The American Interest recently convened TAI Chairman Francis Fukuyama and Azar Nafisi, author of The Republic of Imagination and Reading Lolita in Tehran, for a wide-ranging conversation. They discussed the coronavirus pandemic, news from Iran, identity politics, campus trends, and why imagination and literature are essential to combatting authoritarianism. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Francis Fukuyama: Let’s start with the obvious issue, which is that we are now going through an unprecedented global coronavirus crisis. One of the countries that’s been hardest hit is Iran. I’m wondering what you think this crisis reveals about their government, and then maybe you can speculate a bit about where things could go. Obviously, Iran was under a great deal of pressure before this crisis hit, and now it’s in even worse shape. What do you think?
Azar Nafisi: One thing that has been on my mind for the past few weeks is the similarities between what happened in my first home, which is Iran, and what is happening in my second home, which is America. The Iranian regime is a totalitarian one and Iran is not a democracy, but totalitarianism as a mindset can be anywhere. The first thing that the Iranian government did was to deny that the virus had hit Iran. The second, coming especially from the Supreme Leader, was to say that this is a lot of fuss over nothing. Some even blamed “enemies” of the Islamic Republic or claimed that the virus was created in laboratories. The third thing I noticed was their utter incompetence.
I get so many WhatsApp messages from Iran, from friends who are living under the most excruciating conditions, and I talk to a few on a regular basis. Here, two important things should be noted about the Iranian people. The first is their sense of humor. Frank, I wish I could show you the jokes I am seeing, the majority of which are directed against the government and the clerics. They’re hilarious. Then there are so many videos of people dancing and singing, saying that that is how they’re going to be resisting the virus and the regime. The second thing is the fact that people have taken things into their own hands. They are not expecting anything from the government. The hospitals, the doctors and the nurses, and the Iranian people as a whole have all been helping one another. They have had way stations where they deliver disinfectant and supplies to people who need them.
So I am amazed at the morale of the Iranian people, and I’m sure that you see similar signs in America, how states are taking things into their own hands. You see similarities, too, in how Mr. Trump and his administration are in denial, or lying, or are just plain incompetent in dealing with this crisis.
FF: Yes, I think that that’s one of the most striking things, that when this crisis first broke out in China, a lot of Americans were saying, “Well, this shows that this kind of authoritarian system can’t handle a crisis, because their first instinct was to deny that anything was going on and to punish people who were actually telling the truth.” But then our administration ended up doing something similar. Only in the last week or so have they finally admitted that this is really serious, that it’s not just a hoax being perpetrated by Mr. Trump’s enemies. It’s quite striking that maybe our democracy isn’t performing all that much better.
AN: It reminds me of something Vaclav Havel said. He focused on this quite a bit, how totalitarian societies are a “convex mirror” of democracies. He said that they expose and reveal the potential and latent tendencies within democracies, because totalitarianism and democracy are both mindsets that can exist anywhere. Just as people are fighting for democracy in Iran, there is an authoritarian mindset that exists in the United States.
FF: I take it that you’ve been traveling around the Gulf recently. This virus is obviously spreading from Iran to its neighboring countries, who don’t seem to have things under terribly good control. Is that your impression as well?
AN: Well, I went there at the beginning of February, so they were just beginning to feel their way around the issue, but they seem to have been keeping things under control. There were other things about the Gulf countries which were welcome surprises to me.
FF: Like what?
AN: Well, especially since 9/11, there has been a sort of reductionism in the United States, reducing all these Muslim-majority countries into one aspect, which is their religion. And then to reduce that religion into just one form of it—almost like saying America is a Christian country, and all Americans are evangelical Southern Baptists. My books are popular in many parts of the Arab world, but apart from participating in a literary festival in Abu Dhabi, this was my first time visiting the Gulf, and what struck me most was the complexity and the contradictions.
For example, the day I arrived in Kuwait, I was told that my talk was banned. I heard from my sponsors and people in the know that it was banned at the last-minute request of the Iranian government. This is the negative aspect. But then, there was a whole surge on social media and within the press, and some of the most important Arabic papers started complaining and attacking the ban. One of them said, “We’re glad you had this ban, because we will now be reading her.” For each of the three remaining nights that I was in Kuwait, I was invited to a house to give a speech. So there is this contradiction between the ban on the one hand and the freedom people feel on the other. I am not trying to downplay the problems within these countries, nor claim to know everything about them from a short visit, but I want to challenge the reductionist image of what is wrongly called the “Muslim World,” to show the less mentioned side of these countries and nations, each of which have such ancient cultures going back thousands of years.
