Michael Totten

If the Shoe Fits...

An anonymous reader emails Glenn Reynolds, and Glenn responds approvingly.

Your link to the Ebadi story reminds me of what the WaPo, NYT and the AP did after the fall in the Soviet Union. All of a sudden the most hard-line communists became, miraculously, “conservatives.” Now, in Iran, the WaPo uses “conservative” to refer to the mullahs, with the implication that “conservatives” are against freedom. Used out of an American context and left undefined this leaves the reader unaware that American conservatives were/are in the vanguard in supporting freedoms for people in the Soviet Union and in Iran.

Yes, and far too many “liberals” were astonishingly comfortable with the Soviet Union, just as too many seem to regard Fidel Castro as admirable even today.

Let’s unpack this.

All of a sudden the most hard-line communists became, miraculously, “conservatives.”

There was nothing miraculous about it. The hard-line communists were conservatives. They were a part of the ancien régime, the old establishment, a throwback to the past. They were not liberals, and they were not progressives. They were profoundly retrograde and reactionary. You can call them conservative leftists if you want, but they’re still conservatives.

Now, in Iran, the WaPo uses “conservative” to refer to the mullahs, with the implication that “conservatives” are against freedom.

That’s because in Iran the mullahs are conservatives and they are against freedom. And unlike Russian conservatives, they aren’t leftists. The mullahs are right-wing no matter which way you slice it. You can’t call them liberals, you can’t call them progressives, and you can’t call them leftists. At least not honestly.

Used out of an American context and left undefined this leaves the reader unaware that American conservatives were/are in the vanguard in supporting freedoms for people in the Soviet Union and in Iran.

Of course these terms are out of an American context. We’re talking about Russia and Iran, not America. “Conservative” is a disposition, not an ideology, and so its meaning is always relative to the local context. Conservatives defend the existing political order against change. That is their function. The status quo in America is liberal and democratic, therefore American conservatives are liberal democrats. (Note the use of small-l “liberal” and small-d “democrats,” which refers to something more general and broad than the left-wing of the Democratic party.) In Russia the old status quo was Communist, and the revolutionaries and progressives were the liberal democrats. In Iran the status quo is Islamist, and so Iran’s ruling mullahs are right-wing in every meaning of that phrase.
It’s true that toward the end of the Cold War the American right more so than the American left was concerned with freedom in the Soviet Union. And nearly every American, left or right, is in favor of freedom in Iran right now, though it’s also true that the right is more passionate about it. But this isn’t exactly a news flash, and it certainly doesn’t justify calling the Iranian mullahs anything other than “conservative” unless you choose to cut to the chase and call them fascist. Both “fascist” and “conservative” are accurate descriptions and, in the Iranian context, are not mutually exclusive.

Yes, and far too many “liberals” were astonishingly comfortable with the Soviet Union, just as too many seem to regard Fidel Castro as admirable even today.

This is true, thanks to those saving quotes around “liberals.” The Soviet Union and Cuba were and are breathtakingly illiberal. A good friend of mine admires Fidel Castro and sincerely believes Bush is Hitler. But she is a radical leftist, not a liberal.
Political terms lose their meaning over time because their abuse isn’t corrected often enough. Complaints about calling the Iranian mullahs “conservatives” doesn’t help. The shoe fits, and so the mullahs will wear it.
There is no honest way for American conservatives to say or even imply that Iranian conservatives favor freedom. Iranian liberals favor freedom. If American conservatives feel funny about sympathizing with Iranian liberals, perhaps that’s because they’ve spent too much time turning “liberal” into a swear word.