Whose Side Are We On? You Have to Ask?

America so often gets Iran wrong. We didn’t know when the shah was going to fall, didn’t foresee the massive wave that would topple him, didn’t know the 1979 revolution would move violently against American citizens, didn’t know how to handle the hostage-taking. Last week we didn’t know a mass rebellion was coming, and this week we don’t know who will emerge the full or partial victor. So modesty and humility seem appropriate stances from which to observe and comment.

That having been said, it’s pretty wonderful to see what we’re seeing. It is moving, stirring—they are risking their lives over there in a spontaneous, self-generated movement for greater liberty and justice. Good for them. In a selfish and solipsistic way—more on that in a moment—the uprising, as it moves us, reminds us of who we are: lovers of political freedom who are always and irresistibly on the side of the student standing in front of the tank or the demonstrator chanting “Where is my vote?” in the face of the billy club. Good for us. (If you don’t understand who the American people are for, put down this newspaper or get up from your computer, walk into the street and grab the first non-insane-looking person you meet. Say, “Did you see the demonstrations in Iran? It’s the ayatollahs versus the reformers. Who do you want to win?” You won’t just get “the reformers,” you’ll get the perplexed-puppy look, a tilt of the head and a wondering stare: You have to ask?)

If the rebels on the street win, however winning is defined, they, being more modern and moderate than the ruling government, will likely have a moderating influence on their government. If the rebels on the street lose, however that is defined, this fact remains: Something has been unleashed, and it won’t be going away. A thugocracy has been revealed as lacking the support and respect of a considerable portion of its people, and that portion is not solely the most sophisticated and educated but, far more significantly, the young. Half the people in Iran are under 27. When the young rise against the old, the future rises against the past. In that contest, the future always wins. The question is timing: soon or some years from now? (A heartening Twitter feed Thursday, from Andrew Sullivan’s site: “Fact is, we’ve seen variety of protesters grow: young+old, students+professionals, women in chador+westernized students.”)

Stifling and corrupt religious autocracy has seen its international standing diminished, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is among other things a Holocaust denier, has in effect been rebuked by half his country, and through free speech, that most painful way to lose your reputation, which has broken out on the streets. He can no longer claim to speak for his people. The rising tide of the young and educated seems uninterested in reflexively hating the West and deriving their meaning from that hatred.

To refuse to see all this as progress, or potential progress, is perverse to the point of wicked. To insist the American president, in the first days of the rebellion, insert the American government into the drama was shortsighted and mischievous. The ayatollahs were only too eager to demonize the demonstrators as mindless lackeys of the Great Satan Cowboy Uncle Sam, or whatever they call us this week. John McCain and others went quite crazy insisting President Obama declare whose side America was on, as if the world doesn’t know whose side America is on. “In the cause of freedom, America cannot be neutral,” said Rep. Mike Pence. Who says it’s neutral?

This was Aggressive Political Solipsism at work: Always exploit events to show you love freedom more than the other guy, always make someone else’s delicate drama your excuse for a thumping curtain speech.

Mr. Obama was restrained, balanced and helpful in the crucial first days, keeping the government out of it but having his State Department ask a primary conduit of information, Twitter, to delay planned maintenance and keep reports from the streets coming. Then he made a mistake, telling the New York Times in terms of our national security there is little difference between Mr. Ahmadinejad and his foe, Mir Hossein Mousavi, which may or may not in the long run be true but was undercutting of the opposition.
What now? Americans, and the West, should be who they are, friends of freedom. Iranians on the street made sure they got their Twitter reports and videos here. They trust us to spread the word through our technology. A lot of the signs they held were in English. They trust us to be for change and to advance their cause, and they’re right to trust us.

Should there at this point, more than a week into the story, be a formal declaration of support from the U.S. government? Certainly it’s time for an indignant statement on the abuses, including killings and beatings, perpetrated by the government and against the opposition. It’s never wrong to be on the side of civilization. Beyond that, what would be efficacious? It must be asked if a formal statement of support for the rebels would help them. And they’d have a better sense of it than we.

If the American president, for reasons of prudence, does not make a public statement of the government’s stand, he could certainly refer, as if it is an obvious fact because it is an obvious fact, to whom the American people are for. And that is the protesters on the street. If he were particularly striking in his comments about how Americans cannot help but love their brothers and sisters who stand for greater freedom and democracy in the world, all the better. The American people, after all, are not their government. Our sentiments are not controlled by the government, and this may be a timely moment to point that out, and remind the young of Iran, who are the future of Iran, that Americans are a future-siding people.

A small point on the technological aspects of the Iranian situation. Some ask if the impact of the new technology is exaggerated. No. Twittering and YouTubing made the story take hold and take off. But did the technology create the rebellion? No, it encouraged what was there. If they Twittered and liveblogged the French Revolution, it still would have been the French Revolution: “this aft 3pm @ the bastille.” It all still would have happened, perhaps with marginally greater support. Revolutions are revolutions and rebellions are rebellions; they don’t work unless the people are for it. In Iran, Twitter reported and encouraged. But the conviction must be there to be encouraged.

The interesting question is what technology would have done after the Revolution, during the Terror. What would word of the demonic violence, the tumbrels and nonstop guillotines unleashed circa 1790-95 have done to French support for the Revolution, and world support? Would Thomas Jefferson have been able to continue his blithe indifference if reports of France grimly murdering France had been Twittered out each day?

The great question is what modern technology can do not in the short term so much as the long. It is not the friend of entrenched tyranny. Connected to which, it would be nice if the technologies of the future were not given babyish names. Twitter, Google, Facebook, etc., have come to be crucial and historically consequential tools, and yet to refer to them is to talk baby talk. In the future could inventors please keep the weight and dignity of history in mind?