In 1996, the late great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was on stage taking questions at the Lincoln Center in New York City after the premiere of his film Through the Olive Trees, when someone asked why he had used classical music (a piece from Concerto for Oboe and Strings by Domenico Cimarosa) in a movie that was set in a small village in northern Iran? Kiarostami turned to me, his translator for the hour, and said, in his soft voice and even softer manner, “Tell him classical music has long ceased to belong to the West. It belongs to the world now.”
That exchange, the way Kiarostami disabused the audience of the notion that music knew borders or that great ideas, once invented, remained the “property” of one nation or region, was on my mind when I signed the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which ran in Harper’s Magazine last Tuesday. What I saw at the heart of the text was a defense of American democracy, which no longer belongs solely to America. For every activist on the streets of Hong Kong, every feminist in the prisons of Saudi Arabia, and every interned Uighur in China, America and its democracy remain, for better or worse, the last hope. Are they naïve and misguided? Right or wrong? It does not matter. Those who are suffering under tyrannies around the world, who are trying to imagine a different future for themselves and their fellow citizens, do not dream of Moscow, Beijing, or any nation in Europe. Just as little girls in the far corners of the world who do not even speak English want to dance like Beyoncé, and just as the youth living under prohibition in the Middle East huddle together to secretly watch bootlegged copies of Hollywood films, activists everywhere look to America, and dream of this democracy.