Friday, June 19, 2009

Thoughts on Iran

A longtime reader and friend sent me the following email the other day about the ongoing situation in Iran:

I have been spending a fair amount of my newspaper/internet time reading about the protests in Iran and what strikes me is the way that the press and photo/video journalism have been used in previous protests (civil rights movement as the first and most powerful) to accelerate change and how it has the potential to make meaningful change in Iran as well. I thought you might be well-positioned to be thoughtful on the subject given your background and focus. The one thing that it is so difficult to get a grasp on is how much "Americanized" spin is being put on the protests. Given that Americans have such a skewed conception of the middle east and Iran in particular, it is tough for me to know if the protests are the precursor to meaningful change or are just two different sides of what amounts to a relatively minor disagreement over the pace of gradual reforms, and whether this is Soweto or Tianamen Square.

Here are the thoughts I sent to him, though looking at it, I do not know if I answered the last part of his question, and so I will do so toward the end of the post:

1) I think it is clear that both the protesters and the state are well aware of the power of media. This explains why the state has been so deeply committed to crushing not only dissent, but especially to controlling the media access. Outside reporters have been banned, the media, circumscribed already, has been virtually shut down. There is no doubt that the protesters, meanwhile, are trying to counter the crackdown by using new media -- the state has tried to respond by shutting down blogs and the like, and so we see the Twitter aspect. What I wonder about that is just how pervasive the Twitter aspect is -- I cannot help but wonder, for example, whether or not Andrew Sullivan (who turned his blog into virtually all Iran all the time) is overstating the actual concrete importance of Twitter. But it is clear that those using the new (and otherwise pretty annoying and self indulgent) technology see it as one way to control the story as best they can.

2) As for the comparative framework, obviously it is hard to tell now. But certainly the awareness of the importance of getting the story -- and as important the images -- out to the larger world indicates that they are cognizant of how important images are. During the Civil Rights Movement, as you well now and alluded to, the media played a vital role, and more to the point, the civil rights activists knew this. During the Freedom Rides the protesters were well aware of the important of images, indeed, of promoting the sorts of conflicts that would garner attention, and thus sympathy. If the media was not there to cover it, it did not happen. The CRM was tremendously successful at this, but the segregationists learned as well. two examples will suffice. During the Freedom Rides when one of the first batches of students and their allies were dropped off at Parchman Farm in Mississippi, a couple tried to go limp and use the nonviolent technique. The police said, in effect, what the hell are you guys doing? There are no cameras here. John Lewis conceded that they had a point. The second example comes with the Albany campaign. Sheriff Laurie Pritchett had read about and paid attention to the contours of the movement and especially to King's nonviolence, including reading King's books. As a result, he knew that a Bull Connor-esque confrontation was the surest way to draw media attention and thus bring the crisis to a boil. So there was little no no violence under his watch. Arrests were orderly, even polite. And the media did not descend on Albany, changing the narrative of that struggle considerably.

3) in South Africa certainly the media was a factor as well, though much of the appeal was to the global media, as the apartheid state had the capacity to respond by cracking down on the media in the country. Interestingly, one of the main motivations for politicians during the Cold War was to prevent the American civil rights movement from becoming international news -- futile in the face of Bull Connor and others, during the 1963 campaign in his city but also during the Freedom Rides. Those events making front page news in the US was bad enough, but when that burning bus was splashed across newspapers the world over? As my friend Jaime would say, no goodo.

4) I'm not sure how much Americanized spin is being put on the events, certainly a lot from our vantage point. This is most obvious in the (to my mind silly) criticism of Obama that he has not been ardent in addressing the situation. This is not our fight. Though it has enormous ramifications for the US, that is a struggle that is still Iranian in nature. Obama recognizes this in a way that Bush/Cheney would not have and Netanyahu does not. Now does this mean we will never act? No. but it means bellicosity is not the right approach.

5) One thing that somewhat vexes me is the amount of attention this incident has gotten relative to other similar crises. I am especially thinking of Africa, in particular Kenya and Zimbabwe. Now those situations received their share of attention relative to African issues normally, but nothing compared to what this is getting. Andrew Sullivan giving his blog over? C'mon. I am not denigrating or downplaying the Iranian situation. I simply cannot see why it is so much more outsized than the situations in Zim or Kenya. Or I do, but I disagree -- the answer is tied to realpolitik. Iran has more strategic value in the minds of most people. And that belief may well be true. But intrinsically, the events in Africa are no less important or fraught or complex (or violent) than those in Iran.

That is my response to him. Now, as to the question of whether this qualifies as a precursor to meaningful change, I am not especially optimistic. The reader astutely posed two situations -- Soweto or Tiananman -- both of which certainly have some parallels. In the case of the Soweto Uprisings, the effect was to invigorate the anti-Apartheid movement that had been quiescent in the wake of the South African government's response to activists in the post-Sharpeville Massacre period. Soweto started a long process that led to the crises in the 1980s in South Africa and that in turn fueled the negotiations and ultimately the fall of apartheid and rise of Mandela and the ANC. Tiananman, meanwhile, simply showed the length the Chinese leaders would go to to maintain control and crush opposition. Though it is worth noting that post-Tiananman things have opened up considerably in China, even if it is far from a free nation, and even if the Chinese authorities rarely concern themselves with the niceties of human rights either within China or outside of it. My suspicions are that it will be more like Tiananman inasmuch as there are two factors reinforcing one another: The role of the state as an authoritarian presence and the role of religion as quite literally a higher power within Iranian politics. I hope, of course, that I am wrong.

1 comment:

David Settino Scott, II said...

Although, I personally am so far to the left that even the democrats appear to me to be "right-wing," I consider myself to be a strict constitutionalist. It is my opinion that since its inception there has been an organized and systematic assault by the conservatives in the United States on the civil liberties written into the US Constitution. The “War on Drugs”; “War on Terror”; “War on Communism” and a host of other wars waged by the right wing are really nothing more than a War on People--an excuse to erode civil rights to the point of non-existence. I invite you to my website devoted to raising awareness on this puritan attack on freedom: