How Best to Support the Iranians? Larison vs. Hitchens

How Best to Support the Iranians? Larison vs. Hitchens June 29, 2009

Daniel Larison excellently states the case for personal support for Iranian freedom but non-involvement by the US government:

Something that I don’t quite understand is why anyone would conclude that silence or minimal comment condemning the Iranian government’s violence by government officials requires that private individuals refrain from expressing their moral support. There has been no small amount of moral support offered to the protesters by citizens of Western democracies. While I might find these enthusiasms a bit romantic, unduly earnest and misplaced (because it seems inevitably to lead to calls for the government to “do something”), other citizens are free to express their solidarity with Iranian protesters as they see fit. Interference refers obviously to actions taken by the government. The actions of the U.S. government have to be taken with American interests in mind, and representatives of the government ought to act accordingly.

Will Washington’s moral support make the Basij militiaman more or less likely to see the Iranian protester in front of him as a fellow Iranian rather than a criminal? If it will make the protester’s situation more difficult, whose cause is served by showing solidarity?Have the government make a statement expressing moral support, and you may feel very content, but it may have serious consequences for the very people you are trying to aid. Encouragement can easily bleed over into reckless promises of assistance, or it can be perceived wrongly as such, in which case the lost lives of protesters who trusted in empty words will be on the heads of those in government who made these statements. This would be the worst of both worlds: effectively uninvolved, but still bearing the moral responsibility for goading the dissidents into futile, bloody resistance. Unable and unwilling to take any greater direct action, perhaps it is best for the government to refrain from making statements in support of the protesters.

But, on the other hand, Christopher Hitchens argues that average Iranians see through all the attempts to scapegoat the West, arguing that reflexive suspicion that the British are behind every misfortune is ridiculed as simple paranoia with no credibility in Iran.  He refers to My Uncle Napoleon a satire of British conspiracy theories, which Iranians refer to as shorthand for paranoid fantasies. Hitchens argues we should not conflate Iranian government Western-conspiracy propaganda with how Iranians actually interpret events.  In describing Khamenei’s accusations two Fridays ago that the British were behind a misinformation campaign in Iran, Hitchens writes:

Here is a man who hasn’t even heard that his favorite conspiracy theory is a long-standing joke among his own people. And these ravings and gibberings have real-world consequences of which at least three may be mentioned:

  1. There is nothing at all that any Western country can do to avoid the charge of intervening in Iran’s internal affairs. The deep belief that everything—especially anything in English—is already and by definition an intervention is part of the very identity and ideology of the theocracy.
  2. It is a mistake to assume that the ayatollahs, cynical and corrupt as they may be, are acting rationally. They are frequently in the grip of archaic beliefs and fears that would make a stupefied medieval European peasant seem mentally sturdy and resourceful by comparison.
  3. The tendency of outside media to check the temperature of the clerics, rather than consult the writers and poets of the country, shows our own cultural backwardness in regrettably sharp relief. Anyone who had been reading Pezeshkzad and Nafisi, or talking to their students and readers in Tabriz and Esfahan and Mashad, would have been able to avoid the awful embarrassment by which everything that has occurred on the streets of Iran during recent days has come as one surprise after another to most of our uncultured “experts.”
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