I was also struck by how well-informed and enthusiastic the people whom I talked to were, in Kuwait and Bahrain and Dubai. They were curious about imagination and ideas, and excited about others. One of my sponsors was this amazing bookstore owner, and the books that they were reading over there—from Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland to Hemingway and Marquez and Kafka—all of these works were very familiar to them. If I mentioned them to my former students in the United States, they might not know all of them.
The women were amazing, too. The ministers of culture in both Dubai and Bahrain are women. The one in Bahrain, Mai Al Khalifa, has taken up renovating old houses, turning some of them into coffee houses and literary cafes, and promoting Bahrain’s culture and history going back to 2300 BC, creating a conversation between the ancient and the modern. The homogeneous image of women in Muslim-majority countries was also broken. In public you saw women with the veil, you saw women without the veil. Despite the pressure from traditionalists, it was amazing how well-informed and active the women I met were.
FF: That corresponds to my experience, too. I’ve been to Bahrain and to Dubai in the past couple of years, and I was also struck by the number of well-educated women. I think that the universities in the Gulf are producing many more female graduates than male graduates right now, and so many administrative positions throughout the government in both of those places are held by women. There are women fighter-pilots, and so forth.
And I actually had a similar experience. I was supposed to give a speech, and I sent them my slides in advance, and it was critical of Donald Trump at a moment when they were trying to cultivate Trump’s support against Iran. So they said, “Oh, no, no, you can’t give this speech. You have to tone it down.” I took out the ones that they felt were too critical, and then as has happened several times, I was heavily lobbied that I should support an American nuclear guarantee for them, or basically a NATO alliance where they would be militarily guaranteed by the United States, which I think is a terrible idea.
But it’s also the case that culturally, the Gulf States have a lot of contact with Iran. That’s really one region, and there’s a lot of trade that goes back and forth. I think on a person-to-person level, that hostility between the leaderships is really not felt. And the Gulf States, even Saudi Arabia, have turned out to be quite flexible, because once they realized that the United States might not be the most reliable partner, they immediately started negotiating with Iran to see whether they can make a deal. So I do think the situation there is more complicated than it would seem from the outside.
AN: It definitely is. One of the things that people were telling me, in private, was how harmful Donald Trump has been to reform and democratic-minded people. Because, they said, you hear people in high places say that if he does it, why don’t we? One person told me that the United States used to be a model that people would look up to, and now when we look to Donald Trump, there is no one to look up to.
But Iran itself, here in the United States and sometimes in the West as a whole, is reduced again. People do not differentiate between the Iranian people and the Iranian government. Sometimes people criticize you for criticizing the Islamic Republic, saying that you’re criticizing Iran and Islam, while in fact both Iran and Islam are victims of the regime. The Iranian people’s fight for their human and individual rights should remind us that Americans do not have a monopoly on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that these concepts belong to whoever fights for them. In Iran this fight has been going on for 40 years.
FF: That’s right. Just on the subject of identity, I had an interesting conversation last year with Barham Salih, who is now the President of Iraq and is a Kurd. This was at the American University of Iraq in Sulaymania. He said that for many years, people in Iraq like him that were pro-democratic said that we ought to learn from the United States, and imitate the United States. But, he said, now the United States is imitating us—meaning that the politics in Iraq is completely determined by identity. So if you’re a Kurd in one of the two big parties in Kurdistan, that completely determines your political views and where you live and everything else. If you’re a Shi‘a, if you’re a Sunni, these identity groups are extremely powerful, and the whole political system is organized around these groups, rather than individuals who can freely make their own choices.
One of the things that worries me is that the United States and other modern democracies are moving in that identity direction, where it’s the color of your skin or your ethnicity that really determines what you think about the world and not what you as an individual think.
AN: Yes, that is very true. One sees that the political elite seems to be moving that way. It has come more to the surface because of Trump, especially because of his treatment of and virulent rhetoric against migrants and different ethnicities. I always think that totalitarianism is the ultimate in identity politics. But what has happened in Iran, which is similar to the communist era in Eastern Europe, is that because the regime has banned the world from Iranian people’s lives, they have gone in the opposite direction. When I wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran, some Iranian academics said, “This is glorifying the West,” and so on. I said, “If this is glorifying the West, go and talk to Iranian youth.” They are the ones who are reading the world because the world was taken away from them. They are the ones who are reading Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper and Vaclav Havel. In fact, when I was teaching in Iran I was trying to challenge the rosy view of the West; rosy views are always dangerous. I posed to my students the question Saul Bellow poses: Those who survived the ordeal of the Holocaust, how will they survive the ordeal of freedom? For as we are discovering especially now, freedom is an ordeal that needs to be constantly protected and fought for.
