Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Neda and images of revolution

The already-legendary death of Neda Agha-Soltan (1983-2009)

John "bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb Iran" McCain has adopted the late Neda Agha-Soltan as as his mascot for hostility to Iran, as Andrew Malcolm explain in his Los Angeles Times blog, McCain's Iran Neda speech raises domestic political stakes for Obama 06/22/09. Malcolm closely follows the Beltway Village press script, in which McCain, whose judgment in cheering on the Iraq War in 2002-3 couldn't possibly have been worse, is treated as a Very Serious spokesman on foreign policy. And he sounds like the typical McCain fanboy, which means he's a typical reporter:

The obviously angry McCain, Obama's GOP opponent in last year's presidential election, cites the tragic death of an Iran female protester called Neda whose name has suddenly become known globally as she was shot in Tehran and died in the street, bleeding profusely, on a now viral and very graphic video with friends screaming around her.

McCain's outspoken criticism of Iran's government for its violence mirrors his strong denunciations last summer when Russia invaded the democratic country of Georgia.

Obama, who was vacationing in Hawaii at the time, was more measured initially, calling on both sides to stop fighting. He later changed tone more in favor of the invaded democracy.

On the weekend, before taking his daughters out for ice cream, Obama issued a statement, published here on The Ticket, warning the theocratic regime that the world is watching and it should permit peaceful democratic demonstrations. [my emphasis]
The bolded portions make me wonder if Andrew Malcolm isn't aspiring to be a future Maureen Dowd.

Without refighting the Georgia-Russia War of 2008, in both cases Obama showed sensible restraint while McCain mouthed off in ways that could have caused all kinds of problems if his statements has come from a President of the United States. The brilliant Tom Tomorrow captured the cynical frivolity of chronic warmongers like McCain who, if they had had there ways, would have already blown up thousands or tens of thousands of Iranian civilians like Neda in another unnecessary war, now pretending to be such great admirers of the freedom-loving Iranian people. It'a always time to worry when rightwing Republicans like the bold Maverick start talking about how much they care about the human rights of people in some foreign country. It usually means they want to start bombing them.

One similarity I notice is that McCain's appeal in the video has the same kind of maudlin sentimentality and arrogant pretentiousness as his statements on the Georgia-Russian War in which he claimed to speak for the American people. Remember, "today, we are all Georgians"?

Here's a You Tube video of the bold Maverick speaking about Neda:

President Obama had a good response in his news conference on Tuesday, as a McCain-lining reporter asked him to respond to the press' favorite Maverick:

Look, the -- you know, I think John McCain has genuine passion about many of these international issues. And, you know, I think that all of us share a belief that we want justice to prevail.

But only I'm the president of the United States. And I've got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries.

I mean, you guys must have seen the reports. They've got some of the comments that I've made being mistranslated in Iran, suggesting that I'm telling rioters to go out and riot some more. There are reports suggesting that the CIA is behind all this. All of which patently false. But it gives you a sense of the narrative that the Iranian government would love to play into.

So the -- you know, members of Congress, they've got their constitutional duties, and I'm sure they will carry them out in the way that they think is appropriate. I'm president of the United States, and I'll carry out my duties as I think are appropriate. [my emphasis]
See also Obama to GOP: "Iranians can speak for themselves" by Mike Madden Salon 06/23/09.
The image of Neda dying in the street has certainly become a powerful one. Borzou Daragahi in Family, friends mourn 'Neda,' Iranian woman who died on video Los Angeles Times 06/23/09 reports on Neda Agha-Soltan's life, which just ended at 26. With this kind of actual reporting, I see no reason at this point not to think the story of her death is on the level.

Still, the Great Maverick seems to be going a little beyond what is actually known in the public record that Neda was killed by a government sharpshooter. Although it seems to be a reasonable assumption. But the pictures of Neda and their instantly becoming iconic remind me very much of a similar photo of the dying Benno Ohnesorg on June 2, 1967, one of the key iconic images of "the Sixties" in Germany. As I've written here before, new angles of the story are still coming out 42 years later.

That photo of Friederike Dollinger attempting to aid the wounded, dying Benno Ohnesorg became a symbol of the student movement in West Germany. In fact, the student movement there is conventionally dated from the day Ohnesorg was shot, although that's probably a bit simplistic. It only emerged this year that Karl-Heinz Kurras, the West Berlin policeman who shot Ohensorg for no good reason was an active agent of the Stasi, the East German spy agency. There's no evidence that Kurras shot Ohnesorg on orders from the Stasi. But it's one of several mysteries about the killing and the events surrounding it that have yet to be fully explained.

There was even an Iranian connection. The events that led to Benno Ohnesorg's death involved two demonstrations against the Shah of Iran, who was visiting West Berlin. German students, including Iranians living in Germany, were protesting his dictatorial regime.

