I’m going to be out of town some for the 4th of July, so I’m writing this the week before (my husband still loves to light stuff on fire, just as he’s done for the past 30 years…). It is my sincere hope that, by the time that this publishes, the situation in Iran will have dramatically improved and this will seem dated. But I fear that it will not.
For now, I’m almost obsessed with the protests in Iran, particularly with the role that courageous women are playing in leading the call for greater transparency and democracy, an especially bold stance given the oppression women face on many levels in Iran. I do not claim to be an expert on Iran’s electoral process, or even on the irregularities and their alleged impact on the outcome. That’s not, really, what primarily interests me about Iran today, although I very much hope that the violent repression ceases and there is an open process to account for every vote and deliver a just electoral result to the people of the nation.
What has really transfixed me, though, is this idea of ‘why don’t people get that excited about democracy here?’ I had this conversation, actually, with some of the students in my poverty and the global economy class a few weeks ago. We were talking about the protests across Latin America against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, and several of my students wondered aloud why, given what they are learning about the impact of these free trade agreements on workers and citizens in the U.S., there has not been a more mass uprising here. I pointed out that there has, in fact, been some significant mobilization on fair trade issues in the U.S., and we’ve seen people engage not only in more traditional street-type protests but also actions as consumers and shareholders, in ways that are creative and compelling. But it’s true that we have not seen the scope or scale of the demonstrations seen in other parts of the world, and I spend quite a bit of time asking myself questions like that too.
I think we need to be careful not to fall into the ‘Americans don’t care’/apathy argument–I believe, in fact, that there is considerable evidence that Americans are quite engaged in the work of charitable nonprofit organizations and that people are connecting with each other in new, albeit often less deep, ways in the global economy. Besides, there is an abundance of evidence that, while the U.S. may not have as rich a tradition of social protest as some countries, our history certainly has its share–including the founding of the nation and the struggles for some of our most valuable and precious victories: women’s suffrage, abolition, and the women’s liberation and civil rights movements. I myself have had the extraordinary opportunity to be involved in the immigrant ‘uprising’ of 2006 that saw more than two million people around the country, at various points, engage in peaceful street protest.
No, my thoughts do not turn to a lament over some perceived inertia on the part of the American ‘public’ (the extent to which this sense of ‘we-ness’ is elusive is a related discussion, but one that I’ll return to in an organizing context in another post) but, rather, to a wonder about how organizers can take better advantage of the protections, the space, so to speak, in which we can agitate. I know that people in the U.S. were very, very angry about the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election, for example, yet we certainly did not see the same kind of mobilization we’ve seen in Iran these past two weeks, despite the assurance that the consequences for such activism would have been less deadly here. I truly believe that the difference in response has more to do with differences in organizing, differences in the culture of collective action, than in differences in passion about issues or injustices.
I wish that there was more news coming out of Iran about the how of these demonstrations, instead of just the why and the what and even, although I find their stories tremendously inspiring, the who. I want to know what it takes to mobilize such mass action in the face of tremendous oppression. I mean, one person’s incredible commitment to courage is noteworthy, but the overwhelming courage of conviction of hundreds of thousands of people cannot be accidental, nor do I believe it to be genetic–it’s a triumph of organizing and, if we are to live up to those pieces of our nation’s history which are its most noble (and claim the future that we would want for ourselves), we’ve got to learn from it, capture it somehow, and make it resonate here.
PS. So, obviously, I’m not the only person asking these same questions. Good Washington Post article on Arab activists’ own analysis.