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.


somefeller said...

I don't know what the lesson here is

You got that right, chief. But here's one hint - the rioting in Britain has less to do with political unrest than it does simple thuggery and the desire to steal some stuff. But don't let little details like that stop you from comparing it to serious political activity. And FYI - I know you like to talk a good game about being a socialist and all, but I suspect Marx would know the apolitical lumpenproletariat when he saw them.

Anonymous said...

No need to worry about your lack of perfect knowledge here Freddie; somefeller has it.

Michael G said...

It is very easy to lump together violent political actions with those who take advantage of the situation for their own thuggery. Distinguishing the two acts and their distinct messages is difficult, and not the goal of local and international media in reporting on the case of the London riots.

If I recall, Egyptian state new's characterization of events in Tahrir Square are not that different from the BBC's coverage of London's riots. Both organizations are trying to support a specific outcome with a predefined message.

Judge the London rioters, Somefeller, but realize that the London and Egypt might not be as different as they appear.

Elias Isquith said...

You've got a lot more trolls hereabouts as of late, Freddie. I suppose this is in its way a good sign.

MR said...

I dunno...this post doesn't seem as well thought out as some of Freddie's others. I'm not even sure what he's trying to say.

We can't pass any sort of judgement of any kind on explosions of public protests because we sit at a comfortable distance that allows us to paper over the moral ambiguities and uncertainties that such situations are always fraught with? Okay, that makes sense.

But you seem to be suggesting an equivalence between what's going on in Britain right now and the Green movement. Why? I know you hate the brand of modern capitalism that is currently practiced in the West, but I fail to see how it follows that violent protests against a democratically elected government in Britain (if that is what's going on - it really doesn't seem clear to me) must be judged in the exact same manner as violent protests against a vicious, theocratic dictatorship in Iran.

Maybe I'm missing your point.

But he als

Jack Crow said...

The argument that the Parliament is a democratically elected government which, by virtue of some electioneering, cannot possibly merit the same opprobrium as that which is obviously due the electorally validated Ayatollahs - it amuses.

The unquestioned assumption that elections also alter the permanence of, well, fairly permanent governing secretariats and bureaucracies - also amusing.

Anonymous said...

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.

Eh, I don't know why. In the same way that any history is a history of the present, any account of the present is going to be situated in some context, even if that context is at a remove from the events.

In other words, the interpretation in the U.S. of riots in London is itself political, and the polis it pertains to is American.

In further other words, there's no Truth about London or the Green Revolution. But, you know, who cares?

individualfrog said...

Martin Luther King seems to have pretty much summed up my reaction already:

"It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard."

Michael said...

The main reason why Britain is treated so differently than the "Arab Spring" is probably the lack of political signs being displayed. Just saw the news here and the journalist said "Not one of them is carrying a sign asking for anything" his conclusion was something like "So they must be thugs who like to rob". And people are buying it, the riots are an end in itself, caused by angry criminals with too much time at their hands. "They steal LCDs and HiFi-equipment and that's all they want". Well maybe it is. But maybe 'their' behavior is just a symptom of a society so inequal on so many levels... Just remember Andrew Sullivan describing his vacation in the UK: Basically having been to the right school as a teen gurantess that you know half of the british parliament or cabinet... And those people keep on telling that through hard work you too can become one of them. When Americans speak of the incestious Washington elite, London (and for that matter Paris) are probabyl at least on the same level...

On a sidenote: Isn't it amazing how easily the conclusion in the BBC is made from "Oh, so you understand why 'they' are doing this" to "So you support what they are doing"?

Brian M said...

I think Britain should take up the offer from Iran, who offered to send "human rights monitors" to make sure the riots are "handled" humanely.

ovaut said...

freddie, have you ever read john gray? i recommend enlightenment's wake, especially its three longest pieces.

ovaut said...

check this righteous paragraph from hari kunzru-

Early in the evening, watching social media, I was seeing variants of the same joke: “I’m in Chiswick/Hampstead/Dulwich Waitrose and there’s a RIOT! They’ve run out of POLENTA!” The smug sense of disconnection (this is nothing to do with me, or my comfortable middle-class life – it is an affair of the poor, in places I choose not to go) was soon replaced by panic. “WHERE IS THE ARMY?” […] How easy it would be to install fascism in this creaky little country! No need to torch the Reichstag – all you’d have to do would be to burn a few more sports shops.

it was AMAZING i tell you how quickly supposed ""liberals"" began calling for the deployment of the army, & as though with no understanding of the momentousness of the prospect of its contending with citizens on the streets of the capital.

Scarlett Harris @ The Early Bird Catches the Worm said...

Great post!

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