The Kitty Genovese model.

A couple of years ago, I delivered an incoherent, profanity-laden and probably awful lecture on the Grim Meathook Future at the Chaos Communications Congress in Berlin. (In my defense, I was completely unhinged due to jet lag and the meltdown of my MacBook the night before the talk, when I’d planned to finish my speech and the accompanying slides.) I barely remember delivering the lecture at all, but I do remember absolutely pissing off a good number of the collected attendees with my assertion that things like blogs and social networks aren’t very useful technology to people who are starving to death or being slaughtered by warlords.

One of the audience members, journalist Quinn Norton, stood up and pointed out that bloggers in Russia were exposing to the world the corruption and chaos underlying that nation’s political system. Which, of course, was true; I wouldn’t deny it. But as I remember, she didn’t have a satisfactory answer to the question I returned to her, and the question that I find myself asking tonight, as great numbers of good-hearted and well-meaning people are filling the Twitterverse with commentary and urgent info about the riots in Tehran following the suspect re-election of Mahmoud Ahmedinajed.

Yeah? So what?

As you can read in my previous post, I was called to task by a few people for my perceived cynicism in being unwilling to tune myself into the stream of info on the repression in Tehran. It’s not the first time. Though I am a technofetishist of the highest water and a futurist by both trade and inclination, I am deeply suspicious and cynical about the effects of technology on human culture. This does not endear me to a lot of my friends and colleagues in the Internet industry, but if I spent much of my time worrying about what would endear me to people, I’d either put a gun in my mouth or turn myself over to Jesus.

I think that one of the greatest fallacies of our time — and one of the greatest leaps in logic that is made again and again by people who involve themselves in the worthwhile struggle to bring equality to all people — is the notion that awareness equals involvement. By providing a way for the world to see the terrible things occurring in Iran right now, we believe that we are somehow “doing something” about the problem — that we are, in some way, affecting change.

I don’t argue that this is sometimes the case. Many times, in specific sorts of circumstances, the rallying cry of “the world is watching!” is enough to defuse a dangerous situation. But many other times, it’s not, and the only person who is empowered or even enervated by global awareness of tyranny and oppression is the person watching events unfold…not the person in the middle of them.

Twenty years ago, the world watched on television and in the pages of magazines and newspapers as a young man, anonymous to this very day, stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, as part of a protest that served as a memorial for recently deceased official Hu Yaobang. His act served as a sort of visual icon for the resistence of the common man against the repression of totalitarianism, and is rightly regarded as deeply heroic. It also served to draw international attention to China’s brutal policies of self-censorship and intellectual repression.

Unfortunately, nobody knows what happened to that young man. Given what has been seen in other cases of protest in China, it’s likely that the poor guy is either long dead or serving out a prison sentence somewhere. And in the twenty years since that day, China has made only sporadic and small progress in the human rights arena, despite the efforts of millions of people in government, non-governmental organizations, human rights watchdog organizations, and the simple negative public opinion of probably billions of people around the world, who felt righteous indignation on behalf of that anonymous hero, unable to legitimately protest his government’s actions in his own land.

China still operates under totalitarian repression of outside media as well as the Golden Shield (aka the “Great Firewall Of China”), which blocks access to any outside data deemed threatening to the ruling Communist party in the country. Despite this, there is still a flow of information in and out of the country, and human rights violations — as well as violent censorship of free speech, free thought and dissent — are still apparently quite common in China.

In other words, global public opinion has not affected China much over the past two decades. In fact, China is growing as an economic superpower whilst retaining their oppressive practices, due largely to the West using the country as a manufacturing base. We don’t make our shoes and computers in spite of their totalitarianism: in point of fact, we rely upon it. In a democratic society where protest is legitimized, it would seem likely that Chinese workers would protest the sparse wages paid to them by American and European companies to manufacture our goods and gadgets. They might even unionize. But that will never happen so long as our dollars and pounds and Euros shore up their totalitarian regime.

And yet, this notion continues to this day: the idea that the act of being aware of a situation is the same thing as involving oneself in it.

The logic seems to go like this: by making people aware of this terrible situation (protesters being attacked, imprisoned or killed in Iran, for example), we are bringing the discourse into the court of public opinion. We will make our leaders and our people aware of what is happening elsewhere, and then…something will happen to change it.

To be fair, this does work…but only in places where public opinion has a marked effect upon the actions of the regime (whether it be urban, federal, or what-have-you). If, for example, police in an American city attack an innocent African-American simply on an assumption of guilt based upon race, public opinion can certainly create consequence for the wrongdoers. The public can threaten to oust the mayor of the city (or at the very least not vote for him/her in the next election), the mayor can put pressure on the chief of police, etc. etc. In such ways are change affected in a democratic society, and public opinion can be a massive engine of change.

But this all breaks down in the case of totalitarian societies, because by and large, there’s really not much that you, as a non-member of that society, can do to affect change.

Let’s look specifically at the case of Iran right now. People are up in arms because it seems likely that the ruling party rigged the elections. (Americans, of which I am one, don’t really have a lot of room to talk here, but let’s overlook that for a second.) A certain amount of people in Iran are protesting the results of the election. They are, by all accounts, getting pretty brutally censured and attacked for doing so, while the government denies that anything of consequence is happening.

First of all, let’s just be honest here: knowing that people are being attacked for protesting is probably most of what you need to know. The specifics are, in my experience, pretty self-similar in any situation of this type throughout history. I haven’t read the accounts of what’s going on in Iran, but I suspect it runs something like this: the election results are announced. People — probably mostly students at first — take to the street in anger. The storm troopers show up and start bashing skulls. People begin rioting. The riot squads get more brutal. The government begins locking everything down — the media, first and foremost. People are dying in the streets. Shit is on fire.

