Further Meditations on the Objective Meaning of Green Twitter Avatars

Some people were really ticked off by my Twitter avatar post, and I can see why. I guess it’s bad enough to accuse people of empty moral posturing. It’s another thing to accuse people of empty moral posturing that helps the people who worked like crazy to start an unjustified war in Iraq. So let me say that I completely understand the impulse to express solidarity with Iranians who seek freedom. I feel it very strongly myself, but I also don’t trust it. Why not?

Because I realize that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t understand Iranian politics very deeply. I will now proceed to make some mistakes that prove this. For example, I did not know until this episode that Mousavi was Prime Minister of Iran for many years under Khomeni, which pretty much guarantees he’s no angel. I did not understand anything about the internal divisions within the Council of Guardians and the Assembly of Experts. Indeed, I still don’t completely grasp how these various bodies are related to each other. What I gather is that that Khameni and Ahmadinejad are aligned against former Prime Minister Mousavi and former President Rafsanjani (who is now the head of the Assemby of Experts, the body that chooses the Supreme Leader. Thank you Wikipedia). I don’t really grasp whether Mousavi and Rafsanjani are in it together, or are in a “the enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine” sort of thing, or what. As far as I can tell, the ruling axis got worried A’jad might lose the election, botched the vote-rigging, but validated the result anyway. I don’t know who would have won had the vote been counted (I think this remains quite unclear), but in any case, it seems clear enough that Ahmadinejad is staying in power despite a pretty transparent flouting of the rules of an already deeply anti-democratic constitution. This provided a great opportunity for the anti-Khameni/Ahmadinejad faction to encourage a popular uprising, which I am sure is fueled by real discontent with the current regime. And much of this discontent I am sure is surely rooted in an authentic desire for a more liberal and democratic Iran.

Is that what we get if the Mousavi-Rafsanjani axis comes to power? A more liberal and democratic Iran? I honestly don’t know, and I don’t think many people do. I do know that these guys are deeply embedded in the larger status quo power structure, have had power before, and their records don’t look so good. They may well represent improvement, but I don’t honestly know that. As far as I know, the outpouring of desire for change that we see so clearly on YouTube is being exploited by one faction of the Iranian ruling class to depose another. I’d like to see the whole theocratic structure of Iran fall. I’d like to see the whole country radically liberalize, but I think that’s unlikely, largely because I doubt very much that that’s what most Iranians want. I want Iran to be free, and I want Iranians to want to be free. And I’m quite willing to cheer for freedom. Go freedom! But given my ignorance of exactly what and who I’d really be cheering on should I alter my Twitter avatar to reflect the campaign color of the former PM of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I think the intellectually and morally responsible course of action is to watch with colorless hope.

I am, however, quite confident that the powerful faction within American politics that argued for and got a war in Iraq has been arguing for a much harder line against Iran in order to set up a familiar dynamic of sanctions, UN Security Council demands, and so on. Just read the Weekly Standard blog.  Dick Cheney’s authorized biographer Stephen Hayes is certainly not trying to avoid a future conflict when he writes:

The reason to talk about consequences [i.e., what the U.S. will do if this or that happens in Iran] is, at least in part, because it offers an opportunity to influence how this is going to play out. It may be the case that there are few potential consequences from the international community that could affect regime behavior. But if that’s the case — and given the regime’s support for terror, its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, its theft of the election, and its violent suppression of the protests — doesn’t that make it more urgent for the international community to at least try to affect behavior and at least raise the possibility that there will come a time when the world refuses to recognize the current regime?

People are accusing other people of naïveté all over the place, so I’ll try not to. But let me say I think it is rather unwise to underestimate the strategic savvy of the opinonmakers at the Weekly Standard and Fox News. It is not “paranoid” to think they are in fact talented at shaping American popular opinion and then bringing it to bear to achieve their political aims. The correct description of the events in Iran continues to elude me. Perhaps I have been ideologically blinded to the obvious. All I can say is that given what little I know, it is not obvious. But it is quite clear to me that the story of a people yearning for freedom and rising up to demand their rights as citizens who are then crushed by an evil authoritarian regime that will do anything to achieve its evil ends… it’s clear to me that this story is useful to a certain faction in the ongoing debates about U.S. policy toward Iran. It may be that this story is the true story. But I don’t honestly know that it is, so I think it is prudent not to assume it is–especially given the fact that this narrative does play into the hands of the most dangerous people in American public life.

Things really are lining up rather nicely for the neocons, and I don’t think it’s crazy to be wary of helping them, especially when doing nothing but explaining why you’re doing nothing really can’t hurt. If Mousavi turns out to be the Iranian Gorbechev, I’ll be delighted. But then we’ll hear how the reverse domino theory has been vindicated, how George W. Bush is a world-historical champion of freedom, and how we should not in the future be so hesitant to knock down dominoes. If the protests are crushed, it proves how rotten and dangerous the regime is, making it all the more urgent that the “international community” intervene to make sure the evil mullahs don’t nuke Israel. If it turns out the new boss is same as the old boss, we’ll hear a lot about Iran’s instability, and the danger of nukes in that kind a tinderbox. Etc. So, yes. I am on my guard.

Anyway, I really did disparage people’s motives in my first post, and I don’t really think all Livestrong bracelets, pink ribbons, yellow ribbons, purple ribbons, blue ribbons, and green Twitter avatars are cheap, empty signaling. If you’re really sincerely just excited to do some small thing to stand with people risking life and limb for their freedom, I apologize. But I do ask you to reflect on what you do and don’t really know, and to consider what narrative benefits whom.

Meanwhile, IOZ interviews The Revolution.

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35 thoughts on “Further Meditations on the Objective Meaning of Green Twitter Avatars

  1. I have to run, so just some quick thoughts:I hesitated, at first, to turn my avatar green for the same reason: I wasn't /too/ familiar with Iranian politics. This presented an opportunity to remedy that, but I've still only scratched the surface. The reason I switched my icon – despite knowing that Mousavi is no Miss Sunshine – is that an election itself can be considered a step in the right direction. I fully support a population in demanding that they at least consent to who governs them, in spite of the Republican Party, even.It also got a few of my less-than-aware friends to ask “What's the deal?”Should I be more wary of helping the neo-cons? Maybe; I tend to think not but I've been wrong before. It's more like, this particular group seems to have a cookie cutter “git 'er done!” response to most conflicts abroad, and I tend not to put much stock in how much my low-cost avatar signaling has on this. *shrug*

  2. Great job of describing why the green avatar “band wagon” is really just another idea with “good intentions” but no real substance. I had challenged the whole idea when a group of my sons friends started to jump on the band wagon. I asked the question, how are we supporting democracy in Iran by doing this. Who there would really support freedom. The country is a theocracy which is committed to Islamic law and Islamic law does not permit many freedoms (for women and non-Muslims) to its citizens.In fact, your concerns about the apparent looser in the voting is as you describe. He is no different that the winner. So what are we really doing other than demonstrating our American arrogance. If we truly believe that the Iranian people want freedom then we will see an ongoing battle for liberty. It make take another generation, but they must want it and they will have to pay the price to get it. It cannot be handed to them by the U.S. Great Post.

  3. How does signalling support for the millions of people protesting a crooked election support democracy?”…good question! As for “no different from the winner”…here's Peggy Noonan:”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?”http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124535660563828

  4. Peggy, I believe, makes the statement, “Something has been unleashed, and it won't be going away….” That something, we hope, is the concept of freedom. We don't know, really, what they want or how they would define what they want. We see it through our own historical struggle, and the ideas of liberty, limited government, private property, federalism and religious tolerance. Is that what they are embracing? One can only hope, but we don't really know. Our freedoms, the liberties that we have enjoyed with the establishment of the constitution are derived from Western ideas, Christianity, and common law practices. The battle for liberty in Iran will be long and may not look anything like what we enjoy. How can it? I do hope that it does. We will all be watching…maybe for several more decades.

  5. I was a fast adopter of the green avatar on Twitter, Facebook, and now Google Friend Connect.Admittedly, I am fairly ignorant about Iranian politics. I mostly familiarized myself with Iranian politics because I have been concerned with Iranian nuclear capabilities for the last year or two. Before that, my concern related principally to Iranian support for terrorists who target Jews. Because of that earlier familiarity, I agree that everyone should remain on guard.For example, Rafsanjani would never have made my list of decent human beings before these events. He is still under indictment for bombing the Jewish Center in Buenos Aires. He still doesn't make my list, but I am now capable of believing he may be an important agent of positive change.The reason why I take the position I take has very little to do with the people involved. I don't trust any of the presidential candidates. The only serious player I trust in any meaningful way is Grand Ayatollah Montazeri.However, there are issues that transcend the personalities involved. Persians (and the rest of the world) will be better served by a leader who believes that he will have to answer to them and for their suffering. If A'jad and Khamenehi win this fight, the leaders of Iran will believe they have a more open hand to act without consequence.The international community needs to know that Iran will behave somewhat rationally if it is to avoid a military confrontation with Iran. A'jad has made clear that he is not capable of rational behavior. Khamenehi appears to share those views. They both act as if they will be protected by the Mahdi. Recent events seem to bolster the likelihood that this view is true. Because of that, a military confrontation is much more likely now and will be increasingly likely if A'jad and Khamenehi succeed in suppressing the Iranian people.Finally, I know a handful of Iranians, and they all take the side of the Green Revolution. They have told me about the particularly oppressive policies and enforcement that have taken hold with the A'jad presidency. Even if Mousavi is only a little better, they are very optimistic that he will at least roll back the A'jad regression. Even if that is the only benefit from all of this, it is enough. So, as long as A'jad is president and a change of leadership seems possible, my avatar will stay green.

