Black Helicopters

“Conflux of voices rising to meet, and fall/empty, divided, other…”

In a piece posted on Counterpunch, Vijay Prashad makes a point that hits on something that had been irritating me, vaguely yet persistently, about the (internet-based) response of many “progressive” Americans to the popular unrest that followed recent elections in Iran.  Iranian politics and the arrayal and interaction of social formations in Iran were transformed, seemingly overnight, from subjects of which Americans’ collective knowledge was at best dubious, to ones on which would-be experts now abound.  What Prashad is responding to should be more or less obvious: the steady flow of liberal opinionating righteously denouncing the Iranian theocracy, the Facebook-facilitated displays of solidarity, the green-filtered Twitter avatars, reaction to the Neda Agha Soltan tragedy (her given name coming to act synecdochically for the entirety of recent weeks’ events), etc.  Yet not only do these phenomena betray a lingering ignorance (at worst) or fundamental misunderstanding (at best) of what is really at work in Iran (and, perhaps more importantly, what is not)–they quite effectively undermine any of the support that such displays have as their putative end:

Equally unimpressive is the hasty drawing of dogmatic lines among progressives in the United States, many throwing their lot in with the “Green Revolution,” others holding fast to Ahmadinejad. When yesterday the details of Iranian politics were alien, today everyone has a cemented opinion. To blindly back something that one does not fully understand is hardly the stuff of international solidarity. Iran is a divided society, with social forces arrayed against each other in a debate that has old roots. Our Facebook updates and Twitter squeals do not contribute to their debate. And since both sides (if there are indeed only two) are fairly equally distributed, it is not a situation where a defenseless minority is being persecuted (a situation that does call for immediate outrage). I believe that it is correct to demand that the State refrain from use of force against the protestors, and that there be a political dialogue to find a way to deal with what appears likely to have been election fraud. But that is not the same as making all kinds of maximalist demands (such as, calling for the end of the Islamic Republic) which are not on the lips of many of those on the streets in Tehran and which those on the streets are incapable of delivering in the short-term.

Interesting to me about what Prashad sees as a general lack of meaningful contribution to debate in and about Iran–what amounts, essentially, to so much noise–is what I can help but think is the assumption (or perhaps even the certainty), particularly among young Americans of voting age, that such actions pass, in an American political age dominated by Obama, as precisely the stuff of “international solidarity.”  The (il)logic goes, perhaps, something like this: just as presidential elections can be won largely in the internet ether, so, too, can wars, occupations, and injustices be ended, or even prevented, not in the streets, but on our computers.  Myspace, Friendster, and other “social networking” services that can be designated as “pre-Obama” (i.e., whose popularity peaked prior to the 2008 election season) were never really used for anything resembling political action.  By the time Obama had all but won election, on the other hand, it had already come to seem natural that Facebook and Twitter could and would be used as means of fostering public discourse, garnering political support, and so on.  This speaks volumes about how complete the mediation of our collective political engagements by corporate media and the internet has become in the Obama era–Obama, after all, being both corporate media and internet darling during both his campaign and his presidency to date.  A friend points out that the notion of the internet as a site for “doing” politics arguably grew out of the–different, but contemporaneous–efforts of Howard Dean and, and that this all generates questions about where we might now locate the public sphere in America: whether this is coterminous with the internet, or is largely dominated by it, or whether the internet can really be or function as the public sphere; as well as whether or not the kind of understanding (between the populaces of the US and Iran, for example) that Prashad sees as lacking can really be achieved through the internet.

As Prashad writes, “the best solidarity from afar is to be analytical, not emotional, about what is occurring.”  The wishy-washy, amnesiac, selective, interventionist politics of liberal America, particularly when it comes to anything foreign policy-related, has little to offer by way of response to such a complex and dynamic set of circumstances as those obtaining in Iran.  One person who seems to understand this quite well is Ron Paul, who offered the sole vote against a House resolution condemning the Iranian government and siding with the democracy activists.  “While I never condone violence, much less the violence that governments are only too willing to mete out to their own citizens,” he said,

I am always very cautious about “condemning” the actions of governments overseas. As an elected member of the United States House of Representatives, I have always questioned our constitutional authority to sit in judgment of the actions of foreign governments of which we are not representatives…we know very little beyond limited press reports about what is happening in Iran…when is the last time we condemned Saudi Arabia or Egypt or the many other countries where unlike in Iran there is no opportunity to exercise any substantial vote on political leadership? It seems our criticism is selective and applied when there are political points to be made.


