that spoiled Iranian harmony, and splits hairs to conclude that while Western slavery was pure evil, Islamic slavery was fine, and that when it comes to women’s veil and freedom, France and Iran stand today on an equal footing in being oppressive toward women.
While all nations around the world experience continuous change and evolution, Cronin wants Iran and the Middle East to stand still. She even calls one of her chapters The Dark Side of Modernism, in which she bashes change:
For the rising elites of the early twentieth century Middle East, the transformation of public space and its control, in fact its policing, was a vital component of creating a modern ‘civilized’ society. Cities, especially capital cities most ostentatiously under the European gaze, as well as their inhabitants, were required to look modern, as an essential prerequisite of being modern. Remnants of the ‘traditional’, the ‘oriental’, the ‘uncivilized’, even occasionally the Islamic, had to be removed from sight.
Cronin also takes aim at “work ethics” that came to Iran with Modernization, including bashing the concept of people keeping the time. She disagrees with the concept of rewarding hard work and denouncing laziness:
New bureaucracies pioneered new discourses and practices of work. Binaries were established between work and leisure and between home and office, new anxieties were generated by the newly discovered social and moral danger of laziness, and a fixed and lengthened working day was disciplined by first gas, then electric, lighting and chiming clocks, while the young found themselves not only in schools but also in scouting organizations and, especially, in the barracks of the new armies.
Cronin also goes after urban planning, parks and cinemas. Perhaps she prefers old, narrow and unlit alleyways and would rather see people commute on the backs of donkeys and mules instead of in cars and buses:
In Iran, as elsewhere in the Middle East, the modernist project possessed physical but also cultural and social dimensions. Its physical dimension encompassed town planning, architecture, the building of new infrastructure and institutions, most notably prisons, as well as boulevards, parks, shopping malls and cinemas, cumulatively transforming urban spaces.
She argues that “social and cultural dimensions targeted especially the dangerous classes, who were discursively constructed as the enemies of modernism.” These enemies included “prostitutes, lutis, beggars, criminals, the mentally and physically sick, and sometimes slum dwellers and the poor in general, would be either reformed or eradicated with the help of elite discourses of hygiene, health, work, sport, eugenics and national regeneration.”
New living spaces were a powerful incentive to the reorganization of family relationships and even to patterns of consumption, families now more dependent on the mass production and commercial sale of food which could no longer be produced at home. This in turn contributed to freeing of women from some domestic labor and their entry into education and the workplace.
But what’s wrong with family relations changing in ways that allowed women’s entry into education and the workplace? Is not gender equality part of revolting against the White Man? Cronin does not say.
Luckily, even if perhaps unwittingly, Cronin gets something right. In the midst of denouncing Britain for imposing free trade globally, which she thinks dismantled Iranian food security systems,Cronin writes:
The one single factor that was always present in Iranian bread riots was the belief that shortages were artificial and the result of hoarding and speculation by the rich, and that ample supplies existed but that the poor were being deliberately deprived of their entitlement. This belief is expressed strongly during every bread riot in Iran throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. Indeed, the belief that such hoarding, rather than any actual shortage, was responsible for the price hikes and the consequent distress was universally and immediately expressed by the urban poor whenever prices rose. When the severe bread shortages in Tehran in the spring of 1861 led to serious protests by women of the city, they had already been infuriated by the general belief that the high officials of the city were hoarding and speculating in the small amounts of grain intended for distribution to the needy.
As a result of the currency crisis, in the 1890s Iran entered a period of giddying price rises and trade shrank, the economy affected by ‘uncontrollable shock waves’ of inflation and depression. The standard of living of the lower classes was hit hard by the unpredictable depreciation of the coin in which they were paid but, as was the case with bread rises, it was the sense of injustice and manipulation, the creation of an artificial crisis, which was strongest.
Despite all the modernization and change, a fundamental aspect never changed in Iran between the nineteenth century and today: Iranian citizens — then and now — lack a clear understanding of how economies work, often conflating the lack of economic growth with local corruption. True that corruption can take a toll on people of lower income, but there is no amount of hoarding or corruption that can send an economy free falling.
Like in the nineteenth century, many Iranians today still believe that their country can generate enough wealth to achieve economic self satisfaction, which — they think — only requires eradicating corruption. It still does not occur to Iranians that, even if corruption was uprooted and the government functioned as honestly and transparently as possible, economic growth can still be inhibited due to other reasons, including lack of domestic resources, inefficient industries and the absence of trade with other nations. Poor education on economics has made many Iranians make wrong political choices, which in turn have perpetuated their economic misery, in the past and today.
Perhaps Cronin does not get this: For Modernization to work, it requires more than copying successful Western models. Modernization requires educating the citizenry on how successful Western models work, not necessarily by looking Western but by thinking like Western citizens do on government and economics. This is the cultural change required the most in Iran and other pre-modern countries, and this is the cultural change that tyrants fought the most, leading to the creation of the disaster that is Iran today, an Iran that Cronin and Western academics blame the White Man for, and insist that Western models do not fit non-Western nations, which is simply not true. Japan and South Korea are best illustrations that Western modernization of non-Western nations is both possible and rewarding.