A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture concerning the recent Civil Rights/ Social Democracy Movement in Iran. Going in, I honestly knew, well, zilch about Iran's recent election controversy, the "Green Movement" protesting Ahmadinejad's election, or the recent US uproar over Iran developing nuclear weapons. My reasons for being there were simple: 1) Dr. Hamid Dabashi, professor at Columbia University and author of a small library about the Middle East, was speaking, and 2) I had nothing else to do. So, I biked down to the university and walked in five minutes before the lecture was supposed to begin.
One of the first things I noticed was the relatively small number of people in the audience. There could not have been more than 20. This number genuinely surprised me. I meet activists and protestors almost daily in PSU's park blocks and when someone arrives to speak about current affairs, these folk disappear. I find that a little odd. The second thing I noticed was a rather attractive female, who I slyly sat near and briefly talked to until the lecture began.
This fellow, no older than myself, opened the lecture with an essay about his father being arrested and jailed in Iran for taking part in the Iranian Green Movement. He spoke of all the things that I, as a disgustingly jaded American, expected to hear. His father had been beaten, jailed, beaten again, and placed in solitary confinement simply because he proclaimed--perhaps rightly so--that the Iranian election was rigged. As he spoke, my analytic brain kicked in. "Ah see, this dude is placing a human face upon the ideas Dr. Dabashi will discuss . . . well played." And while I thought, an older woman with short gray hair sat at the end of my row, blocking me in. The man concluded his emotional essay by demanding social justice and the release of his father. Everyone clapped in agreement as he took his seat.
Then, Dr. Dabashi began his lecture about the Green Movement, and it was incredible. It was so incredible that I should have taken notes, but, like an idiot, I had buried my notebook deep within the labyrinth of my backpack and couldn't risk the racket I would cause if I were to retrieve it. As a result, I cannot summarize his brilliant argument in its entirety. I can only recall a few (I'll shoot 3) ideas that resonated with me. The first was the changing form of this movement. Apparently, it has transformed from a group protesting Ahmadinejad's election to one that is simply demanding Iran become a social democracy that grants the people basic human rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etc. According to Dr. Dabashi, a new generation is arising there that really doesn't care about old political traditions and alliances. These youths simply want the human decency they can see so many others possessing through devices like the interweb.
The second thing he discussed was this movement's use of such online applications as Facebook and how such tools were making the movement impossible to suppress. For one, the group appears incredibly decentralized. Though they support people like Mousavi, he is not their leader, and, from what I gathered, no one really knows who currently "runs" the Green Movement. Now, it works as a nebulous, partially digital cluster (dare I say co-op) of like minded individuals who demand social necessities. This quality makes it impossible to suppress according to Dabashi. Imagine it as a Facebook page (which it is: http://www.facebook.com/SecularDemocracyforIran). If the government blocks it, someone posts a new page and the controversy around it attracts new interest (new Friends) from those within and outside the borders of Iran. If the government ignores it, well, it grows anyway. Now, Facebook is not the best example for this organization, but it does illustrate that, unless the government obsessively censors the entire Internet (which may be impossible) or shuts down the entire Internet, it cannot stop this movement from being noticed. Considering the movement's message, I can only suspect that those that hear of it will support it. Honestly, what decent human being would say, "How dare they ask 'Where's my vote?' or demand for a democratic government! May they only eat the crust of bread and water for three months! Or, better yet, let them eat cake!" No one could say such things without receiving a swift kick in the nuts. That is why this movement will continue to grow.
Then, the Q&A time commenced, and Dabashi quickly and humorously exposed the absurdity of the US demanding that Iran not develop nuclear weapons. He said, "Yes, I believe they shouldn't have the bomb, but neither should anyone else." He then proclaimed that Iran is surrounded by countries possessing nuclear weapons (Pakistan, Russia, etc) and that the US's reaction is rather absurd. Simply put, we're screaming at a person that may or may not be developing a "gun" in a roomful of people aiming their own "guns" at this "suspicious" character. Condemning this country for developing the same weapon that surrounds it is a strange idea and one that I agree with Dabashi upon. Logical people would have began disposing of nuclear weapons once concepts like Mutual Assured Destruction and the Doomsday Clock arose. Apparently we are not such people.
About this time, I heard the woman next to me sniffling and noticed that her hand raised in the air. "Oh shit," I thought, "here we go. Someone disagrees." But, when Dabashi finally called on her, I could not have been more wrong.
