The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reflections on the Revolution in Iran

It was not so long ago that that Iran was made a member of the 'Axis of Evil' by George W. Bush. It was a crude, almost childish example of speech writing, awkwardly meshing a similarly cartoonish phrase Ronald Reagan used to describe the Soviet Union with a Hitlerite term that evokes the most terrible force, the darkest years the world has ever seen.

It did not square all that well with the actual members of the new 'Axis'. The governments of Iraq, Iran and North Korea had indeed varying degrees of 'evil' but it did seem profoundly misleading to compare their tin-pot dictatorships with Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. - two vast empires that had literally had the potential to destroy the United States and, perhaps, dominate the world. Never mind that the members of this supposed 'Axis' did not have particularly close relations and two of them - Iraq and Iran - had been at each others' throats for decades. Nonetheless, the totalitarian imagery was evocative, and served the administration's purpose of instilling a lurid and demonic, albeit somewhat blurry, image of the enemy into public opinion as the necessary prelude to all war and confrontation.

I can't help but be struck by the colossal number of spectacular images and video coming out of Iran right now (some here, TPM has lots) and how it will affect the country's image abroad. I think of the extent to which they both confirm and contradict preconceptions. Yes, there are big, intimidating rallies with foreign chants and banners with alien script. Yes, there are upturned cars and buses burn. Indeed, supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad show off disturbing anti-American imagery and slogans. But much more striking is how normal the people of Iran must seem to those expecting a more terrorist-totalitarian-'Islamofascist' vibe. These people do not look like the submissive, deprived citizens of the Soviet Union or oppressively robotic North Koreans on parade. Nor do they for the most part look like the ghostly burqa-clad women that float around Kabul or the scraggly old crackpots in turbans that appear in Al Qaeda's periodic videos.

Instead, we witness a society that seems much like our own and yet enticingly exotic. Red-White-and-Green take the place of our own colors at the rallies. The ubiquitous green of everything - banners, shirts, faces, glasses - evoke not a frightening fundamentalism, but happy memories of Kiev. We see 40something males sporting their polos and paunches, marching in orderly fashion. There are long-haired young men in T-shirts and jeans that look like they were grabbed off some London campus. Pretty girls walk in their summer clothes - their modesty assured by a light scarf covering half their hair - sometimes with braids, sunglasses, make-up or even tank-tops.

And we see them all gallantly face off with troopers wielding batons and wearing black body armor.

Instead of 1979, this feels like 1989. It is as though watching East Germans rallying against Communism as we hold our breath to see if the Russian tanks are rolled out. We look with apprehension for a repeat of Tiananmen. But would that be possible in the age of Facebook, cameraphones and YouTube? These tools, so frivolous in their normal usage, would ensure that every household knows the face of violence and tyranny. These events hold the potential to stir change in both the United States and Iran. That when gazing at the other, there would not be the ugly, distorted reflections of the "Great Satan" and the "Axis of Evil", but two nations might see each other for the first time.

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