Your own books are read in Iran, too; I saw this when I was there in the 80s and 90s. Your book on identity has also been translated. They are curious about the world, and that is the essence of a healthy society, to be curious about others. In our universities, we keep talking about “The Other,” but then we allow people only to talk about themselves. I always think, how boring, to only think about yourself, read about yourself, and write about yourself. Imagination means being curious about others and going under the skin of others for empathy and connection. How can you survive without that connection to others, without understanding them? I’m so frustrated with this idea on both the right and the left. But of course, you have written a whole book about this issue, so I’d love to know how you think about it.
FF: Well, in part, I’ve felt that it’s important to have a broader national identity. It has to be obviously democratic and open and accessible to people regardless of their race or ethnicity or religion, but people do need to have a common tradition. I think that we’ve actually been losing a sense of that tradition in the United States. Part of what creates the tradition are common narratives, which are really created by writers, by novelists, by poets. It’s very hard to think about France without the whole French literary tradition: Diderot and Molière and Rousseau.
I’m wondering, since you’ve written about American literature, who you would read today. You’ve referred to classics in American literature, but a lot of them are fairly old. Do you think that we’re losing that tradition, that sense of an American narrative?
AN: Well, you mention both in your writing and in your last interview with The American Interest that people in Western countries, including America, arguably have too much pleasure and entertainment. I feel that takes away from what, for lack of a better word, one might call their spiritual side. I’ve found since I’ve returned to the United States that there is a desire for intellectual comfort, for not wanting to be disturbed. Identity politics, whether it is on the right or the left, gives you comfort, because you’re always on the right side. James Baldwin, who these days is one of my favorite American writers, talked about how this categorization of people into little boxes, and denying their complexities and contradictions, leads to the death of paradox.
I think this is what has happened to America: the death of paradox, the denial of contradictions and complexities. People don’t want to be disturbed and Baldwin says artists are here to disturb the peace. When it comes to contemporary America, there are books that become popular and there are books that are very good, but they don’t have the same effect that books used to. We even search for comfort in fiction. And great fiction never offers you comfort. It always leaves you not with an answer but with a question. I feel that more than any other time, we need imagination and ideas.
FF: Well, I agree with you very much. I think one of the problems with the way we interpret identity is that it makes us take immediately as most important the identity of the author rather than what the author is saying. So whether it’s a woman or a racial minority, that becomes a more important fact than the complexity that you talk about.
I think the other problem in universities is that it’s impossible actually to teach students about a common cultural heritage. It used to be that in high school English classes, everybody in the United States would at some point encounter Shakespeare. For Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare and the Bible were the two biggest literary influences, and it’s one of the reasons he wrote such beautiful speeches. But now under the pressure of identity politics and the need to raise the dignity of marginalized groups, even the idea that there’s a core literary tradition that every American child should know is being attacked. As a result, you really don’t have anything like a common cultural inheritance.
I saw this at Stanford over the years, where there had been a Western culture course that was built around 10 books, beginning with the Hebrew Bible and ending with Marx or Freud. But you know, they’re all white men, and this came under intense criticism beginning in the mid-1980s. As a result, now you can take a core course as an undergraduate on food, or you can take it on Navajo culture, or something else that is ultimately not the most important thing that you would want to learn as an undergraduate. Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of universities are now.
AN: The whole idea of that criticism was that Western culture thinks of itself as too exclusive. Well, we don’t want to replace one exclusivity with another. We want everyone to be inclusive. Now one of the ironic things about it is that we keep talking about cultures, but many of my students in America didn’t know much about great writers from other cultures. Very few know Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Guillermo Cabrera or Ferdowsi or Hafez.
But I want to bring in another example from James Baldwin, because everybody nowadays talks about him, but few really understand how important he is. He first became popular with his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, which was about an African-American kid. Everybody loved it and said that a new African-American writer is on the horizon, fantastic. His second book was about a gay white man living in France. His agent told him to get rid of the book, and his publisher refused to publish it. They said, “They know you as a black writer. If you write this, this would be the death of you. You’re done.” You know what he said? He told them, in effect, “screw you,” and went and published it in England.
He said that that book, Giovanni’s Room, was his declaration of independence. That is the kind of attitude we need today. Art is the place where you don’t judge but try to understand. That is the whole purpose of going to university, not to have all the answers, but to ask the questions. I don’t understand why we’re not using the Baldwin model.
FF: Well, that’s the discourse now around cultural appropriation, that you can’t write about any group of people, particularly marginalized people, if you’re not actually a member of that group. So you couldn’t write about being black if you’re a white person, and well, Baldwin was gay, but he certainly wasn’t a white man. That was an early version, I think, of this attempt to exclude people simply on the basis of a characteristic like race that they were born with and can’t do anything about.
