Reading Lolita in Harvard Yard: Parallels and Paradigms of Cultural Revolutions

America appears to be undergoing a cultural revolution, and explanations as to how we got here abound. In 2023, Christopher Rufo published America’s Cultural Revolution, in which he traced the origins of this revolution back to leftist activists such as Herbert Marcuse and his favorite student, Angela Davis. That same year, Xi Van Fleet published her memoir Mao’s America: A Survivor’s Warning to educate the American public about the similarities she saw between the Chinese cultural revolution she lived through and America’s cultural revolution today.

Scholars and commentators have focused heavily on Western radicalism, Soviet Russia, and Communist China in tracing origins and drawing historical parallels. But no less important is Iran’s cultural revolution, an Islamic cultural revolution, which suggests that solipsistic fanaticism is just as potent a catalyst for cultural revolutions as socialistic fervor.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), Dr. Azar Nafisi shared her experiences as a female professor in the midst of the Iranian Revolution. She recounts:

[T]he joy of teaching was marred by diversions and considerations forced on us by the regime—how well could one teach when the main concern of university officials was not the quality of one’s work but the color of one’s lips, the subversive potential of a single strand of hair? Could one really concentrate … when what preoccupied the faculty was how to excise the word wine from a Hemmingway story?

Nafisi’s female students were in a similar position. “Although they came from very different backgrounds,” explains Nafisi, “the regime that ruled them had tried to make their personal identities and histories irrelevant. They were never free of the regime’s definition of them as Muslim women.” Higher education particularly disappointed one of Nafisi’s students, Yassi, due to her university’s “low academic standards … shabby morality, and ideological limitations.”

For example, Nafisi recounts how another student, Manna, quarreled with a professor who took issue with Manna’s analysis of the poet Robert Frost. The professor put Manna’s thesis and his critique up to a class vote. Naturally, the class almost unanimously sided with the professor; the only dissenting votes were Manna herself, her male friend Nima—who was promptly asked if his wife had brainwashed him—and one other student. Unwilling to concede the results of this sham election, Manna and Nima brought this professor books by critics who supported Manna’s ideas. The professor, unwilling to debate, simply kicked them out of class.

The scenes described above resonate with American college students and staff today. While the situation in America is not nearly as severe as in Iran—here, no one is being executed or beaten, after all—the similarities of theme persist.

In the West, teaching is met with diversions and considerations demanded by “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) officials. The main concern of university officials is often not the quality of one’s work but the color of one’s skin, the subversive potential of too much “whiteness” in the faculty, in the student body, and even in the curriculum. Granted, we do not bother excising the word “wine” from a Hemmingway story, but we may well excise Hemmingway altogether—another white male included on syllabi that must be “decolonized.”

The DEI regime has sought to make the personal identities and histories of students irrelevant. Just as the Iranian regime regards the Muslim woman as a seductress, the DEI regime regards the White man as a scourge. Our universities are consistent disappointments to students, and for many of the same reasons—low academic standards, shabby morality, and ideological limitations.

Many American students will surely see the dogmatism of Manna’s professor reflected in some of their own and know that critiques of the administration’s narrative are practically prohibited. Writing what the professor wants to hear is how one now succeeds in college, as many American students will tell you today. It certainly worked decades ago for an Iranian student who wrote a thesis on Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita. This student had not even read the novel but wrote about “how Lolita had seduced Humbert, an ‘intellectual poet,’ and ruined his life.”

Quite the contrary, Lolita is a tragic story of a twelve-year-old girl who is effectively kidnapped and repeatedly raped by her stepfather, Humbert. Yet this student’s false portrayal of the fictitious events fascinated his professor. He was the same professor with whom Manna quarreled, and who, Nafisi recounts, “had a thing about young girls spoiling the lives of intellectual men.”

“Some critics seem to treat the text the same way Humbert treats Lolita,” observed Manna, “they only see themselves and what they want to see,” but herein lies the brilliance and beauty of that tragic novel—it exposed those who practice solipsism. Whatever their motives—be it for sexual gratification as in the case of Humbert; or for religious domination as in the case of the Iranian regime; or for racial power as in the case of the Ku Klux Klan and the Critical Race Theorists—the solipsists, playing God, want total power over other people, and are now completely exposed. Their refusal to allow others to negotiate their own individual identities may now be understood, and their incessant calls for socialism, for equality, or for humanity’s salvation may be plainly seen as deception. But exposure is not enough; how does one fight back against the solipsists? Nafisi answers:

Dancing with your jailer, participating in your own execution, that is an act of utmost brutality. My students witnessed it in show trials… enacted it every time they went out into the streets dressed as they were told to dress. The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one’s individuality, that unique quality which evades description but differentiates one human being from the other.

Indeed, it is the embrace of one’s individuality, rather than capitulation to one’s categorization by solipsists, that will set and keep us all free, but a word of caution is needed. The embrace of one’s individuality to counter another man’s solipsism can easily evolve into a philosophy of individualism that, if allowed to pathologize, may lead one to become the very solipsist that he first sought to escape. As Nafisi writes on the very first page of her book: “in the final analysis we are our own betrayers, playing Judas to our own Christ.”

As conservatives here in the West seek to save our universities, we should all reflect on this warning and on what transpired in Iran—once the fledgling regime consolidated power, it turned its attention toward the colleges. Rumors swirled that universities could be closed, but this possibility, writes Nafisi, “seemed as far-fetched as the possibility that women would finally succumb to wearing the veil.” Alas:

It did not take long, however, for the government to announce its intention to suspend classes and to form a committee for the implementation of the cultural revolution. This committee was given the power to reconstruct the universities in such a way as to make them acceptable to the leaders of the Islamic Republic. What they wanted was not very clear, but they had no doubt as to what they didn’t want. They were given the power to expel undesirable faculty, staff and students, to create a new set of rules and a new curriculum. It was the first organized effort to purge Iran of what was called decadent Western culture. The majority of students and faculty did not give in to this dictate, and once more the University of Tehran became the scene of a battle.

“If the leftists had come to power, they would have done the same thing,” Nafisi acknowledges. “This, of course, was not the point: the point was to save the university, which, like Iran, we had all had a hand in destroying.” In America, we too are all at fault, to varying degrees, for the mess that has been made of the republic and universities that we inherited. As we work to save them both, we must not make that paradigmatic mistake of confronting a solipsism that we abhorred with a solipsism that we adopted.

Photo by — Wikimedia Commons 


  • Mason Goad

    Mason Goad is a research fellow at the National Association of Scholars, investigating DEI in STEM education and research. He can be contacted on Twitter (@GoadMason) or via email at

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