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Teaching John Stuart Mill in Iran: A Conversation With Political Scientist Norman Finkelstein

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Norman Finkelstein is of course best known for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--his books, lectures 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 19th-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.