On the Perniciousness of Analogy

by zunguzungu

At Obsidian Wings, Publius wrote that the unfolding clusterfuckery in Iran

“make[s] me grateful for the stability of our own government.  In America, our political fights — which can get quite nasty — take place upon an invisible foundation of legitimacy and stability.  We have the luxury of ignoring this foundation and pretending it doesn’t exist.  Politics is a fight for power, always — but we are fortunate enough to fight things out within an underlying structural framework that enjoys widespread acceptance.

I suppose. But he can have the comfort of that analogy the same way the CEO of (insert huge multinational corporation here) can thank his lucky stars that he doesn’t live in the grinding poverty that his employees are lucky enough to enjoy. Which is to say, drawing this kind of analogy is a way of making the relationship between its objects (and the consequent chains of causality) disappear: capitalists believe that the “free market” is a level playing field, because if they had to confront the ways their success is predicated on other people’s failure, it would be more difficult to disclaim responsibility for other people’s suffering. But because the analogy stages the comparison between two objects not as a historical one, but as presumes their fundamental distinction, any relationship between tends to remain un-thought. 

The same general point needs to made in the international arena. After all, why does Publius think Iran’s governance is so fucked up? Are we merely lucky to enjoy something that the fates have declined to provide to the unlucky residents of that unfortunate country? Iran is very far away, is it not?

Cadmus sowing the dragon's teeth

The CIA didn’t think so when they engineered the coup in 1953 that overturned Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister. When the Shah’s secret police crushed dissent for decades, the USA not only looked on with approval, but we actively enabled them to do so; it was in, they thought, the best intersts of the United States to do so. And when in1979, the Shah’s government was facing a political Islamist revolution, Jimmy Carter assured the Shah of American support (making him all the more intransigent to reform) while his state department actively worked to support and establish ties with Khomeini’s government.

These are simple facts; they’re not even that controversial. Which is not to say that the Americans who did these things had a full sense of what they were doing; they didn’t. They had no idea in 1979 who Khomeini was or what he would become, and so they were shocked, shocked, when he turned out to be all the things he had been saying he was for decades. Which is exactly the point. Why didn’t they know? Why were they so stupid? Why couldn’t they see what was right in front of their eyes?       

Marx wrote that capital comes into the world dripping blood and dirt, head to toe, from every pore, and he thought long and hard about the ways we have learned, out of a need to maintain our own high opinion of ourselves, to forget about it. If we had to know the extent to which our own wealth is produced not by the stand-alone virtue of our own actions, could we live with ourselves? But the same is true of “political stability.” If we had to think about the extent to which the Islamic Republic was sown with the teeth of American dragons, could we so blithely thank our lucky stars that we are so fortunate not to live there?