by Michael Liss
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
—John Ellison, Dean of Students, University of Chicago
I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s, a place and a time where the phrase “safe space” referred to the stocked civil-defense structures under the campus, and “trigger warnings” were letters you didn't want to be receiving from people in positions of authority.
I raise this not to launch into a “when men were men” rant, but rather because Dean Ellison's letter reminded me of two lectures I attended at JHU—the first given by Alger Hiss, the second, in connection with the receipt of an honorary LLM awarded by the University, by Princess Ashraf Pahlavi of Iran. Hiss, as people of a certain vintage would know, was a government and State Department official accused, in 1948, of being a spy for the Soviets. in 1950, he was tried and convicted for perjuring himself before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and jailed for three and a half years. He then spent the rest of his life protesting his innocence. Princess Ashraf was the once-exiled twin sister of the Shah.
Hiss's talk was fascinating. Tall, thin, balding, and wispy looking, his cultured voice a little grainy with age, he inhabited the stage—if I recall, he had a stool, but moved about a bit—with the ease of an actor. His memory was like an old library filled with leather-bound books. He would select an event, pull it out, find some passages to share, put it back, and move to the next volume.
He was playing before an easy crowd—liberal college kids and faculty who loathed both Richard Nixon and the McCarthy-Era mindset he sprang from. Watergate was burning up everything in sight, and the yin-yang of Hiss and Nixon seemed to illustrate the obvious innocence of Hiss. A profound injustice had been done—Hiss had been made to pay an enormous price (his career and his freedom) to satisfy the colossal ego, ambition, and paranoia of Nixon and a passel of self-appointed patriots who looked for Commies under every bush.
That is at least what we thought, when going into Shriver Hall. And yet, after hearing him speak, my friends and I left with more questions than we had when we arrived. There was something about Hiss, maybe his affect, maybe just a studied compartmentalization, a reserve that came from living a life too often in shadows and alleyways, that gave us a slightly clammy feeling. We didn't buy Nixon's accusations of Hiss endangering the fiber of American life, but there was the odd sense of not hearing the entire story, of things omitted, choices unrevealed.
Hiss, we thought, might have done something: had the wrong friends, talked to the wrong people, helped someone he shouldn't have. Somewhere between the Pumpkin Papers, the accusations of Whittaker Chambers, the febrile imagination and rantings of Nixon, and the angry claims of complete innocence by Hiss and his defenders lay a truth. Where on the scale of saint and sinner that lay, none of us had a clue. But we came out of that experience subtly changed, educated in a way we didn't expect. A tiny little bit of smugness had been replaced by kernel of doubt. Score one for the forces of hearing controversial speakers.
Princess Ashraf's appearance was of an entirely different color. The award of the Doctorate itself was a contentious move by Hopkins (some said money played a big role) and the audience not nearly as friendly. I don't remember what the Princess said—I think she gave some anodyne remarks about the value of culture and education (she had led on educating young women when in Iran)—but that wasn't the take-away. At some point during the speech, two groups of demonstrators, on opposite sides of the balcony, unfurled banners and began shouting slogans. What happened next was swift and visceral. Out of nowhere, security guards emerged (they clearly weren't JHU campus cops—we knew all of them) and smothered the protests—literally.I have this image in my mind I have never been able to entirely forget, of a very large dark-suited man, maybe 30 feet away from me, essentially sitting on someone. The “disrupters” were frog-marched out, and the speech continued.
At the time, it was easy for the college crowd to sympathize with the protestors, as it had been easy to align oneself with Hiss. To speak out against the regime seemed entirely reasonable. The Shah was one of many dictators that American governments supported against democratic movements that seemed too chummy with the Russians, or too threatening of capitalist interests. The very same Fifties sense of a global Cold War, and the fear of mass annihilation that helped set off McCarthyism (and HUAC, and the Blacklist), also influenced the U.S. establishment's approach towards foreign governments. We liked strongmen who could be bought or convinced to oppose Communism and protect our (and our allies') economic interests. This applied seemingly everywhere: Southeast Asia, Africa and Greece, South and Central America, and particularly in the Middle East, with its crucial supplies of oil.
