What the Left Should be Learning From Iran

It is impressive to some and immensely frustrating to some others that so much of the international left has lined up against the purportedly left-of-center but authoritarian Iranian regime during the historic post-electoral struggle that is underway.

English-language, liberal-leftish journals from The Nation to The Huffington Post to the rank-and-file blogger army at the Daily Kos have rallied in solidarity with the millions of protesters in the streets of Iran.

That the events in Iran have caused a schism on the right is well established. There are neocons freaking out that they may not have Ahmadinejad as a convenient prop to inspire fear and justify warlike policies. In recent days, they’ve succeeded in marginalizing themselves in the same ways that some sectors of the left unwittingly accomplished for so many years, causing an infrequent alliance between what might be called the Reagan right and the libertarian right, which shares the world’s – including the majority on the left’s – shock and horror at the violent response of the Iranian regime to peaceful protest and speech, and our pleasure at seeing People Power rise up against it.

Virtually identical to those neoconservatives on the right are some on the left who do not celebrate that the Iranian regime teeters. What do they have in common? It is a nostalgia for the Cold War and an inability to break out of its dualist mode of thought: one in which the world is divided between two ideological poles (the dinosaur left and the neocon right disagree only on which pole is “good” and which is “evil” but the rest of their analyses line up seamlessly together).

The current situation resonates strongly with what occurred in the 1930s. There came a turning point in the international left when a critical mass turned against its flirtation with Benito Mussolini’s regime in Italy and “that other guy in Europe” whose name can’t be spoken without invoking Godwin’s Law. Woody Guthrie’s legendary guitar, upon which he wrote, “this machine kills fascists,” is a wonderful emblem for that historic shift. Those on the left that continued their flirtation with the German and Italian experiments long after they had slid into fascism are not remembered very fondly by history. It seems to me that we are at a similar crossroads today.

Belief in a bipolar world in which “good” countries ally against “evil” ones internalizes the bipolar cycle of mania and depression among its adherents. It disregards what those of us on the left ought to understand better than most: that global capitalism has made the nation-state a secondary player on the world stage. One of the reasons that George W. Bush’s “war on terror” did not last as a new operating principle for the planet is that it did not snugly fit with such Cold War thinking: when the opposing force is not itself a nation state, there’s no longer a clear dualism. Nation states have a very difficult time when they choose to battle with amorphous networks that do not themselves have flags or capital cities. The same flailing that occurred from Bush’s corner in his inept attempt to deal with Al Qaida is inverted today. The Iranian state is in a similar spasm in trying to deal with an amorphous nonviolent network of communications and resistance by its own citizens. It’s confusion can be seen in this statement, yesterday, by its Revolutionary Guard bureaucracy:

“Washington, 17 June (WashingtonTV)—Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps [IRGC] issued a statement today in which it warned online activists that if they fan the flames of ‘disorder on the streets,’ they will face ‘legal confrontation’ by the IRGC, which will have ‘grave results’.

“Addressing the people of Iran, the IRGC said in the statement: ‘Unfortunately, currents which deviate from the principles and values of the revolution, have been behind all the disorder in the country in the past few years…and the disorder in these days, which has resulted in hooligans and vandals assaulting people’s lives, possessions, and honor, is the result of a designed, pre-planned scenario on their part.’

“In its statement, the IRGC said that ‘the argument over the election and the number of votes and the winner, have only been a pretext for generating insecurity and riot.’

“It adds that ‘with precise examination of the country’s cyberspace, the Center for the Investigation of Organized Crime has encountered numerous instances of deviant news websites, which have changed [their] approach and created numerous sites and weblogs to disturb the public, publicize riots and create disorder on the street, and with their lies, fabricated accusations and organized riots, they continue their illegal actions of sabotaging and disrupting order and public security.’

“The IRGC warned ‘those who publicize disorder and threats to the people and spread rumors in cyberspace, to take action to eliminate such content.’”

First of all, any government that blames events in the physical world (such as street protests) on words in the virtual world (in this case, the Internet) has lost its grip on reality. Any attempt to hold non-corporate speech responsible for deeds begins the slippery slope to fascism. And the response by the Iranian regime, as seen in that press release, is akin to trying to attack a beehive with a shotgun: you’ll surely kill a few bees, but, man, are you going to get stung, and the bees will thrive anyway.

