Tuesday, August 9, 2011
revolution is the name you give the riots you like
It's become an instant cliche-- if the protests in London were happening in Iran, everybody's blog would be covered in green ribbons. The question is, why the difference?
Because, dear reader, many of the self-same people who have such considerable solidarity for the Iranians don't see Persians as fully human. The condescension inherent in blogger head-patting of protesting Iranians was apparent from the jump. The source of that condescension was, in part, explained by the simple fact that most first world people find any populist expression of discontent threatening; it gives the lie to our own constant self-aggrandizing narratives of being a free people. Truly free people take to the streets. Those who find succor in playing pretend organize a committee. (And the criticism is apt of me too: I am not in the streets.) In the face of this discomfort, the actual on the ground disagreements between protesters and government are stripped away and reduced to a simplistic struggle between good and evil. Because we live without tyranny, casting the Iranian (or Syrian, etc.) conflict as a mere matter of good people vs. bad tyranny removes the unthinkable implied judgment.
This is simply true: there was more than a little violence involved in the Green Revolution, despite the desperate need among American politicos to argue the contrary. There are socialist elements within the Green Revolution. There is a comfort with religious governance that is quite at odds with American "classical liberal" sentiment. The Green Revolution is not and has never been the perfectly lily-white expression of Enlightenment values that it has been made out to be.
No, guilt ridden white first-world bloggers (of whom, generally speaking, I am a member) love protests in Syria and Iran and elsewhere because they can cast those people, members of an alien culture, race, and religion, as the perfect representations of resistance while totally stripping them of the actual thorny reality of political rage. Theocratic preferences are stripped away; violent behavior (and there was much in the Green Revolution, if you looked beyond the headlines) is ignored; the re-instantiation of sexist Islamic doctrine within the structures of protest movements are conveniently elided. This is the way of all patronizing attitudes from the overclass towards resistance: in order to preserve its romanticized view, it has to occlude the particular grievances and goals that make the protest meaningful in the first place. So the American civil rights movement becomes not a matter of black people undertaking both nonviolent and violent protest against a hideously racist system, animated at times by straightfoward ethnic nationalism, but a whitewashed, toothless prayer meeting where a rainbow coalition destroyed evil with protest songs. So India's righteous rejection of British domination is stripped of the violent religious conflict that attended its entire history.
Support for the Iranian resistance, with some exceptions, was one of those rare moments where people across ideologies came together in the blogosphere. Who could fail to stand with a people rejecting a thuggish and corrupt theocracy? I couldn't. But the realist in me insists that it was a moment of unity precisely because the protests had been stripped of all content. There was no disagreement about the movement because the movement was so taken out of context by condescension and guilt that there was nothing there to disagree about. That writers constantly sought out the elements of the resistance who expressed opinions that were palatable to liberal western audiences was as inevitable as it was distorting.
Does any of this mean that I now don't support the Iranian resistance? Of course not. It means that my support is founded ultimately on the principles of resistance themselves. It means that the beliefs and consequences of that resistance are, on balance, beyond my capacity to fairly judge. And it means that there is always a substantial risk of righteous resistance to oppressive governments becoming itself a vehicle of oppression. We have a very bad habit in this country of supporting the autonomy of oppressed peoples only when geopolitically convenien; that's the classic critique of realism, after all, and a powerful one. Yet I find something similar in the opinions of decent American liberals as they chew over the propriety of various resistance movements; in elevating or denouncing their interpretation of the values of various foreign protest movements, they confer precisely the moral authority of the West that so many of these movements reject. When I have argued about the Libyan revolution, I have tried to argue against American intervention by pointing out all that could go wrong, while not judging the actual content of the Libyan rebels themselves. I'm sure I've failed. And I'm equally sure that my criticisms here aren't lacking in incoherence, condescension, and white guilt.
(I read about that Zapatista movement and I support it. I think harder and think that they don't care about my support. It is a tension I am willing to own.)
Oh, and-- never underestimate the simple fear of angry people, particularly angry black and brown people, in the first world mind. "They're smashing windows and stealing DVD players" is about as direct of a dog whistle as I can imagine. And while Tehran seems a million miles away in the American mind, London might as well be main street. (That's where we took our honeymoon, Francine!) Violent protest in the streets of a major Anglophone city scares people who live in major Anglophone cities. (For contest, you might consider the historical narrative about black American riots in the 1960s, and how they were an unpleasant but inevitable result of a violently racist system, to attitudes towards the London riots.)
In that vein, the typical forces will insist "but Freddie! You can't possibly support this horror!" And I will say to you the same thing I will say to you regarding the Green Revolution: the idea that I am morally equipped to judge the consequences of all of that rage is exactly the paternalism that any protest movement rejects. Do I, in some distant sense, condone smashing windows and burning cars? I do not. Do I think that my moral judgment in that instance has any real valence when it comes to judging the larger motives of the riots in London? I do not. The brutal rape of Lara Logan opened a fissure in the standard, pleasing Western vision of made-for-TV Egyptian resistance. It reminded us that there is no such thing as moral coordination in combat, that there is no such thing as safe upheaval, and that the search for righteousness in violence is a game of willful blindness. That Logan's rape was an inexcusable crime seems obvious to me. What moral lessons about Egyptian revolution I could meaningfully draw from that act, I couldn't tell you.
For that reason, for the reason of the utter collapsing of my own capacity for meaningful judgment within the confines of protests that don't ask for or care for my blessing, I am sympathetic to those who think that they can perfectly judge. The only thing that bothers me is the pretense, here. The pretense that, were this exact behavior to happen in a regime that the United States is unfriendly with, there would be an equally pedantic focus on which windows get smashed and who gets robbed and whether it's fair game to throw at rock at cops-- that's what bothers me. Because it involves a holistic view of both Middle Eastern protests and first world riots that is vastly distorting of both. Because it assumes that financially secure bloggers sitting at computer screens thousands of miles away (like me) can fairly and neutrally judge the anger of distant people enraged by the status quo. Because it suggests that our discrimination is greater than our prejudice. Because it flatters us with its assurance that our opinions are formed by principle and not by signalling.
I don't know what the lesson here is, except to say that when we become enraptured by our own goodness, funneled through the conduit of expressing support for revolution in foreign countries, we should pause, and remind ourselves that this little piece of reflected glory comes with a price.