The revolution will be no re-run, brothers,
The revolution will be live.
-Gil Scot-Heron, “The Revolution will not be televised”
IF GIL Scot-Heron’s anthem of revolution saw television’s jejune concerns as an opiate to be dispensed with in the revolutionary moment, should we view Twitter.com as help or hindrance to mass mobilization? Never ones to miss a story that broadcasts well over wi-fi at Starbucks, reporters have pounced upon news of a young official at the U.S. State Department, Jared Cohen, requesting of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey that maintenance of the site be performed at a time not interfering with its use as an organizing tool for demonstrating Iranians.
This is the biggest story about the website since a young Briton was propelled to fame for tweeting his jog into a tree in real time. The quotidian concerns of television seem like voices from the penetral of eternal truth when compared to the new standards of facile ephemerality forged by tweets. One wonders if so light a vehicle can carry a coup d’état, or, more importantly, what sort of political constitution might be formed on a social networking site. Perhaps observers on the left will be especially chary of jumping to wrong conclusions on an emerging resistance movement in Iran, given a propensity for misreading that was shown some thirty years ago.
In the fall of 1978, Michel Foucault began publishing a flurry of essays from Tehran celebrating the “political spirituality” bubbling to the surface in resistance to the Shah. For Foucault this was not only a popular movement against a despotic regime, but a rejection of modernity in favor of the fully emancipatory principles of Shi’a Islam.
It was clear to most that Khomeini did not have emancipation on his mind. By the time of the Revolution, there were already accurate accounts of modern Iran emerging especially in the indispensable work of Nikki Keddie. Showing a resistance to the Shah and an ability to summon large demonstrations as early as 1963, Khomeini’s influence from exile became especially strong after a 1975 peace with Iraq allowed his words to enter the country by tape and page. Media mattered, but those media were carrying a message already established. It should have been no surprise that the clerics—who were long the country’s second most powerful constituency at least—would fill the space of power vacated by the Shah, and that their views would not be softened by their newfound power.
The lesson of Foucault’s mistake is to be careful about the narratives by which one describes emerging events. There is a too casual narrative among us on the ability of the Internet to form grassroots movements. It was embraced by Howard Dean and David Plouffe, who of course are not leaders of a movement, but successful canvassers for an established political party. Their use of the term ‘movement’ might make us feel sexier as we part with a few dollars, but that is precisely what good advertising does. One senses that the bold statements now made for the influence in Iran of sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are driven first and foremost by our attitudes toward our media environment, which claims to be more inclusive and democratic than ever before. The advent of the camera phone might assure that we receive more images of the event, and receive them more quickly, but has yet to demonstrate an ability to affect the event’s outcome. The Web might make it easier to organize a demonstration, but Iran proved itself capable of producing demonstrations long ago.
Iran, we know, is at present a youthful country, and one where the young do not necessarily buy into the views of the West long advanced by religious leaders. As such it is eminently capable of revolutionary change, and of a political settlement more liberal than its current one. But have those energies coalesced into the kind of political movement that can vie for power with the theocracy?
Unless it is mobilized in the cause of clear and established liberal principles, one must wonder what sort of movement the Internet can mediate, or if current demonstrations in Iran will be more than a fleeting distraction. The worst-case scenario would be that Twitter does in fact hold revolutionary potential, and that its ideology of legitimizing the most fatuous and visceral human expression become the ground of political action anywhere. Such action would be a long way from the deliberation and overlapping consensus on which democracy rests. For this reason, I find myself entirely in agreement with Michael Walzer’s and Ramin Jahanbegloo’s posts of June 17 and 18, which urge us to exercise vigilance against a repressive backlash to these demonstrations and to devote every possible means of finding and supporting the many Iranians who are bona fide friends of democracy, whose courage I am certain will not be deterred by routine site maintenance. I further hope that we do so with the kind of long attention out of fashion in the age of the Internet.
Feisal G. Mohamed is a Milton scholar and Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois.