Wednesday, July 1, 2009

When Impatience May not Be

Patience has never ranked high among my list of virtues.  Nor does one think of it as an American trait.  So, the switch from media coverage saturated by the Iran election protests, to the coverage of Michael Jackson's death and its aftermath, with a sidebar for those interested in the story of Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC), should have come as no surprise.  My inability to let the Iranian story fade from the screen may speak less to patience than stubbornness, but its muted coverage on television simply sent me all the more to the Internet, and particularly the social networks. 

One can measure patience in various ways, from one's ability--or not--to watch an entire YouTube video that appears headed nowhere in particular, to one's need to look at as many YouTube videos as appear on one's Facebook page, even if only momentarily.  Impatience, you say?  No, the patient persistence to learn from the plethora of images awash on the social networking sites, where one must carefully sift through to avoid repetition, unless of course one wants to see a particular event from several angles, as for example, in the death of Neda Agha-Soltan.

What, exactly, do we seek to learn, that the intrusion of pop and political bathos has such power to annoy at least some of us, largely thirty-five and older in my highly unscientific gauge of the responses of my Facebook friends?  An idea occurred to me several days ago emailing a former student annoyed with me for my open criticism on my Facebook page of the obsession with a pedophile pop star's death.  I watched the Islamic Revolution unfold in 1978-79, and vividly remember Robert MacNeil interviewing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from a suburb of Paris shortly before his tumultuous return to Tehran.  PBS had to carry the burden of my interest; but then, as now, one sensed the unfolding of a great historical moment.  I felt a great sense of standing for the right of self-determination, though one greatly feared where it would take Iran.

However much one might wish for the success of the current protests, that seems unlikely.  For some, quite probably some television producers among them, that justifies taking Iran off the front burner.  For those of us who have become fixated on the historic moment of the protests, the unlikeliness of success simply stirs fears of what happens next.  If one digs hard enough, the images of beaten students--including one that came to my attention today, a face so grotesquely swollen and worked over that one imagines death came from cerebral hemorrhage long before the beating stopped--and calls for protests and commemorations from Mousavi's website exist.

Two thoughts come to me as framing devices for all this, apart from a certain obsessive fascination I will not deny.  First, we have not had an opening into the workings of Iranian society since Ayatollah Khomeini disappeared into an enormous crowd thirty years ago.  We've sighted a whale coming up for breath, and we want to take its measure as much as we can before, as much as we might hope otherwise, it disappears again into the deep.  To non-specialists such as myself, the existence of an Iranian (not the Lebanese) Hezbollah, the basij paramilitary that Khomeini instigated, and the byzantine plethora of mullah's councils, not to mention the presence of mujahedin insurgents (some apparently the CIA'S dirty work) have all come as news.  We knew Iran had a brutal regime that hated us; we didn't know quite how brutal for quite how long, and that they blame us more for providing Iraq with chemical weapons than for the Moussadegh coup in 1953, which they blame more on the British.  Iran has only recently come back on our radar screen with this degree of clarity; we now need to make up for lost time. 

Second, and perhaps more controversially--though for some, perhaps not--the frightening sense that we have seen this before, but not in Iran, drives our interest.  Think of the similarities.  An elderly autocrat backs a militant nationalist two generations younger, a man with a fanatical street following, unafraid of inciting violence, whose foreign policy consists of name-calling when it suits him and alliances of convenience, particularly with Russia, when that suits him, and who maintains a constant class warfare, right down to the blatant patronage of the downtrodden for the sake of political loyalty while paying little attention to the state of the economy itself.  One can take this too far.  Khamenei has greater power than did von Hindenburg; if he falls, a new Supreme Leader or a new theocratic government will emerge, rather than the vacuum Hitler could exploit.  Ahmadinejad did not have to invent the basij as Hitler did his brown shirts, and yet his cultivation of their loyalty amounts to much the same thing.  One does not expect a world war as the outcome of all this, and yet with Ahmadinejad in power Obama will have a more difficult time keeping Netanyahu's bombers on the ground, and what happens then only the wonks in the military, intelligence, security, and foreign policy apparatuses will want to hazard a guess.

My father never made it out of boot camp in World War II, except to an Army hospital in Atlanta.  Still, those of us in my generation, or at least the children of my father's generation have a sense of connectedness to World War II.  We never saw Hitler or Roosevelt, but they shaped our parents' lives.  My uncle ran a factory that made razor blades for the Army when he couldn't get a contract for their main product, light rifles.  We may not face World War III--Iran apparently lacks the capability to force one, at least for now--but we certainly do have in Iran a secular leader if not a religious leader, as well, with dangerous regional ambitions, presiding over a badly fissured country by brutally imposing their will.  

The information revolution permits us to watch the resistance to this theo-fascist state.   From my perspective, those of us who would brook no distractions to this phenomenon may open ourselves to charges of cultural fascism.  Whatever.  It does not interest me that cable news ratings have skyrocketed during the Jackson coverage, as Nicholas Kristof pointed out recently on his Facebook page.  People are getting killed in Iran in the name of freedom, for calling out that God is great (as they did in 1979) from the rooftops.  We are watching events potentially of the importance of the Kristallnacht in 1938.  May Mr. Jackson's soul rest in peace, but let's please keep our perspective here.  No moonwalk ever mattered as much as the gauntlet Iranians walk every day, and at this moment of fervor, when the regime's hide has cracked, the media should recall that some of us have the patience to stay with the hard stories.  Precious few, perhaps, but some.  If that makes us cultural fascists or snobs or whatever, so be it.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who continues to grieve the loss of Michael Jackson, I imagine press coverage in the future that can somehow fairly cover the realities of Jackson's influence on so many and the struggle for freedom and justice in Iran. I do not believe it has to be an either/or proposition.

    I believe you start where people are instead of wishing for a world that was otherwise. I believe in the carrot over the stick. You do not belittle the ignorance of youth. You draw youth to the wisdom found in age old lessons.

    So, now you know my biases and I agree with your essential message that the spotlight must remain on Iran instead of moving to the next big moment.

    When I was traveling in Europe in the eighties and people found out I was an American, one of the first names they uttered back was Michael Jackson. Let's bring all of the love and intention Michael's life summoned and focus it toward the ongoing strife of the world.