  6. Frankly Will I think you're “thinking out” this issue too much. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. If folks want to, in a simplistic way, express “solidarity” with a simple ideal, “free and fair elections” so be it. No big deal.

  7. Will Wilkinson is right on here. Its possible to support the protesters in the street and still engage in some critical thinking. There are also case studies to support his hypothesis, for example:how come the mainstream media didn't support the opposition in Mexico when Felipe Calderon blatantly stole the 2006 presidential election from leftist challenger Andrés Manuel López Obrador? There were street protests for weeks then too but nobody was calling it a revolution against tyranny here in the states. why is that?

  8. Will Wilkinson is right on here. Its possible to support the protesters in the street and still engage in some critical thinking. There are also case studies to support his hypothesis, for example:how come the mainstream media didn't support the opposition in Mexico when Felipe Calderon blatantly stole the 2006 presidential election from leftist challenger Andrés Manuel López Obrador? There were street protests for weeks then too but nobody was calling it a revolution against tyranny here in the states. why is that?

  9. David Goodner? Come on, if you are willing to get arrested for your ideals, you should be willing to post under your name. In any event, the media fails all the time. It's job is to meet demand, not to police the public discourse. If Iran (and other pressing issues) are to be held hostage to all the past failings of the media, then we should just give up now.I have given this issue more thought since you sent me this question on Facebook. Early in the Iran election issue, CNN failed. It, and the other MSM, never really ran this story very well. They have been dominated by Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and a few select blogs (I am watching CNN now and they just conceded this fact as I type). Maybe the difference is that media is less centralized today. Most people are looking at these events as an example of how distributed media is capable of overcoming even totalitarian attempts at media and message control. We have never seen an effective mass movement coordinated under a pre-planned and state-sponsored media clampdown like this.

  10. Will, I really enjoyed the post, but I have a question for you. Classical liberals often are skeptical that electoral politics can improve the world. I happen to think that's right. However, I get a bit worried when my lefty and righty friends ask me what the alternatives are. I give them I.H.S lines about fighting the war of ideas, which I can usually convince them is crucial. But that's long-term … which again, is not to denigrate it. What can your classical-liberal-on-the-street do in a lesser-of-two-evils scenario? Is she obliged not to participate even if she is well-informed? What can she do? Not everyone has the platform that you do, so we can't all write cool blogs, columns and give hip marketplace commentary.

  11. Things really are lining up rather nicely for the neocons, and I don’t think it’s crazy to be wary of helping them, especially when doing nothing but explaining why you’re doing nothing really can’t hurt.

    Yes, things are lining up rather nicely for the necons because they've been proven right in an assumption. Neocons were largely arguing exactly what you've laid out in your “History Repeats Itself” post. Of course, they weren't the only ones doing so. There were quite a few different strands of opinions before the elections:1) (Many liberal internationalists) Iran is an Islamic Republic, the elections are relatively fair even if the candidates have to be approved, reformers are popular (Ahmadinejad elected only because of boycotts), might be elected, and could make a real difference. Attacking the regime is counter-productive, because it's a real republic. The right sort of outreach could get people to vote for the reformer.2) (Other liberal internationalists, some realists) Iran is an Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad has real majority support. The dream of reforms being elected is mostly a fantasy, but because the regime has popular support, we have to deal with it. Attacking the regime, rhetorically or literally, only upsets the people of Iran.3) (Neocons) Iran's regime does not have popular support. The election will be a sham; even if a “reformer” is elected, that reformer was prescreened by the Guardian Council and isn't all that different. Even if the reformer wanted reforms, the regime's structure will prevent it. Our only choice is to support revolts. Attacking the regime, whether rhetorically, economically, or even perhaps militarily, will have the support of its people.4) (Other realists and non-interventionists) Any of the other premises could be true, but I'm sure that doing nothing is the right decision, so the facts don't matter all that much to me.The first two groups of people are somewhat discredited right now. The neocons made a prediction– “if there is any chance of reform, the regime will make sure that it won't happen.” Stealing the election really strengthens their position because their prediction was right, as opposed to those liberal internationalists who before the election assured us that Iran had a flawed Republic, but a Republic all the same.And then you go on to discuss how no matter what happens, the neocons will have an argument– just as people who oppose them will have an argument. So then what's the point? There's always still a non-interventionist argument.The problem for the non-interventionist position is that people who believed that the elections could force real change are upset about what happen, and might fall into the neocon camp rather than stay non-interventionist but for other reasons.