She was a Iraqi-American activist, and one of the most inspiring women I've heard speak. She rattled off facts and dates faster than I can actually speak, and she posed a poignant critique of US involvement in the Middle East. Basically, she declared that US interests and subsequent actions within the region have been based upon oil, which I suppose is largely true, and that these actions have played a large role in creating the current situation there. Also, she proclaimed that she cannot check for updates about the Iraqi resistance because the government bugs her computer. When this happens, she must buy a new one and go on some sort of status check. At this point, she couldn't really speak because she was tearing up. Now, I'm not going to rant and rave about the atrocities of the Patriot Act (there are enough of those people in the world already), but I will say that I sincerely felt terrible for her. She has seen many of the same leaked clips and photos circulating the net. She has seen US soldiers mowing down Arabs because one is holding a camera that sort of, not really, resembles a firearm, and she has seen stripping POW's of their clothing and making them pose naked with bags over their heads. Yet, she hasn't been able to check to see if the resistance to this (un)benevolent force is having any effect. I felt terrible for her. Who wouldn't? I'm not one who believes that all US soldiers are malicious beasts--in fact, I think most are just "doing a job" to pay for other aspirations--but I am also one that thinks those that disagree with our countries actions should be able to learn of the opposition's status as long as they are not maliciously conspiring with them. I understand that is a "sticky" thing to say and that defining "conspiring" is extremely tricky. Still, there should be a better solution than crippling an elderly woman's computer.
As I left this meeting, I thought about my recurring bouts with political apathy. And I came to a few personal conclusions. 1) APATHY IS STUPID. Simply put, it renders you a passive agent that allows things, moral and immoral, to happen to others and yourself. For example, apathy towards things like The Patriot Act allow it to continue, unquestioned and uncritiqued (which isn't really the case, but that is my best example after 22 oz of IPA). It also promotes ignorance, which leads me to my second thought. 2) IGNORING CURRENT EVENTS IS STUPID. I realized this right about the time that my brain put "faces" upon the nameless-to-me population of the Middle East, and that these "current events" determined whether their families had to dive into bomb shelters or not. I won't blast anyone with horror stories. I don't think that sort of thing is incredibly constructive. But, seriously, ignorance and the atrocities it allows to occur have global consequences. 3) EMOTIONALLY CHARGED RADICALISM IS NOT REALLY STUPID, BUT IT IS DEFINITELY NOT IDEAL. I know I may come under fire for this point, but perhaps if I explain myself, the resulting slaps in the face won't be as harsh. Obviously, emotion is unavoidable in some of the situations I've mentioned. The woman overwhelmed by the government's treatment of her responded as most would. She felt betrayed, angry, persecuted, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, all at once. Like I've said before, who wouldn't? And she had every right to be angry and to let that anger spew from her in a violent torrent of political rage. But, she didn't. Other than that brief moment where she was understandably choking down sobs and a twenty second stint where she became a little "ranty," she engaged in an intelligible conversation with Dabashi and the other speaker. I know that was difficult. I would find it difficult to remain calm and intellectually sound if my native country was being invaded. That sort of thing is quite tramatic. But, launching fiery diatribes like a string of mortar shells will only destroy any hope of constructive (AKA calm and reasonable) dialogue. If there is any hope for politics, I think it may be in this idea of respectful, constructive dialogue.
With that said, I'm well aware that this sort of constructive dialogue, one that takes the time to fully understand the Other and treats their interests fairly and equally, will probably never manifest in the political world. Honestly, I'd be beyond surprised if one day I saw a headline reading, "President ___________ declares that _______'s interests are just as reasonable as our own." Things do not work that way. Leaders look after their own people. They do this for obvious reasons, some good and some a little more creepily nationalistic. But, regardless of the impossibility of a sort of constructive dialogue, people should still push for it, because each step towards it or each voice raising awareness about it will shove it further into the public consciousness and political spheres. And this awareness is a good thing. It will make colonial tendencies a little more apparent. It will expose certain official's irrationality and will lead others to demand their removal. It will also, I hope, expose some of the reason's for each countries political actions. For if a nation must thoroughly explain themselves to another equal nation, they have a far greater chance of revealing their motives (a few examples being money, territory, resources, etc).
But (this is my last bit, I promise), people must insert their concerns--such as the need for constructive dialogue, or the need to lessen internet policing--into public and political conversations in a calm, well reasoned, well thought out manner. For if they do not, they run the risk of being labeled as another "crazy." And, honestly, if you cannot offer well thought out reasons for your opinions or concerns, or you cannot respond calmly and offer intelligent rebuttals to critiques of your positions, you may want to revise them. They may suck.
Ok. I'm done. Good Godot, this is long and rambly. Enjoy!
PS. If I misspoke or misquoted anything, please let me know. I don't want to spread misinformation.