There was a really nice speech that was given by Lionel Shriver at a writers’ convention a few years ago, where she attacked this from the standpoint of a novelist, because, she said, the whole idea of being a novelist is to put yourself in the mind of someone different. If you only can write about people that are like you, you’ll never have any imaginative fiction ever written in the future.
AN: Yes, I mean, how can you survive as a human being, if you cannot put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Right now, during this coronavirus crisis, I’m thinking about myself and my family, but I’m also thinking about someone I’ve never seen who has caught it in Italy. The only way I can feel something about that person in Italy is through empathy, through putting myself in his or her place. I always call it “the shock of recognition.”
In the 1930s, the Germans said, Jews are different from us. The slave-owners said, slaves are different from us. Men said, women are different from us. Difference should be celebrated if it is accompanied by this shock of recognition, not of how different we are, but how alike we are. Having a common humanity, I think, is what makes us survive as human beings. That is why I’m glad you wrote about it.
FF: In my book Identity, I made this distinction between “lived experience,” which is very popular among identity politics promoters, and just plain experience. Lived experience is the experience that is limited to a particular group or a particular individual, whereas experience as we normally think about it is a communal thing that allows us to talk to each other, to cooperate, to work together. I think the shift toward everybody celebrating their lived experience and telling other people that they can’t possibly appreciate what that is makes society impossible down the road, because if you don’t have common, shared experiences, you’re not going to have a society at all.
AN: Yes, that’s exactly the problem. Added to that problem now is this mindset that denigrates anything that is not utilitarian. When I go to universities and I talk to students, I see how hungry they are for meaning and for something in their lives that is not utilitarian. I remember there was a quotation from Vaclav Havel. He used to say that the tragedy of modern man isn’t that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less. That is how I feel we are teaching our students, to bother less and less about the meaning of their life, and we’re doing it in two ways.
One is the corporate culture—and I wrote my book The Republic of Imagination mainly because of this—which is so utilitarian, and tells you that if you want to make money, don’t go into philosophy or history or literature. The second thing is this ideological mindset that divided everything into good and bad and it became very facile, because we all want to be good, so we don’t need to think. It took away our power of thinking independently.
This is what I think has been taking over both our political and intellectual elite; the polarization you see today is based on this. I just don’t know how the young generation is going to save itself. You have been in close contact with them. I wonder if you see any changes within them, wanting something different.
FF: Well there are a couple of different things. I think we went through this long 20-30 year period where students became very apolitical and they started worrying about their jobs and their careers. What I found in many students was actually not an interest in ideas and imagination and literature, but the question of well, where am I going to get my job once I graduate? What skills do I need in order to get that first job and then to be successful?
Now, it’s hard to blame anyone for worrying about that. But it’s also the case that it doesn’t really prepare you to take advantage of the education that you could be enjoying. Now in the last few years there’s been a big rise in political activism, all these young people who are going out and voting for Bernie Sanders. I basically applaud that. I think that people really ought to be citizens and they ought to pay attention to public affairs, and not just to what they as individuals are going to do in their next career move. I think, however, that it’s also leading to a strange naivete in politics, because it’s as if young people have been asleep for a whole generation.
They didn’t experience the end of communism and all the things that we grew up with. Then they wake up and they say, “Oh, there’s inequality and there’s corporations and there’s all these billionaires, and we have to do something about that.” I think a lot of them don’t appreciate how difficult it is to operate in the world as it actually is. Part of what’s going on now in the Democratic Party is a reflection of that. All the millennials really don’t have a negative association with the word socialism, for example, that I think you and I do.
AN: Yes, that is very true, and I remember that you mentioned elsewhere that that is why they need to read history. That’s one thing we’re neglecting by downplaying humanities and the liberal arts, which by the way is what the authoritarian systems are most afraid of. China comes and takes our science and technology, but it’s afraid of our liberal art colleges. To cite the most extreme example, Ayatollah Khomeini, a man who has a whole army and weapons and power behind him, issues a fatwa against a man whose only weapon is his pen. How afraid must he be of a writer to believe that his safety means killing that writer?
I always bring up the example of Iranian youth. The reason that countries like Iran can bring lessons to young people in America is that young Iranians have felt the necessity of human rights and individual rights, risking not just their livelihoods but their lives. You know, we used to hide hundreds of Xeroxed pages of Lolita and risk reading it and maybe being arrested or expelled. Iranian women get long sentences and are flogged for not wearing their veils, and still they’re not wearing their veils—not because they’re against Islam, but because they’re for freedom of choice. They understand it. When they say they want freedom of choice, and they want to read books, they have paid for it.
