Teaching John Stuart Mill in Iran: A Conversation with Norman Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein is of course best known for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—his bookslectures and media interviews on the subject over the last three decades—and for the considerable controversy it has generated.
 
Less known is that for many years he also taught political theory. It might come as something of a surprise that among his favorite works is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. This might come as a surprise since Finkelstein is well to the left of most admirers of the iconic nineteenth-century liberal thinker. Of course Mill was also a socialist and a feminist—indeed an early one (see Martha Nussbaum’s comments at the end of this interview). But in postcolonial studies Mill is widely regarded as an imperialist and a racist. An ambiguous and contested legacy, to be sure—which is part of Mill’s enduring hold on us.
 
Finkelstein recently taught a short course on Mill’s On Liberty in Iran. There’s a whole literature devoted to this phenomenon. Norma Moruzzi has written about reading Hannah Arendt in Iran. Ali Paya and Mohammad Amin Ghaneirad have mapped the multiple spheres of influence that Jürgen Habermas enjoys in Iran. The Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo has published a book of conversations with Isaiah Berlin. (I myself have written a short book on Iran’s engagement with liberal thinkers.) When leading political thinkers (of varying persuasions) from Europe or North America—from Habermas and Antonio Negri to Richard Rorty and Immanuel Wallerstein—visit Iran, their lectures are major events and occasion considerable buzz. (For more on this, see Mehran Kamrava’s book Iran’s Intellectual Revolution, Farzin Vahdat’s God and Juggernaut: Iran’s Intellectual Encounter with Modernity, and Mehrzad Boroujerdi’s Iranian Intellectuals and the West.)
 
But Finkelstein did something a bit different. His students weren’t the usual liberal-minded suspects—who represent a significant swath of Iran’s educated classes, incidentally (a phenomenon that is underestimated and trivialized by many Western leftists, which I regard as a form of Left Orientalism).  It would have been easy for him to teach the depredations of U.S. and Israeli policy in such a context—but it also would have been incredibly boring. He did something far more interesting. He taught Mill to largely conservative-oriented students in an institution that cranks out apparatchiks for the Islamic Republic.
 
That is just wickedly cool. Here’s our recent conversation about that experience.
 
 
The interview was filmed on April 24, 2014, as part the series of conversations with our guest lecturers that our Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver produces. 

Author: Danny Postel

I'm a writer, editor, researcher, and activist. I'm currently Politics Editor of New Lines Magazine. Previously I was Assistant Director of the Center for International & Area Studies at Northwestern University and Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. I'm the author of Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2006) and co-editor (with Nader Hashemi) of three books: The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (Melville House, 2010), The Syria Dilemma (MIT Press, 2013), and Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (Hurst/OUP, 2017). My writing has appeared in The American Prospect, Boston Review, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, Critical Inquiry, Dædalus (the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences), Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Dissent, Global Discourse: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Current Affairs, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, In These Times, Middle East Policy, Middle East Report (MERIP), The Nation, New Politics, the New York Times, The Progressive, Salmagundi, and the Washington Post, among other publications. My work has been translated into Arabic, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish. I taught English as a Foreign Language at St. Augustine College, the Latino Outreach Program of National Louis University, and the Howard Area Community Center (1993-1998), taught Spanish at St. Tarcissus Elementary School, now part of Pope Francis Global Academy (1995-1999), was an editor at Encyclopædia Britannica (1999-2001), a staff writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education (2001-2003), a visiting instructor in the journalism program at Columbia College Chicago (2004), Senior Editor of openDemocracy magazine (2004-2007), Communications Coordinator for the organization Interfaith Worker Justice (2007-2011), Editor of The Common Review, the magazine of the Great Books Foundation (2010-2011), and Communications Specialist for Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of grassroots groups and labor unions in Chicago (2011-2012).

One thought on “Teaching John Stuart Mill in Iran: A Conversation with Norman Finkelstein”

  1. This site is an idiot and liar. You forgot to tell you reader that it was Jahanbeglou, a CIA agent and agent of Canadian intelligence services that invided all those pro imperialists to Iran like Negri, Rorty and others. Vahdat and others you mentioned are ‘green’ opposition supported and funded by CIA idiot.

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