Friederike Dollinger became part of German history by being there at that moment. She herself, now known by her married name Friederike Hausmann, also practices history, having written several historical books herself, like the one shown here, Die deutschen Anarchisten von Chicago: Oder warum Amerika ken 1.Mai nicht kennt (1998) [The German Anarchists of Chicago: Or, Why America Doesn't Recognize May 1]. The title reference is to the "Haymarket riot" in Chicago in 1886, at which several anarchists were falsely accused of exploding a bomb. That event was the one originally commemorated by International Workers Day on May 1, celebrated as such by social-democratic parties, unions and other left parties all over the world - except in America. President Grover Cleveland, a reactionary Democrat, established Labor Day to discourage the celebration of International Workers Day on May 1 in America.

Getting back to the Iranian situation today, We don't have to know every detail of a story like Neda's killing for an image like that to take on great symbolism. I don't doubt that many Iranians take the image as a symbol for a struggle for democracy, justice and freedom. Juan Cole writes, "Mourning martyrs is central to Shiite Iran's religious sensibilities", so Neda's iconic depiction as a martyr "plays on powerful cultural themes" in Iran. He further explains, "the [Shi'a version of the Islamic] religion is all about resisting the tyrants in history who made the martyrs".

For others like Baby Shah Reza Pahlavi II, it's more likely to be a symbol useful in helping another repressive regime take power so they can do the same thing to dissenters. For people like the bold Maverick or his good buddy Lindsey "Huckleberry" Graham, I can't imagine she's anything but a symbol of their desire to have a war against Iran.

I think Obama continues to strike the right tone of restraint. He clearly has no intention at this point of getting drawn into an unnecessary war with Iran. And what did Iraq War advocates like the bold Maverick think when they were cheering for war back in 2002-3? It was obvious to anyone whose brain wasn't pickled in OxyContin that removing Saddam would boost Iran's relative power in the region. And our allied government in Iraq is a pro-Iranian, Islamist regime. We need Iran's help to be able to meet the 2011 withdrawal deadline that Bush agreed to and that Obama has committed himself to.

Andrew Malcolm's post features the following photo, which he doesn't identify but apparently is from recent street protests in Iran. It strikes me how much images like this one affect the American idea of what revolution means. It's a stereotypical image: a couple of angry guys tossing something at somebody with a fire in the scene behind them.

Or maybe I should say seemingly angry guys who look like they are tossing something.

Dealing with revolutions and revolutionary regimes has been a chronic problem for American foreign policy since, when, the Spanish-American War? I wonder how much images like this contribute to a perception not only among the general public but also among policymakers that revolution means chaos and scary guys starting fires and throwing rocks in the street. I mean, that kind of thing has been going on since the French Revolution, and I'm wondering if the use of those kinds of images isn't related to historical images of the storming of the Bastille and similar kinds of things from 19th democratic revolutionary movements. I suspect that melodramatic images of revolutionary situations - and I'm not convinced that what is going on in Iran is a revolutionary situation yet - don't interfere with people's ability to see such events as a complex political and social process, as opposed to the bad guys getting thrown out and the good guys winning. Or vice versa. I mean, viewing the Islamist warlords and international jihadists fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s as brave freedom fighters on Our Side didn't necessarily work out so well over the long run. To take one example.

Stephen Walt in What Iran means by Foreign Policy Online 06/23/2009 gives us a more sober view of the Iranian situation than what we're likely to hear from the bold Maverick or Huckleberry Graham:

Yet even if the current regime survives the present challenge, the impact of the crisis is likely to be salutary. Iran's appeal as a model of Islamic governance has been tarnished by this episode: instead of being the principled defenders of the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary vision of the "rule of the jurisprudent," his successors now look more like garden-variety authoritarians trying to hang onto privilege and power in the face of widespread popular discontent. And that means Muslims elsewhere will be less inclined to see Tehran as an inspiration, even if they are unhappy with political conditions in their own countries.

The current crisis may also put to rest a lot of the bellicose talk about military action. In recent years, advocates of "kinetic action" (read: preventive war) against Iran have sought to portray it as a nation of wild-eyed revolutionary fanatics, led by Holocaust-denying zealots who openly crave martyrdom and would therefore be willing to fire nuclear weapons at other countries even if it led to their own destruction. That alarmist image was always pretty ludicrous, and it looks increasingly inappropriate today. In the wake of this stolen election (and see here for more evidence of electoral chicanery), Iran's rulers looks less like a group of fanatics and more like a group of grumpy old men. I don't see Osama bin Laden or Che or Qutb or even Khomeini; I see Brezhnev, Andropov, Mussolini, or Ceaucescu. [my emphasis]
See also: Icons of the New Iran by Barbara Crossette The Nation Online 06/23/09;
Regimeopfer Neda Agha-Soltan: Propagandaschlacht um die Heldin des neuen Iran
von Ulrike Putz Der Spiegel Online 23.06.09

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