Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, February 16, 2009

Another end of the elephant

One of the problems of using journalistic reports when studying a nation-state's government and politics is the limited view journalists have. Rarely do they speak the language of the country they're working in. Often they only get to talk to people who are friendly to media and the journalist's native country. One old joke about foreign correspondents was that their beat rarely extended beyond a half day's travel from a good hotel and a bar. And some correspondents have biases to promote.

So, a single new story has to be seen as one, limited point of view. It's like one of the reports from the blind men describing an elephant.

Borzou Daragahi's report from Iran, published in the Los Angeles Times, strikes me as an example of the limits on reporters. That doesn't mean the observations are inaccurate or the interpretations are wrong. Given the themes other journalists have emphasized (anti-Americanism, nationalism, personalized politics), this one is an outlier. Perhaps Daragahi is more connected or more insightful, than the other reporters. Maybe he sat down in a very atypical restaurant and talked to some iconoclasts. Perhaps he's looking a different part of "the elephant." (Daragahi is an Iranian-American who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Iraq.)

Set along side other reports from Iran 30 years after the revolution, this does pose some interesting questions.

After 30 years, talk shifts from revolution to democracy

"It is in the rural areas where the country's most dramatic changes may be occurring, propelling religiously conservative communities from a sleepy semi-feudal past into the 21st century. The rapid transformation has changed the way people think and frame debates about their communities and their relationship to authority.

"'Thirty years ago, the dominant discourse was the concept of revolution,' said Hamid-Reza Jalaipour, a Tehran social scientist. 'But now the dominant discourse is democracy.'...

"Much of the political focus in Tehran these days concerns the looming election battle between reformists like former President Mohammad Khatami and hard-line conservatives like the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And in the big city centers, the social focus is on the friction between urban youth and women and the restrictive, fundamentalist clergy.

"In Iran's rural areas, in places like Absard, there is an inchoate sense of lost simplicity and of perplexity...

"[T]he tricky questions percolate quickly, spawning charged debates: Why are there no factories here to employ the young? Why are Afghan migrants taking all the jobs? Why is the countryside flooded with hard drugs -- heroin and crystal meth? How did a few get so rich while others stayed poor? How should they respond to the semi-pornographic images from the satellite TV dishes that now rest atop every other home..."

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