The blogospheric dynamic often resembles that of a particularly raucous frat party. Someone gets the idea in their head to dance on a table. Suddenly dancing on tables with a bottle in hand is the best idea to occur to anyone, not dancing on tables is a sign of depravity, and the drunken boys surrounding the table chanting “Chug! Chug! Chug!” reinforce the dancer’s dubious choice. Hours later the dancer comes to, facedown in a lampshade, and, at this particular party, wondering what on earth he could have done in his stupor to earn the plastic green beads roped around his neck.
Do not mistake my silence on Iran for a lack of interest. Like everyone else, I’m reading the blogs and the tweets. I find the regime’s violence abhorrent. I sympathize with the protesters. They look like the nearby counterparts of my friends and students. I am impressed by their courage, and I suspect that there is no force fiercer than an Iranian mother.
I’m conscious, however, of how little I know about Iran or Iranian politics, and discretion being the better part of amateur punditry, I didn’t have much to say. Here’s the thing: neither does anyone else know what is going on. We have a narrative that says, truthfully, oppressive regimes that fake election results and beat up their citizens are bad, and non-violent protesters of those results are good. The problem is with the further embellishment: that “bad” and “good” map onto domestic American politics concerns, attitudes, and goals; that the favored protesters would, if they won, be recognized by the U.S. political establishment and chattering classes as allies; that Iranian politics is as familiar to us our own so that we can feel confident in the comparisons.
Would we trust a pundit who thought that Barack Obama was a Republican, or that in the United States, Presidents were elected by a simple majority vote?
Daniel Larison noted last week that with a slightly different spin or simply some more information, Mousavi would not look as favorable to the West. Will Wilkinson’s latest posts on the “vanity dressed up as elevated moral consciousness” of Twitter avatars strike me as extremely perceptive. Exiled Iranian filmmaker Lila Ghobady has a much harsher view of both the current regime and Mousavi as a reformer:
Let us not forget that Mousavi was Prime Minister of Iran in the 1980s when more than ten thousand political prisoners were executed after three-minute sham trials. He has been a part of the Iranian dictatorship system for the past 30 years. If he had not been, he would not be allowed to be a candidate in the first place. In fact in a free democratic state someone like Mousavi should have gone on trial before becoming a presidential candidate for his crimes against thousands of freedom-loving political prisoners who were killed during the time he was Iran’s Prime Minister.
Read her whole column. At the very least, it shows how little we should be confident of understanding the situation or of the morality of breathlessly cheering it on. I am not arguing that there is no reason for the protesters to take to the streets. Nor am I arguing that Mousavi would be worse, or that the Iranian leadership is a force for good.
I am, however, counseling sobriety.
It is easy to get swept up in a romantic narrative of someone else’s passionate struggle from behind the safety of one’s keyboard. Revolutions are exciting from far away, and the illusion of participation in something greater than oneself by…. making your Twitter avatar green… by bloviating about it on the Internet….changing your Facebook status… being anti-green Muppets…. protesting the irresponsible consumption of ice cream…is seductive.
It’s unclear right now what will happen. The very real risk on our end is no matter how the Iranian political dispute is resolved, this incident will become grist for a future ill-conceived war. The same groups rending their garments over the murder of Neda will be calling for the bombing of her relatives.
So, I think the intellectually and morally responsible thing to do is to hope quietly and read voraciously.