How am I doing?

I’m being cynical here, but being cynical doesn’t mean it’s not true. These people are in a terrible situation. They’re making an agonizing choice between being quiet and being free. My heart and my sympathies and my support go out to them.

But the sad fact is that they’re probably simply going to their deaths. Why? Because they have no weight behind their dissent. Their government is a totalitarian theocracy run by a pack of lunatics who are actively developing nuclear weapons on the grounds that they might have to scorch the earth for Allah. They’ve been brutally repressing their people for decades now; how is this any different? Meet the old boss, same as the old boss.

More importantly, for the purposes of this discussion: if the people of Iran have no weight behind their outrage, people outside of Iran have less than no weight. Why? Because public opinion is totally irrelevant to Ahmedinajed’s regime. He — and his master, the Ayatollah Khamenei — don’t care what you or your government think about them. They have Allah on their side, total righteousness. They’re also the fourth largest oil exporter on the planet. Oil counts for 80% of their export capital, followed by — I’m not making this up — fruits and nuts, and also carpets.

Putting a worldwide ban on oil imports from Iran would be an instant way to affect change there. The money would run out…and even in theocracies, money is what keeps things running. If the rest of the world were to ditch Iranian oil for twelve months, I guarantee you’d see massive political change there.

But that, of course, isn’t going to happen — not on a global scale, not even on a national scale, and not on a personal scale. The majority of the people Twittering about Iran today are going to get in their car and drive to work via oil that was, at least in part, sold to them indirectly by the same people they’re trying to undermine with information technology. Hell, I would suspect that the power which keeps Twitter’s servers running is probably, at least in part, coming from Iranian oil in one way or another.

What we’re getting out of Iran right now is, essentially, evidence of the crimes being committed. I doubt anyone would disagree with that. But gathering evidence is something you do when you think there’s going to be a reckoning, and the sad example that history shows us is that there rarely ever is. Augusto Pinochet, Pol Pot and Idi Amin all died of heart attacks at advanced ages, either under house arrest or in lush exile somewhere. Their subordinates, by and large, also escaped justice, usually by insisting, as all fascists do, that they were “simply following orders“.

All the Twittering in the world isn’t going to create a world court that has jurisdiction over Mahmoud Ahmedinajed or the Ayatollah Khamenei, or Joseph Kony in Uganda, or Kim Jong-Il in North Korea, or any of the other insane cruel sons-of-bitches who rule with an iron fist over vast swaths of humanity. Pictures of the dead and dying, biographies of the damned…gather what you like and it’s still not going to fix these problems.

There are solutions, real solutions, but they take real work and sacrifice, on the part of every person who wants to truly change things. Stop driving cars; spend more money on products not made by totalitarian regimes; do without. And we are not willing to make those real sacrifices.

So we bear witness, as if the act of merely bearing witness somehow absolved us of our complicity in these atrocities. We tell ourselves that feeling righteously indignant is somehow a useful act, when the only person who is truly affected by our righteous indignation is ourselves.

We feel like heroes, when in fact we are as irrelevant to the situation as the thirty-eight New Yorkers who, in 1964, watched their neighbor Kitty Genovese get raped and robbed and stabbed to death in the courtyard of their apartment building. Each of the witnesses has been variously quoted as saying that they didn’t want to “get involved”. They were rightly vilified for this attitude.

Now, we want to get involved. So we use our global networks as stadium seating for the atrocity exhibition, and we cluck our tongues and shout our derision at those who commit torture and murder. And we feel better about ourselves. But we don’t make the hard choice to step into that ring ourselves, to make even the most basic sacrifices or put ourselves on the line, to prevent the atrocity. We’re concerned, but not involved.

And today, as I write this, God only knows how many Tehranians are going to be beaten and killed by the bastards who rule their country. We’re going to stand around and Twitter our anger to one another. And those poor people will be just as dead as Kitty Genovese when all is said and done.

*     *     *

If I’ve made you angry here, might I suggest that you call or write to your Congressperson or MP or whatever your nation’s equivalent is? Or that you find out if your corner gas station carries Iranian oil?

Do something constructive, in other words. Calling me an asshole isn’t constructive. I know I’m an asshole.

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  1. Thank you so much for putting the time in on this article – it’s really got me thinking!

  2. I agree with large swarths of the article you have written, but I still hold out hope that in the case of Iran’s “democracy,” that the governed will be able to force the hand of the ruling party. The people have given a tacit kind of consent to this regime, and when they show up in such numbers, it is possible that they can affect their government. I do agree that people on the outside (i.e. US) do have precious little to do but watch.

  3. This is the next Tienanmen Square. For all the uprising and tweets and blog linking, it will only end with a pile of dead bodies before business as usual resumes in Iran.

    Bloggers are being treacherously optimistic about the situation there. The military isn’t even really trying to stop them yet: The Ayatollah and Ahmedinajed are simply biding their time, getting resources together and waiting for an opportune moment. Once they get serious, it’s game over.

    Those kids have absolutely no chance in hell.

  4. Great post! I was bitching about Earth Hour a while back too. But I don’t agree with this –

    “Putting a worldwide ban on oil imports from Iran would be an instant way to affect change there. The money would run out…and even in theocracies, money is what keeps things running. If the rest of the world were to ditch Iranian oil for twelve months, I guarantee you’d see massive political change there.”

    Isn’t this what we are doing in Cuba, North Korea and a bunch of other rogue nations? So, I’m left wondering again, what is the best possible course of action? How do we deal with regimes like this?

  5. seem to me what you are not quite saying is that we all need to have guns to keep this iranian type situation from going down here.

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