Sunday, June 22, 2014

The importance of Richard Frye’s death

Few outside the Iranian and Central/Western Asian community, and even many within it, understand the significance of the death of Professor Richard Frye.  To many another academic, albeit one who embodied the stereotype of academics, has died.  What many, myself included, understand, is that positive and impartial presentation of Iranian history and culture is in danger.
            The memorial for Professor Frye was an excellent microcosm of this.  The memorial was arranged on short notice, and included many of his colleagues and many luminaries of the Iranian and Central/Western Asian community who live in the area.  However, there were many notable absences, particularly Frye’s colleagues outside of Harvard who lived in the area, did not attend.  At first it might seem disrespectful, however when one looks at the reasons why those were there attended and did not the reason becomes clear, Iranian studies is in danger in the academic community.
            To understand the attendance we must understand Frye. Frye was not some nerdy academic, in fact he was a polymath who used his knowledge of various disciplines to benefit others.  In his field research he was like Hiram Bingham without the dashing veneer and like Sven Hedin without the bigotry.  He was instrumental in founding two departments at Harvard and in the creation of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.  In doing so his achievement may seem towering for others to live up to, however his most important achievement was to bring others together who otherwise would not deal with each other and who needed the contact.  His death happened so suddenly, when New England was experiencing extreme inclement weather, and so many events had been planned the week of his memorial, that they could not be cancelled.  Many colleagues who were friendly rivals did not attend as they felt their presence would be seen as gloating.  The suddenness effected the Iranian community in the region and Worldwide as well, and only few Iranians of prominence attended.
            In terms of Iranian scholarship the only academics who could match Frye were J.M. Cook and William Beeman.  Though the former has been long dead the latter did not attend Frye’s memorial, mainly because it fell on his birthday, and he felt that his attendance there would be seen as gloating, instead letting me deputize for him.  Cook, Frye, and Beeman were all friendly rivals who were effective in building academic departments, in bringing knowledge of Iran to the masses, in getting members of the Iranian, Central/Western Asian, and academic community who would otherwise never meet to collaborate with each other, and who could use their knowledge and influence to get the administrations of academic institutions, and other people in power, to listen and follow their lead.  The latter is critical at a time when academic administrations have been using their security forces to stifle dissent and to act as personal praetorian guards rather than to protect academics from real criminals, and had people like Frye been taken more seriously by law enforcement sean collier, bob enos, and other campus cops would still be alive.  All this is critical as many experts in the field of Iranian studies, including colleagues of Frye’s who were in attendance at his memorial, do not have all of these qualities.  That is why Iranian studies is in danger.
            Let us look at non-Iranians in this field.  Among Frye’s colleagues at Harvard, many who were in attendance at his memorial, all of them are in his shadow, lacking the name recognition and the ability to buck Harvard’s administration.  If anything the two departments Frye helped found at Harvard, the Center for Middle east studies and the Inner Asian and Altaic Studies departments are rivals, the former busy living off Frye’s reputation with students and professors who behave little more like a high school club, the latter well concentrated but small compared to other departments.  Frye’s pupil, M. J. Connolly, chair of the Slavic and Eastern studies department at Boston College, while an expert on Iranian and Armenian history and culture, lacks the energy to stand up to BC’s administration.  MIT’s John Tirman, who has been successful in bringing many prominent Iranians to MIT, likewise lacks the ability to buck MIT’s administration, and shows much of the influence of his mentor Howard Zinn in viewing Iran.  No other academic institution in the New England region has any Iranian studies and scholars of consequence, including Yale, and Columbia’s Gary Sick is too biased and disrespectful to be effective in handling Iranian studies.  The rest of academic America lacks any Iranian studies concentration of consequence by non-Iranians, with the exception of Stanford the University of Minnesota where Bill Beeman teaches.
            In terms of Iranians who have a presence in academia the two most prominent, Abbas Milani and Vartan Gregorian, are elderly and limited in activity at present.  Though Vartan identifies more with his Armenian heritage he is not involved with extremists like Armenian revolutionary federation and has been instrumental in educating prominent Iranians and promoting Iranian studies, his only flaw is that once he leaves an academic institution all the work he has done gradually becomes undone, which is happened once he left Brown.  In Milani’s case he as to deal with a young generation who is more responsive to the spin history of Zinn than the hard truth Milani writes.  At Harvard there is Roy Mottahedeh and  Habib Ladjevardi, however the more one looks at their work the more questions than answers it raises.  While Boston University’s Houchang Chehabi has done excellent scholarly work, he is little known outside the academic community, while Bostoon College’s Ali Banuazizi’s work is overly sycophantic to administrators, while Northeastern’s Bahram Shafai, while helping Iranian students organize, has often cowed to the demands of administrators there in order to enrich himself.  While young Iranians like Pedram Riahi, Ali Mostashari, Slater Bakhtavar to name a few have been active in organizing Iranian studies while as students, once they left academia their work began to fall apart due to a lack of people willing to continue where they left off.

            Lastly attention must be paid to Frye’s widow, Eden Naby, who has been content to live in the shadow of Richard Frye.  This is evident in how she edited the video of Frye’s memorial and facts about his life, editing some of his achievements and tributes from others, including rivals and members of the Iranian community.  This is a microcosm for why Iranian studies is in danger after Frye’s death, people who choose to edit facts to suit their views.  If Iranians and those who respect Iran really want to honor Frye’s work they would continue their work honestly in the face of all opposition, which is what Frye did all his life.


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