This sort of rhetorical dissonance pales, however, compared to some of the more serious aspects of language that arise on facebook. An episode that occurred this afternoon on a thread that includes a multi-national group of participants interested in Iran, the treatment of women, Obama's health care proposal--whatever pops off youtube or CNN that generates a discussion--offers a case in point. The Onion ran a piece today that hilariously satirized the "death panels" attack of the right wing on President Obama's health care proposal--hilariously if, and only if, one understood it as satire, in the first place, and recognized the references to the recent remarks of Sarah Palin and others. If not, "I don't get it," very understandably (but not understandingly) wrote an Iranian expatriate who for security purposes prefers to reveal where she lives only to her facebook friends, not to people who pop up randomly in threads.
This may not seem serious. I wrote a post to explain the piece, and all seems well. I find another phenomenon more disturbing. facebook has proved a tremendous source of both information--sometimes--and useful opinion on events in Iran. Mousavi's organization, and his wife's, have gotten fairly good about translating their posts. Others have not always had the resources to do so. And once a thread develops off a given post, anyone who doesn't read Farsi, transliterated or no, runs into a brick wall. Automated translation exists, of course, and has more or less success navigating the quicksands of idiomatic usage, depending on whose account one reads. Not everyone has access to it, and certainly not for the real-time fluency of a facebook thread.
The very fact that facebook--twitter appeals far less to me-- has shrunk the world to the degree it has, of course, counts for a great deal in itself. One could accuse those of us who want to understand everyone they encounter in cyberspace of pickiness in the extreme. And yet, when a thread consists of bilingual Iranians and those who speak English but not Farsi, the possibility exists of a learning experience. As soon as the Iranians turn inward among themselves to Farsi, even if for good reasons, they've separated themselves from us and us from them. At times it feels like a power move. Of course, one could argue from their perspective that we assert our power in our ability to expect that as many people speak English as a second or third language as do, allowing us to get away with not speaking other languages. I am not monolinguistic, but the conversations that interest me on the web right now are in Persian, not Italian; at some point soon I'll start trying to find threads on Afghanistan, where the problem will show up all over again in Dari (the Afghan dialect of Farsi), Pashto and Urdu.
Some problems have reasonably easy solutions. This one doesn't, for the time being. But I hope discussing it as something more than a commonplace annoyance highlights the importance of breaking through the ways in which we rely on culture, language among them, to assert power, whether of the present or of a distant but psychologically present past. I have learned so much from my Iranian and Persophile friends on facebook--that the memory of the Mongol invasion informs Ahmadinejad's approach to Obama, for starters--that I want to eliminate anything that prevents me from learning and communicating more--for instance, that their paranoia about Obama misses the fact that we tend to see Ahmadinejad as a Hitler figure. I'm getting a Koran and a Persian textbook, but don't want to miss anything while I master them.