But I ask my friends over here, do we need to pay for it to really understand?
FF: You know, I’m afraid that one of the things we’re seeing is people living in open, free, democratic societies coming to take it for granted. If you live in a place like Iran or China or the former Soviet Union, you really appreciate the ability to read books that we Americans could download on Kindle any day of the year. But if you live in a stable, prosperous country, you begin to think, “Well, that’s just normal life. Of course, I can do this. I’m not being deprived of anything.” It makes you value these valuable things less, because you think, “Well, they’re always going to be around, I can always get to it later.” Or you are just distracted by all of the attention-grabbing things on social media.
So that’s why it seems to me that in many ways, repressive countries breed much more serious intellectuals, because they don’t have that easy access to ideas and literature. I think that may partly explain why we’re getting this populism right now. It’s odd because it’s happening in Eastern Europe, which 30 years ago was overjoyed to be liberated from communism, but now they’re re-creating authoritarian systems within the European Union, because you’ve got an entire generation of young Hungarians or Poles that didn’t have their parents’ experience of what it was like to live under a repressive regime. They therefore can say, well, the EU is the new dictator that we have to struggle against.
AN: And isn’t it also true that few places in Eastern Europe went through this sort of soul-cleansing and soul-searching in terms of what happened to them?
FF: I think that’s right. The Germans especially spent a lot of time trying to teach their children about the Nazi era and the Holocaust, whereas the Communist regimes in the postwar period pretended that everybody there was resisting Nazism and the Communists were the liberators, so they never really were inculcated with the kinds of liberal values that I think most people in Germany were.
AN: And there are economic effects to consider, too.
FF: Yes, I think that the economy has evolved in ways that are very unexpected. It’s disappointed a lot of ordinary people, because the current way that globalization works has created a class of oligarchs or billionaires in very many countries, and it’s left a lot of ordinary people still struggling over their lives. I think that is one of the reasons that there’s been such a disappointment with the world, even though in many ways, we’re richer and more stable than ever before.
AN: By the way, you’ve had experience with democracy-building in places like Ukraine. What can you tell us about those experiences?
FF: Well, I think up until a couple of weeks ago, it was going fine. We were training a whole generation of young Ukrainians that had Western values and really wanted to fight corruption, but there are some very powerful underlying forces in that society that are dragging it backwards towards a more Russian model. Right now we’re just not sure where that’s going to lead. I hope that they don’t manage to undo everything we’ve been working for.
But Azar, before we conclude, I want to ask you whether you’re working on a new book, and if so, what is it?
AN: I am trying to work on a new book. It focuses on the concept of the enemy, on how we nowadays both invent enemies and have lost the ability to talk to our opponents. I focus on five authors and how their fiction teaches us how to deal with opposition, how to deal with trauma, how to deal with crisis.
FF: That’s really interesting. Who are the authors?
AN: The authors are James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, David Grossman, Salman Rushdie, and Margaret Atwood. Each of these writers deals with a kind of extreme traumatic situation. The lesson that they give us is that in order to defeat an authoritarian or totalitarian mindset, one must not become like the authoritarian, not speak their language, not use the same methods. In order to stand up to someone like Trump, for example, you cannot become like Trump. He uses slander, you use slander. He lies, you lie. He polarizes, you polarize. No, you have to go into another domain, one that he does not know the language of. So my book is about how to avoid becoming like your enemy.
FF: Well, I think that’s something that we really need right now. How far along are you on it?
AN: Well, I have finished my first draft, and I’m working on individual chapters. I always thought that imaginative knowledge is not just about escaping the world, it’s like Alice in Wonderland—you leave the world in order to come back to it with what Tolstoy used to call “clear washed eyes.” Imaginative knowledge is a way of perceiving the world, reflecting on the world, and changing the world. I’m using these authors to show how from their perspective you change the world.
I learned in Iran that the struggle against authoritarianism should not be just political. For example, Iranian women are fighting the regime not because they belong to a political group or organization, but because this fight for them is existential. It goes to their identity as human beings. This regime tries to take away your identity, who you are, and you fight to preserve it. You don’t fight to defend one ideology against another, and that is why in countries like Iran as in Eastern Europe, imagination becomes so central to the fight against authoritarianism.
FF: Well, I look forward to that. It sounds like a book that is really needed for the times that we’re living in.
AN: Well, you know how it is: It’s like giving birth! I’m going through the labor pains right now. What about you, Frank?
FF: No, I don’t have anything I’m writing right now. I do have a vague idea to write a book about technology, but it’s still a very unformed one, so it’s going to be a while.