Let Marianne, Goddess of Liberty

smile upon the protestors. But like you, I have grave fears.

(Update: This op-ed by Jim Hoagland at the Washington Post captures my own overall view pretty well.)

I have no special expertise on Iran and so am only able to add my deep concern, sympathy, and support to the brave people in the streets seeking change in Iran. I also do understand that, from the US government’s point of view, it all looks … complicated. As indeed it is; I am far from indifferent to the concerns of realism and unanticpated consequences of events in places we barely understand.

Still, at this moment, I would hope that the United States government would not only support the specific rights of the protestors to peaceful assembly and free expression – but that it would say unequivocally that the United States stands for liberty and with those who seek it. Is that really so controversial or so hard?

Unable to sleep last night, I found myself picking up two books. The first is a now nearly forgotten Hungarian novel – yet one of the most compelling on the events of the European 20th century, George Konrad’s The Loser (1982). I found myself reading the chapters on the Hungarian Revolution, its failure and the aftermath. But of course, the core of the Hungarian Revolution, as the chapter notes, is that it was a revolt less against one’s own regime than against an outside imperial power, the Soviet Union.

The second is a book of poetry – short epigrams, passages, sketches from a journal – to which I have often returned in my life, Rene Char’s Leaves of Hypnos (1946), his private journal from his years as a Resistance fighter in the Second World War. When I say Resistance fighter, I don’t mean one of the “brave” French writers of those years, risking a ‘no’ from the censor, I mean someone who fought for years, rising to become the commander in charge of reconnaissance of that zone of southern France at the time of D-Day. (The translation to which I have linked at Amazon is by the very fine American poet, Cid Corman.) I found myself drawn to this passage, No. 22:

TO THE PRUDENT: It is snowing on the maquis and there’s a perpetual chase after us. You whose house does not weep, with whom avarice crushes love, in the succession of hot days, your fire is only a male nurse. Too late. Your cancer has spoken. The country of your birth has no more powers.

The original French, sorry for the lack of diacritical marks:

AUX PRUDENTS: Il neige sur le maquis et c’est contre nous chasse perpetuelle. Vous dont la maison ne pleure pas, chez qui l’avarice ecrase l’amour, dans la succession des journees chaudes, votre feu n’est qu’un garde-malade. Trop tard. Votre cancer a parle. Le pays natal n’a plus de pouvoirs.

Let Marianne, the goddess of liberty, smile upon the protestors. Yet I hope I will not find myself going back to another passage from Char’s poems, one of the justly most famous:

Bitter future, bitter future, a dance amongst the rosebushes ….

Update: Scrolling through the comments, it seems I wasn’t sufficiently clear on a couple of points. First, I do take the realist concerns entirely seriously; that’s why I raised the Hungarian revolution, and The Loser in particular, which has much discussion of the costs of failing. However, I am not convinced that raising liberty as something the United States supports as such is inconsistent with prudent realism. I do not think that general value is addressed by raising specific freedoms such as assembly or expression, as President Obama has done.

Second, I do not suggest that the administration acts in bad faith in making these difficult judgment calls between realism and idealism; I might well make them differently, but that’s what presidents have to do. It is a function of being president, one might recall, however, that applied, or ought to have applied, equally to Bush, Clinton, and those who came before.

Third, if this is not the moment for the President to speak forthrightly on a general American commitment to liberty in the aspirations of oppressed people in the world – and I agree, it might not be, or at least that is a judgment an administration could certainly make in good faith – still, I should want to know under what conditions, if any, it would be appropriate for the President of the United States to express such a sentiment. I do not mean by this a merely general expression of support for liberty as a universal value, but rather that the United States is and has been committed to liberty as a value, and that it should be. If now is not the moment, as it possibly might not be – it would nonetheless be helpful to have some idea of the baseline for when it would be.