There are those who really seem to believe that the three million plus people in the streets are merely dupes of the manipulation of destabilization plans hatched in Washington or Tel Aviv. The latter claim is confounded by the words of Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak, who said yesterday, “We should not be confused about Mousavi – these people are fundamentalist Muslims,” and those of Israeli Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who joins the neocon chorus in pooh-poohing the popular revolt as insignificant: “The riots are taking place only in Teheran and one additional region. They won’t last for long.” That reeks of wishful thinking and reveals that Israel’s government, for one, wants Ahmadinejad to survive the tumult. Yet even if Western governments would like to fuel the protests, it still would not confer legitimacy on Iran’s fascist regime.

Here’s how some leftists mirror neocon thought: Iran serves as a kind of place-marker, psychologically, for the former Soviet system. Because Washington is in opposition to it, Iran must therefore be considered a “good” government, worthy of solidarity. As some disgraced members of the left argued in the last century in defense Mexico’s single-party rule under the PRI, others today argue that if the Iranian state offers social programs and even if it only somewhat resists global capitalism then therefore its violent and authoritarian actions can somehow be justified, forgiven or denied.

Some portray the uprising in the streets there as a phenomenon guided by external powers. They also portray it as an upper class revolt of the elites, a claim that is demonstrably false as anybody who has watched the indigenous media – YouTube videos and such – produced by Iranian citizen journalists has seen. Some of these same people cited and cheered the reports of journalist Robert Fisk when he exposed the falsehoods promoted by the US in the Iraq war. Well, Fisk is on the streets of Iran today, and here’s his ground level view of the protesters:

“…this was not just the trendy, young, sunglassed ladies of north Tehran. The poor were here, too, the street workers and middle-aged ladies in full chador. A very few held babies on their shoulders or children by the arm, talking to them from time to time, trying to explain the significance of this day to a mind that would not remember it in the years to come that they were here on this day of days.”

Indeed, there are recent examples of such attempted interventions by Washington and corporate powers in lands like Venezuela, where the opposition was the exclusive domain of previously spoiled elites. But their sneering contempt for the workers and poor of their countries, infused with racist bigotry, was evident any time they appeared in public. The Venezuelan coup attempts indeed were what I called at the time “the revolt of the spoiled brats.” It is a gross error in observation and analysis to therefore presume that what occurs today in Iran is the result of the same dynamic. The evidence is overwhelming that the Iranian resistance spans the normal boundaries of class segregation.

Another canard being forwarded by the Iranian regime and its defenders is that “Western media” have somehow generated the uprising. That one is falling flat, though, and the regime has undercut its own argument by putting foreign reporters under house arrest, expelling others, even arresting some, and prohibiting them from shooting video or photographs of what occurs in the streets. They’ve made the capitalist media secondary players, dependent on citizen journalists for the images and words in their reports. Western corporate media has been neutered and spayed when it comes to reporting from Iran this week. And the Authentic Journalism Renaissance – media from below – is evident to the world.

The third argument used by some mistaken voices on the left and right is that Mousavi, the opposition candidate, has as authoritarian a history as Ahmadinejad, and the same goes for any comparison between the opposition’s biggest clerical backer, Rafsanjani, with the current supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei. There is a lot of truth in that, but it is an essentially elitist analysis because it focuses on the power struggle and circus going on up above among the elites and ignores the story from below, of the millions in resistance.

Revolutionary moments change everything, including the context by which either faction – or a third one, yet to be revealed, of the kind that often pops up in these situations – will be able govern. No matter which faction emerges on top as a result of the current tumult, it will not be able to rule as before. A people awakened and organized is not so easy to push around anymore.

As a journalist, I have always followed the stories that help me to learn something new and important to me. And every hour, I’m learning a new set of tricks from these brave communicators in Iran and around the world: methods and techniques that will serve us in this hemisphere, soon enough, too.

The study of how to break information blockades is a life’s study for some of us. What a wonderful classroom we’ve been provided this week. Perhaps, just as Woody Guthrie painted on his guitar, we will finally be able to mark our communications tools: “This machine kills fascists,” and then evolve it to his friend Pete Seeger’s rejoinder, painted on his banjo: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

AL GIORDANO is publisher of Narco News at www.narconews.com




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