The Shah had ruled since 1941, but he consolidated power in 1953, with the CIA-backed ouster of Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh was both a liberalizer and a secularist (which America generally supported), but he made an absolutely fatal mistake—he nationalized the Iranian oil industry, which had been under the control of the predecessor company to British Petroleum since 1913. This, the British could not tolerate, and, after multiple attempts to mediate fell short, Winston Churchill helped convince newly elected Dwight Eisenhower (Truman had refused) that Mosaddegh would inevitably align himself with the Socialists, or, even worse, the Soviets. A carefully orchestrated campaign (we later learned personally directed by Teddy Roosevelt's grandson, Kermit) removed Mosaddegh. He was jailed, replaced by an Iranian General who was substantially more compliant, and Iranian oil flow was directed to British and American interests.
The democratizing efforts of Mosaddegh were over, permanently. The Shah's power was enhanced by his close ties with the military, and enforced by his secret police, SAVAK (presumably, it was SAVAK personnel who so efficiently provided the security for Ashraf Pahlavi at her speech.) And Iran, subsidized heavily by the United States, remained a close ally and a stabilizing force in the Middle East, fulfilling, for a time, the security-for-liberty swap that our Defense and State Departments wanted.
If you went to hear the Princess speak, you knew at least the broad outlines of this—the monarch who retained power through a coup, Big Oil, the perverse appeal of autocratic governments. If you were a liberal, likely, you hated it. You wondered why our government didn't live up to its own ideals…and why business and security interests trumped concepts such as freedom and democracy.
But, even if you had been a conservative, I think your confidence might have been a little shaken, if nothing else by the experience of actually witnessing the security guards in motion. The best way I can describe it is like something out of the Costa-Gavras movie Z: first, the shouting and banners, and then a blur of quick, decisive movements with a distinct touch of menace. Except it was real—it was right in front of us, and it was the type of thing that we Americans didn't do, or let happen to others on our soil. Yet, in 1976, in Shriver Hall on Homewood Campus, we did. Again, as with Hiss, you couldn't have observed this and not had your certainties a bit challenged. You had to be questioning the stability of a government that needed to do that to hold power.
As we all know, that wasn't the end of the story. A few years later, all that dissent that the guard was sitting on exploded into the Iranian Revolution. The Shah's own efforts at modernization, the so-called “White Revolution” of land reform, sales of state-owned property, secularization and education and enfranchisement of women, had alienated more than they attracted. Even the ban on wearing the veil in public had backfired—it drove more women to stay in the home, rather than engage with the outside world. And modernization did not mean a vigorous democracy. The Iran of 1979 was still a top-down autocracy, with wealth concentrated in the elite, and dissent not tolerated. When the Shah left for cancer treatments, Islamic, leftist, and nationalist groups, each with their own agendas, coalesced with astonishing rapidity.
We are, of course, still living with the consequences of those missteps. Iran exemplified the central flaw in static, purely ideological thinking, of seeing only one side of the story. American liberals were right: The Shah was the dictator we thought him to be. Yet the alternative, the taking of 52 American hostages and the rise of a hostile Islamic Republic, was far worse. As for American conservatives, they were also right: A Shah-less Iran was enormously destabilizing and antithetical to American interests. Nonetheless, our government's tolerance and even encouragement of often ruthless suppression of political dissent, as a tradeoff for support of American geopolitical goals, left an alienated population uninterested in being our friends.
As Alger Hiss and Princess Ashraf, each in their own ways, demonstrated, it wasn't always easy to determine who was wearing the white hats and who the black. There was a lot of gray in the world, a lot of moral compromise, and a lot of nuance. Perhaps you couldn't see that from a safe space, but they were there for anyone who had the inclination to look.
Open minds, open debate, and uncomfortable truths.
Perhaps that's why Albert Einstein once said that “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”