EMIGRE DILEMMA: FROM AYN RAND TO MOSHEN SAZEGARA
What does an emigre owe to those left behind and to those who gave her/him refuge? Does she/he owe them the truth, or silence? Who will pay the ultimate price for either decision?
For decades Iranian emigres chose silence. No longer. Refugee/exiles such as Moshen Sazegara keep in touch with Iran, teach lessons on revolution, via YouTube, warn that Iran is likely to see a Harsher Crackdown. Will a future biographer or historian blame them for putting their own anti-Islamist"agenda" ahead of the well being of their families, as Anne Heller blames Ayn Rand in her new biography of the hot/controversial author? Heller writes:
It's hard not to conclude that Ayn Rand sometimes lacked good judgment, or at least good timing.
I am sure that is true, though not necessarily in the case that vexes Heller. Why does Heller doubt her good judgment? Because in 1936, at the height of the Stalinist murderous purges, Rand not only wrote "We the Living" in which she detailed the Communist horror but also ran around doing her utmost to enlighten Americans about the true nature of Soviet totalitarianism. Heller writes disdainfully:
She lectured at the then-famous New York Town Hall Club on"Whitewashed Russia," where she asked the audience to imagine being ruled by a group of men who have not been elected and cannot be recalled, who control all public information, who distribute all food, housing and employment. They cannot be criticized; they dispatch political adversaries to dungeons or death without a trial or hearing. They claim that individual rights do not exist. Would her listeners wish to live under the thumb of these"two million snow-white [Stalinist] angels," as she characterized the Left's view of them?
She gave dozens of radio and print interviews in which she described her bourgeois Russian background, elaborated on her hatred of the Bolsheviks, and mentioned the approximate date and circumstances of her escape to the United States. In one New York newspaper interview in late spring, titled"Only High Ransoms' for Passports Open [Soviet] Border, Says Miss Rand," the interviewer observed that the Russian-born author, whose first remark was,"If the [Soviet] borders were ever opened there would be a migration like that of the early Middle Ages," was also known as Mrs. Frank O'Connor.
Of course, Ayn was right not only about the horrific nature of the Stalinist regime but also about the consequences of the opening of the borders to emigration, as was most vividly seen following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nor can there be any doubt that liberal/leftist intelligentsia led by the New York Times' infamous Stalin apologist, Walter Duranty, did its utmost to keep the West ignorant of the heinous nature of the Stalinist regime. Indubitably, blogs, Twitter and Youtube could have helped Rand's efforts to fulfill the promise she made to those she left behind"to tell" the world the truth about that so called workers' paradise.
Heller does not seem to comprehend Rand's"fire in the belly," perhaps because she still does not truly share Rand's negative view of the USSR. Heller sees, instead, an ambitious author trying to exploit her biography at a time such exploitation could harm her family for Rand was doing everything in her power to bring her parents to America. Heller even implies that Rand had an"exaggerated" view of their hardship (my italics):
At the same time, Rand was making a determined effort to rescue her parents from their life of hardship in Russia. Although the Rosenbaums no longer remained in danger of starving, they, like much of the rest of Soviet Russia, had settled into an underfed, fearful, precarious, and dreary routine that she considered inhuman.
Heller admits that Rand had been trying for years to get her family American visas, but her efforts were thwarted ostensibly by insufficient income."We the Living" royalties solved the American visa problem. It did not solve the Soviet exit visa because the Soviet refused to let them go. Ayn's Chicago relatives claim and Heller agrees that Rand's failure to keep her mouth shut was to blame.
There is a mystery here. Even as she renewed her efforts to get her family out of Russia, she was publicly presenting herself as an anti Communist activist. That she wasn't aware that Soviet agents might be watching her - and might easily confirm that Alissa Rosenbaum, Mrs. Frank O'Connor and Ayn Rand were different names for the same woman - is hard to believe. She took normal, recommended precautions, such as using only her legal, married name in government correspondence and not sending her parents a copy of her book. But in the 1930s, there was a Soviet government agency whose specific job it was to read correspondence from abroad, and Russian agents at home and in the United States and Europe were notorious for their ruthlessness and skill in tracking and spying on Russian emigres.
I am not sure evil is banal. I am sure all tyrants use similar methods to stay in power and one of them is silencing refugees. Hence, 1936 Moscow has much in common with 2009 Tehran. The Iranian crackdown goes global, Farnaz Fassihi reports:
His first impulse was to dismiss the ominous email as a prank, says a young Iranian-American named Koosha. It warned the 29-year-old engineering student that his relatives in Tehran would be harmed if he didn't stop criticizing Iran on Facebook.
Two days later, his mom called. Security agents had arrested his father in his home in Tehran and threatened him by saying his son could no longer safely return to Iran.
"When they arrested my father, I realized the email was no joke," said Koosha, who asked that his full name not be used.
