Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tweet, tweet, wiki, wiki, Facebook Youtubes revolution!

I swear the world underwent astounding changes in 2007, the year I spent in a monastery.  I knew very little about Youtube before I entered Mepkin Abbey as a postulant in February of that year.  I don't remember learning of Facebook until after my departure ten months later.  My serious introduction to both came at the hands of the Obama campaign.  I now access Youtube fairly regularly for clips or speeches I missed or cannot find on television or network websites. Seventy-seven Facebook friends later, that networking site has become a welcome source of contact with former students and far-flung friends and colleagues.  Twitter I resisted at first introduction, again thanks to the Obama campaign.  Any of you who have read this blog before can imagine the obstacle a 140-word limit poses for me.  Gertrude Stein distinguished Hemingway and Fitzgerald very aptly.  Hemingway, she thought, wrote in sentences; Fitzgerald wrote in paragraphs.  I never put on a blue blazer, striped tie and poplins to watch For Whom the Bell Tolls or to read a Nick Adams story with a glass of scotch in hand.  

Which leaves Wiki.  In a twist of irony I'd find wonderful in other circumstances, I owe this discovery to Mir Hossain Moussavi, who also gets credit for my decision to embrace Twitter, after all.  An article I read on RealClearPolitics.Com the other day convinced me we had gotten a superficial and distorted version of events, the players, and even the stakes in Iran from the majority of media coverage.  "Rick," said Claude Rains to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, "I'm shocked!  shocked!..."  Since then I've joined Moussavi's Wiki blog, Juan Cole's blog as suggested by my Facebook and Twitter correspondent (Him Tarzan, me fan) Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, and watched as much Youtube footage from Teheran as I could find without repeating myself.

This expansion of the sources of information leaves the obvious and oft-tackled question of the quality and reliability of said information.  I have gotten the best-researched, most thoughtful and, one wants to say, useful information, from conventional media and academics, though often from the internet.  With this caveat: what use can we make of it, exactly?  Can you imagine the patience or even purposeful neglect and compartmentalization the fluidity of the situation in Iran must require of Pres. Obama?  I have always valued staying informed, but I wonder how many of us--a few dozen, at most, definitely not counting myself--really understand the dynamics of the election in Iran and its aftermath.  

Moussavi competently ran Iran's government, the secular apparatus, at least, during the Iran-Iraq war, as widely reported.  He came to power as one of the radical faithful of the Islamic Revolution, in the circle of Ayatollah Khomeini.  He counts as a close ally, though perhaps one of convenience, one of his successors, Imam Rafsanjani, characterized by our press twenty years ago as the hothead of all hotheads.  Rafsanjani, an opponent of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and one who had hoped--and may still--to attain Khamenei's position,  has apparently withdrawn from Teheran, the secular capital, to Qom, the religious capital, if you will.  There he has apparently taken over the back-room maneuvering aimed at achieving either a recount or a nullification of last week's election.  Or, perhaps, his real agenda:  the ouster of Khamenei.

That much I've gleaned in a few days.  What I haven't gleaned I find more troubling.  We have demonized Ahmadinejad in the west, and for good reason, as with any other Holocaust-denier who wants to erase the state of Israel off the map, as he has put it.  Here comes Moussavi opposing him, a one-time radical revolutionary, apparently backed by Rafsanjani, whose headlines in the the western press used to read rather like Ahmadinejad's now.  Moussavi seems "mellower," and certainly more willing than Ahmadinejad to engage the west in general and Pres. Obama in particular.  All good things.  

I just have one question.  Glutted as we we can become with the information we can get from traditional news sources distributed and complemented by the web and its own original sources, and struck with the sympathetic reaction one would need a hard heart not to have when faced with the images of truncheoning cops and bleeding corpses (but what did they do to merit the truncheons and bullets, and who set whose fires to whose property?), what judgements can we reasonably reach?  One cannot help but admire the courage and restraint of the bulk of the protesters, not to mention their stamina.  One senses something more genuine than lip-service in Moussavi's call for peaceful demonstrations.  One can hardly want Ahmadinejad, or even Khamenei, at this point, to survive all this.  But what then?

Flashback:  1979.  Robin MacNeil of PBS did a breathtaking series of interviews with Khomeini from Paris as the Islamic Revolution unfolded in Iran, resulting in the deposition and departure of Shah Reza Pahlavi.  The Carter administration, against the judgement of the intelligence establishment (up to its armpits in collaboration with Pahlavi, its creation if not its monster), stood back, permitting the Iranian people self-determination.  To many of us, this seemed the only moral thing to do.  Even if we could have foreseen what would ensue, we could hardly have done much else.  1979 seems perhaps a slightly overdrawn comparison--whatever changes in Iran next week or next month will almost certainly not match 1979 in the scale of transformation introduced.  I also realize that in 1979 we had in Khomeini the enemy of a "friend."  I wonder, though, if we will have to use quotation marks again, if we declare prematurely that Moussavi, the enemy of our enemy Ahmadinejad, might in some sense become our friend?  

Obama, Secretary Clinton, National Security Advisor Gen. Jones, and anyone else who matters knows this.  Nicholas Kristof and his colleagues at The New York Times and throughout the mainstream media know this.  But do those of us getting Wiki posts and Twitter tweets and Facebook pokes after watching Youtube clips fall into the trap of embracing those for whom we feel sympathy simply for that reason?  Which gets us to the heart of the quintessential question about the web--when does so much information become both too much, and not nearly enough?  The answer, of course, lies in if and how one uses it.  The web wonderfully increases our reach as humans, but does it do anything to deepen our grasp?

1 comment:

  1. I can no longer believe that any piece of technology or means of communication is either too much or dangerous in and of itself. As you so aptly reflect, how we navigate is what matters. We all do have the world in our hands but our mind can never truly sustain daily practices that keep us from loving the ones we are with, eating properly and sleeping enough, in whatever increments work for our particular cosmic frames.