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  13. Iraq was a special domino and one we were already heavily involved with (a state of war, no fly zones, troops based in Saudia Arabia to enforce no fly zones which pissed off Bin Laden, etc.)I dislike when people say 'Iraq was bad' without offering what they would have preferred. I wasn't a big fan of invading Iraq, but I didn't think the inspections, sanctions, Saddam's two crazy sons, etc. was a status quo that should or would continue indefinitely. There were no easy answers with Iraq.

  14. And it's not really about Mousavi. It's about people being pissed off that they are so repressed that the regime won't even give them a sham election. All the candidates were hand-picked by the mullahs and the mullahs STILL wouldn't let them choose. It was the final straw for many people.

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  16. I prefer this post. The problem, I think, is you can either engage with people at the level of argument or you can describe what they are doing as a social psychological phenomenon, but they (rightly) get pissed off if you do both.

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  18. I think Will's really just railing against people as sheep. He's right, people are being sheep. He's right, we ought be humbler and admit we don't really understand the situation very well rather than jump into public support for something as it's been fed to us. He's right that we're signaling to the neocons that we're oh so easy to manipulate (as if they didn't understand this already). But forever will people be sheep. Too bad, but railing against will likely do no more good than will the greening of one's avatar.

  19. You're absolutely correct to be cautious, Will. Once the initial excitement over a popular Iranian uprising wears off, we're left with plenty of hard realities that should give us pause. I'm with you: I just don't know enough, and don't think our political establishment does either, to start making broad pronouncements or summations about what this means and what we should do about it.

  20. I plead guilty to all of the sheepish crimes that I am accused of by Will and by the last couple of posters. I don't know nearly enough about what's happening in Iran. There's a good chance that I am being manipulated by someone (to what end, I am not sure). I am following an example set by my sheep-like peers who are just as guilty as me.Some questions back at you though.Those people marching in Iran…are they acting without perfect information? Are they being manipulated for ends that they don't understand? Are they following the example of their peers?What's your advice for them?Should they have stayed home until they had sufficient data too?

  21. Obviously Mousavi is “no angel.” if he were outside the establishment, the mullahs wouldn't have allowed him to run. But I don't think that enthusiasm for an uprising that may bring the Mousavi-Rafsanjani axis is predicated on the ignorant/probably-false view that these guys are committed democratic liberal reformers on the inside. The enthusiasm is predicated on the fact that, if that faction does come to power, it'll be with an overwhelming, almost irresistable, public mandate to liberalize and democratize at least somewhat. This isn't just about getting different players into power. It's changing the Iranian Overton window.

  22. I don't know enough about what they're doing, so I don't have any advice for them. They are smarter than me about the situation. I also think analogizing their situation with that of the twitter-avatar-changer's is misleading. The average Iranian protester has a direct stake in what's happening in their country, and no doubt much more (if not perfect) contextual awareness than the average twitterer.

  23. We don't know much. But we probably know enough to oppose massacres of the protesters, shutting down communications, including the Farsi BBC, arresting opposition figures, and expelling foreign journalists.Any political situation is complicated. The civil rights movement was complicated. The 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe were complicated. Outsiders didn't know everything there was to know about either of them. It does not follow that gestures of solidarity should not have been engaged in until subject-matter expertise at the Ph.D. level was obtained.

  24. Because of the entire post and everyone's comments and I was pretty muchjust joking, I didn't know any story or though anything about turning myTwitter photo green until this post

  25. I disagree. There are short-term and long-term problems with naive activism. In the short-term, their act may lead them to feel they have “done their duty”, and to not do things that are more effective. But more importantly, this sort of response just reinforces the behavior of naively channeling one's desire to make the world better into superficial and ineffective strategies. And that is a powerful enemy of achieving real change through strategies that focus on results, not just easy ways to feel good.

  26. Join The Seasteading Institute. Duh :). Or at least The Free State Project.The depressing truth about politics is that the best move is usually not to play. When in doubt, focus on your own life and happiness. If you want to help and don't know how to do so directly, making money and donating it to whatever you think is the most efficient way of promoting freedom is always a good idea.

  27. Will, that's one bad case of Bush Derangement Syndrome if you won't back the people against the regime in Iran because it might somehow reflect well on Bush. That's just sad.

  28. My two cents is my agreement with “uknowbetter”. It's easy to carp from the sidelines and with 20-20 hindsight.

  29. The Green Revolution makes war far less likely, because now we know that plenty of Iranians (millions at least) dislike their government as much as the neocons do, and people here are (now, post-Iraq especially) aware of the fact that wars of liberation do great harm to the liberated and legitimize the governments that oppressed them. No one is naive enough to believe any more that a war of liberation is welcomed by its alleged beneficiaries, and the only other way to motivate people to support war with Iran is to demonize the whole country as being all of a piece, which is now impossible. In my book that's good. Yours too, I suspect.

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