The same friend  also reminds me, crucially, that all this links up to ideas recently put forth by Régis Debray about the predominance of what he calls the “videosphere” in modern politics.  Debray traces a history of the printed word in relation to the spread of progressive (namely, socialist) ideas from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, and writes about the lengths gone to to protect those ideas from the information-systems of a homogenizing bourgeois culture, all the while working to spread those ideas from within that culture.  Methods of organization such as the radical political party and the circulated pamphlet served vital roles within counter-hegemonic movements.  The advent of the televisual age, Debray writes, destroyed both party and pamphlet, and had a particularly devastating effect on the spread of ideas through the printed word: the visual image came to dominate.  Just as, following McLuhan, Kennedy defeated Nixon on TV, so is the entire Obama phenomenon (better word: spectacle) impossible without the internet.  From “graphosphere” we moved to “videosphere,” following Debray.  The society of the videosphere is that of the spectacle, to be certain, as well as of the consumer.

Following Debray, we tend nowadays to want to individualize, and then to broadcast (or to “network”) our experiences: of the books we are reading; of the sporting events we attend; of our daily lives.  Or, of popular upheavals in countries our knowledge of which has been severely mediated.  And this is where a larger neo-liberal interventionist foreign policy trickles down to the individual level.  We intervene, online, in a debate whose terms have been packaged and handed to us, and which we choose largely not to question.  Nevermind the baldfaced hypocrisy of paying lip service to “the will of the Iranian people” (who have not requested that we do so in the first place), when we refuse to do the same to the citizens of Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Palestine, or Venezuela.  Nevermind the fact that the sort of intervention that really matters goes without even passing comment.  What will get people paying attention, as ever, is the spectacular event, which these days tends more and more to take the form of the YouTube video.  The murder of Neda Agha Soltan–a tragic and inexcusable act of repressive state violence for sure–has generated numerous examples of the individualizing tendency mentioned above, which often has emotional or affective registers as well.  Yet such an event plays a particularly potent role in leaving the media narrative of events in Iran (large-scale democratic activism from within an “opppressive” society vs. a neo-totalitarian/theocratic regime) bolstered and undisturbed.  And so we publicly hope that Neda’s death was not in vain, wonder what she would have made of events in the days following her death, imagine what she would have felt.  But any conflation of these sorts of statements or declarations with actual political activity–that is, with the sort of action that can have ramifications in the realm of politics–is dubious.  (I get the distinct impression that I am flattening out this notion of “political activity”; whether this is for expediency or out of a more general laziness is unclear.)  Are Facebook and Twitter–or the personal blog, for that matter–indeed sites for political engagement?  Can they be?  Ought they be?  Much (most?) of what’s been transmitted on the internet in the wake of events in Iran–in the way of commentary, or of so-called statements of support–leaves one something akin to disheartened.

To come down decidedly on the side of “the Iranian people” against “the Ahmedinejad regime” or “the theocracy” may be palliative, but it is hypocrisy, bad politics, and demonstrative of facile historical understanding.  There is Sometimes the point seems to be, yes, to intervene–superficially–but to so to show others that one has done so, and to encourage others to do the same, at least until the next hyper-mediated event grabs our ever more fleeting attention.

(*Thanks to Matt Peterson for comments, suggestions, and overall editing.  Visit Matt here and here.  In fact, I am going to go ahead and quote him, encouraging me to make more connections: “Also, the ‘loud’ non-revolution in Iran, vs. the ‘quiet’ overthrow of the gov in Honduras. All these issues are infinite.“)