Ayn Rand faced the same conundrum Koosha does, though there is no evidence her family was hurt by their association with her. Very few Soviet citizens were granted permission to leave Russia during the Great Purge of 1936-38. Rand did her best and, when all hope was lost, she tried to protect them with her silence for receiving letters from abroad was dangerous. In her other new biographe Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right ,Jeniffer Burns points out that her parents kept writing pleading letters but Rand, turning herself into a salt pillar, did not answer.
Instead, Rand dedicated herself to trying to salvage what remained salvageable, the United States of America. Like a Biblical prophet, she used every method she could think of to keep freedom alive in her new homeland. Ayn Rand did not live in a world she made. She lived in a world she warned. At no time was there more attention paid to her warnings than today, though it is not yet clear if she will end up resembling Jonah whose heeded warnings saved Nineveh or Jeremiah whose ignored warnings led to the destruction of the temple.
In the meantime, many dedicated Iranian emigres take inordinate risks to prevent the Islamic Republic of Iran lasting as long as the U.S.S.R.. Technology prevents their testimony from being dismissed in the manner that Rand's testimony was. That does not mean that Obama is willing to do more to get rid of Ahmadinejad than Roosevelt was willing to do to get rid Stalin. Chances are that some talented Iranian emigres will follow in Ayn Rand's footsteps and spend their lives to warning the world of the perils of Mullahcracy. Let's hope they will be treated more compassionately than Rand has been, and that their message will be more welcomed than hers has been.
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Maarja Krusten - 12/24/2009
Advocacy, whatever drives the advocate and however strongly he or she feels, can be difficult. Especially during tough economic times, people have a tendency to say their own nation should “tend its own garden.” President Obama was able nudge up slightly the poll numbers in support of action in Afghanistan. Polling suggests the general public supports action which citizens hope will bring the war to an end quickly and lead to withdrawal of our troops. (They cautiously approve what they interpret as try going big and then get out.) However, post-Iraq, and with so many worries at home, many Americans are tilting more towards isolationism. Half of those polled recently said they wanted the U.S. to “stay out” of foreign affairs. Selling them on the need to continue to place U.S. forces in harm’s way is like trying to sell a used car to a customer who has come to believe the product previously sold them was a lemon, whatever the motivation of the person selling the lemon. There’s no way to go back in time to 2003 and to pull the lemon out of inventory so the customer won’t become disillusioned.
My family was divided, I had relatives behind the Iron Curtain who died before the fall of the Soviet Union and whom I never met. As much as I hoped to see them, I never expected that the U.S. would liberate their homeland, regime change through external action was not in the cards. I supported Richard Nixon’s and Ronald Reagan’s policies. But I also recognized that there were politicians such as Joe McCarthy who undermined the cause of anti-Communism through over reaching and over reliance on hyperbole and demagoguery. In a democratic society, members of the public always are in the mix but reaching them isn’t easy. Some respond to hyperbole and demagoguery and others are turned off and even become suspicious of the goals, regardless of merit, of those who try to scold them into action.
Reaching people who have turned inward is difficult. It’s even harder for someone who didn’t grow up in the U.S. and may not be tuned to all the calibrations. One has to have empathy and sympathy for the listeners and take into account what makes them hard to reach. And to use that knowledge and understanding to pitch an appeal so it strikes the right notes. (I’ve learned that the hard way in advocating for some small causes in which I believe.) Assessing listeners, understanding why they are difficult to reach, respecting their fears and anxieties and zig zagging around obstacles and learning to target the most reachable people does not seem to have been Rand’s forte. Not her skillset.
Randll Reese Besch - 12/23/2009
Too bad she was a tyrant and narcissist herself over here acolytes and didn't practice what she promoted about individualism which she didn't tolerate around her posse. But that could be chocked up to what she experienced as a child and the freedoms she had here. And maybe a personality disorder too.
garret seinen - 12/22/2009
Well said. Few people can appreciate the everlasting damage done By Atlas Shrugged. Those who read and understand the book will never surrender to political or any other tyrannical control.
Ayn Rand gave a timeless answer to every individual, that they own their own lives. She also said it was one mind at a time, so the process is slow but permanent, those who see what she saw, never give up or give in.
Thank you, Ms Klinghoffer, for honestly pointing out the flaws in both biographies.
Ralph E. Luker - 12/22/2009
Klinghoffer gets the Biblical "pillar of salt" reference to Lot's wife exactly wrong here. Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt *because* she looked back.
Betsy Speicher - 12/21/2009
I appreciate the way you dealt with unjust and ignorant comments about Ayn Rand from two recent "biographies." You clearly and presented the actual facts and put them into context.
One can only hope future biographers of Ayn Rand will also accept the responsibility of being true historians and write honest, reality-based accounts of her life.
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