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First Contact

I can still recall the shock that jolted me to my all-too-human core when I learned for the first time that my beloved country has acted in grievously antidemocratic ways.  It was mid-November 1979.  I was a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB).  I sat reading in a library.

Days earlier, on November 4, Iranian revolutionaries had overrun the United States embassy in Teheran.  Fifty-three Americans were being held hostage inside.  National and international news focused upon masses of angry Iranians assembled in their nation’s capitol expressing an all-consuming rage.

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Americans had responded in kind.  Middle Eastern Americans and Middle Eastern students attending colleges in the United States, including UC Santa Barbara, were attacked physically and verbally in the days and weeks following the audacious Iranian action.

A few months before, I had taken to heart the libertarian philosophy: Every person has the right to lead the life they choose so long as they do not infringe upon the same right of others.  Libertarianism reminded me so much of the Do unto others as you would have them do unto you and Love thy neighbor as you would love thyself rules of conduct that I had come to accept during my childhood.  So I started a chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society at UCSB shortly after the 1979 academic year had begun.  From a folding table propped up in front of the school’s student union center, I engaged my fellow academics in conversations about our country and the world.

By mid-November, student groups—my own included–began to organize public debates and demonstrations on campus in response to the seizure of the United States embassy.  I thought it prudent to learn more about my country’s history of relations with Iran before I dared to speak publicly on the subject. So I began to study.

Reading through articles about the situation, I came across a brief history of U.S.-Iran relations–in Time Magazine, I believe. There I read that in 1954, my country had participated in a military coup in Iran that had successfully overthrown Mohammed Mossadeq, the country’s democratically elected president.

Sadly, I learned that it was not.  That same Time article may also have mentioned my country’s role in the overthrow of democratically-elected Guatemala President Jacobo Arbenz in 1955, one year after the coup in Teheran.

“Some things are best left un-addressed and unexplained” is a natural human response to such unwanted information about one’s country.  It is also a rationalization that explains how more powerful people have been able to commit social injustices against weaker people and go about their lives seemingly unaware of the inhumane cost of their actions to others–and to their own humanity.

To be sure, since well before the age of twenty-two, I knew that my country’s early practice of human slavery and “Jim Crow laws,” and political scandals such as “Watergate,” offered proof of its past democratic imperfections.  (Even in 1979, however, I was unaware of similar anti-democratic impulses which led to our prosecution of war against Vietnam in Southeast Asia.)

But in every case until that evening in the school libarary, I believed the American democratic system had rejected such criminal ways.  I felt certain of the ability of the American people to rise above such transgressions in our historic quest to spread democracy throughout the world.  But helping to overthrow a democratically elected government was not representative of any U.S. history lesson that I had been taught.

I sat immobilized, pondering the implications of this discovery.  After three decades of life under a U.S.-backed “benevolent” dictatorship, I realized, the Iranian people had commanded the attention of the American public by taking over the U.S. embassy in Teheran.  The people of Iran were now demanding that The United States of America answer for the crime against democracy that it had committed in their country twenty-five years before.

If I or any other American had lived in the U.S. in the 1950s, and Iran had helped to overthrow our government, how would we have hoped to respond—as fighters for our own democracy or as enablers of the corruption?  I knew then that if I began to make excuses for the my country’s betrayal of democracy, I would no longer be able to espouse the human principle of democracy in good faith to a single other human being, including myself.

So what was I, a democratically idealistic and patriotic American citizen, to do?

I dropped out of school, moved to Washington, D.C., and became a professional political activist.

I tried to change my country’s misbegotten ways with every nonviolent resource I could muster.

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