Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Education of Samantha Carrington

Samantha Carrington. Sounds like the heroine of a Victorian novel, doesn't it? But, in spite of her name, Samantha Carrington isn't British. She was born in Iran, in 1952, the year that Winston Churchill convinced Dwight Eisenhower to help him eliminate the annoying Dr. Mossadegh.

Mohammed Mossadegh wasn't a real doctor. As a young man, he studied at the Institut d'√©tudes politiqes in Paris before getting a Ph.D. in law from Neuch√Ętel University in Switzerland in 1914. The son of a Persian princess, he was, when our story opens, the flamboyant and popular but somewhat eccentric (he had been known to show up in parliament in his bathrobe) prime minister of Iran who had infuriated Churchill by insisting on Iranian control of its own oil resources. While 1-year-old Samantha was learning her first words of Farsi, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. (a grandson of Teddy), posing as a "Mr. Lockridge," snuck into Tehran, where, from an apartment paid for by British intelligence, he directed, with some help from Major General Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr. (father of Stormin' Norman), a successful regime change that sent the prime minister to jail and induced the younger and more amenable Shah to return from Rome, where he had flown in a panic when the coup appeared, initially, to be failing.

Samantha, who probably used a different first name back then—Shahnaz? Simin?—grew up in an ancient country with a westward-looking government. When she was nine, women got to vote for the first time in Iran's history. Samantha attended the National University of Iran, graduating at age 22 with a degree in economics. But strange things were bubbling beneath the surface. A year after she graduated, the Shah—Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, King of Kings, Light of the Aryans—abolished all opposing political parties, fearing Russian support for the Communists. Three years later, two million Iranians—an improbable coalition of liberals, leftists, and Islamists—turned out in Tehran to protest against the Shah's autocratic rule. I suspect that young Samantha was among them. Those must've been heady days, indeed. But all too soon, the sad yoke of history, in the shape of the unsmiling Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini, returning to Iran from 15 years of exile, reasserted its dominion, and Samantha's hopes for the future dissolved as the women of Iran began disappearing beneath their veils.

Samantha and her family escaped from Iran and came to America. Perhaps they took with them jewels they'd kept buried in the garden. That's mere speculation, but somehow they made it over here, and Samantha enrolled in the University of California at Santa Barbara where she swiftly acquired a master's degree (1981) and then a doctorate (1985) in economics. Somewhere along the line she married one of her professors, a Mr. Robert Carrington-Crouch, product of the University of Sussex and author of two books: Macroeconomics and Human Behavior: An Economic Approach.

In 1986, the 34-year-old Mrs. Carrington (I can understand why she didn't adopt "Crouch" professionally), now a U.S. citizen, accepted a position as Associate Professor of Economics and Statistics at California State University, Los Angeles. I have not been able to learn very much about Samantha's academic career. Available on the web is a 1996 paper she co-authored, with her husband, entitled "A Cost Benefit Analysis of California's Leaking Underground Storage Tanks." In it, Carrington and Crouch argue that it will cost too much to actively remediate California's 21,000 leaking underground fuel storage tanks, so they should be allowed to passively remediate themselves. No doubt Samantha's familiarity with the petroleum-soaked sands of her native land helped her to approach the problem with the proper amount of anxiety.

On February 12, 2003, Samantha Carrington was one of 250 economists who signed a letter addressed to President Bush endorsing his economic program. Interestingly, her husband did not sign it. The text of the letter contains three sentences and 38 words, which works out to just over six and a half authors per word. I don't quite know what to make of that. Economists being, well, economical? They obviously knew their audience. I took an economics course once. The professor taught us that corporations have a moral duty to pollute as much as they can, without it becoming uneconomical, of course. The holy grail is maximizing shareholder profit. That riled up the class a little bit.

But I can understand that Samantha, being a professional economist, and therefore fairly well to do, and therefore a conservative, and therefore a Republican, and therefore a Bush voter, would sign her name to that letter. I think what Bush was pushing at that particular moment was lower taxes on dividends. Samantha knew the importance of having some capital squirreled away. This could have been the end of the story. Poor little Samantha—happy, rich, and secure, at last.

In the fall of 2003, Samantha's mother became ill with cancer. Samantha traveled to Houston to be with her mother as she was admitted to a hospital for treatment. Returning to L.A. on a Southwest flight, Samantha was a little edgy. She may have been worried about R....about trouble brewing again in South Asia...and now this, cancer. Maybe she was a little abrupt with the flight attendant. A little rude. A little peremptory. But what are they there for other than to supply our wants? And who can be perfect all the time?

At a scheduled stop in El Paso, airport police boarded the plane and arrested Samantha for...flying while swarthy? One of the flight attendants claimed Samantha had grabbed her arm so hard it left bruises. They said she had threatened to enter the cockpit. One of them said she thought Samantha looked like a terrorist. Samantha spent the night in a Texas jail.

Samantha has just won her lawsuit against Southwest Airlines. A jury in El Paso awarded her $2.5 million for emotional suffering and $25 million in punitive damages. The FBI agent who handled Samantha's case was sympathetic to her. He didn't believe the flight attendants' wild-eyed stories.

But she can't get her name off of the terrorist watch list. Every time she goes to an overseas conference now, she's stopped and interrogated by Homeland Security bullies as she's returning home. It must bring back memories...of SAVAK...of the implacable mullahs...of her narrow escape from Texas.

Have you been searched coming through immigration, in the last few years? I was, recently. They go through every little thing in your luggage. Dump it all over the counter. Peruse your diary. Pick through your dirty laundry. Ask probing questions in a skeptical tone of voice. Demonstrate to the world that you are, at bottom, suspect. I'd been so looking forward to being home again, and it was a shock to suddenly feel unwelcome. At least I wasn't strip-searched.

So, was the night in jail her reward for signing that letter? Is the $27 million compensation for a thousand years of imperialism and patriarchy? Have all the theses and antitheses in Samantha's life been synthesized? Maybe it's too soon to tell. Samantha is only 54. Her education is continuing.

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