Features | Society | Central Asia

Iran, Michael Jackson, and Generation X

Our writer argues that his young tech-savvy peers, celebrity fixations aside, are increasingly engaged in global issues like this summer’s riots in Tehran.

By Antony Loewenstein for

The violent June uprisings in Iran ricocheted around the world. While young, old, conservative and liberal Iranians protested the stolen election win of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the global online community rushed to support the cause. Although the Western rhetoric of good versus evil was embarrassingly simplistic – most of the protesters weren’t calling for the end of the Islamic Republic, merely reform – it was gratifying to find international interest for the rioting Iranians.

This backing took many forms. Web-savvy youth provided tools for Iranians to avoid government-backed censorship. One man in California published an online guide for geeks to set up proxy servers for Iranian citizens, as a way to get around the blocking of sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. “I felt like it was my responsibility to use my skills to help”, he told the US-based Tehran Bureau website. Many others volunteered their time and energy to allow Iranian youth to maintain an online voice.

Even singers Madonna, U2’s Bono, Jon Bon Jovi and Joan Baez stood alongside the protestors. Joan Baez recorded a version of “We Shall Overcome” – the anthem of the American civil rights movement – with some lyrics translated into Farsi.

When news circulated in June that phone companies Nokia and Siemens had sold Iran a monitoring centre that enabled security forces to tap mobile phones, scramble text-messages and interrupt calls, the worldwide response was immediate. A “Boycott Nokia” campaign sprouted almost overnight, bringing tens of thousands of signatures. According to the Guardian, Iranians themselves started to back an economic boycott as those sympathetic to the protest movement began targeting companies seen to be collaborating with the regime.

By mid-July, however, the story had largely fallen out of the news, not helped by the fact that the vast majority of Western journalists had been kicked out of the country and the authorities had brutally cracked down on local bloggers and dissidents. In the week June 29-July 5, Iran-related stories accounted for only four percent of total news coverage, down from 19 percent one week earlier, according to Pew Research.

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For a few weeks, Iran seemed like the biggest story in the world, although the possibility of a full-blown revolution was always very unlikely. Beirut-based think-tank Conflicts Forum wrote in July that, “The events in Iran centred on a dispute about the role of certain powerful clergy as well as an airing of old grievances between several strong personalities. This does not imply a leadership so ‘divided’ that it is about to fall.” This was no Eastern European “colour” revolution, despite the best efforts of the Western media to claim otherwise.

Many young Iranian friends reminded me not to be seduced by the romantic notions of liberty and freedom. The vast majority of support for Iranian “democrats” in the West isn’t so much about the individuals or groups but a way to overthrow or challenge the Islamic Republic. A revolution from within is the only way forward.

Outside interference in Iran is a time-honoured tradition, something that even US President Barack Obama acknowledged in his famous Cairo speech in June. “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government”, he said, in reference to the 1953 coup which overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

The global response to the Iranian uprisings proved that some dissent to authoritarian is more acceptable than others. Video footage was pouring out of Iran and world sympathy was clearly on the side of the protestors. Iran was the good fight, the just battle, and the inspiring struggle for democracy.

The democratic battle for Palestinian rights is framed in a completely different way. During recent travels around Israel, I was constantly told by Israelis that there was “no partner for peace” and checkpoints, walls and barriers had to be erected to prevent Palestinian terrorism.

Young American journalist Max Blumenthal correctly pointed out the inherent hypocrisy in the media’s response to these conflicts, noting “When Palestinians employ direct action tactics to protest Israeli oppression, and when Israeli forces respond with wanton brutality, they are ignored by the US media, even when footage is already available through online sources. It seems they can only generate media when they resort to violence, a dynamic the Israeli government obviously welcomes.” The only rational response is that Palestinians have been demonized so effectively over so many decades that any sympathy for them in the corporate media is automatically equated with anti-Americanism or anti-Semitism.

Despite these geo-political and media realities, the Palestinian cause is growing in strength across the world, especially among the younger generation. I encountered countless Western human rights activists throughout Palestine coming to protect Palestinian farmers from settler attacks or acquaint themselves with the realities of Israeli occupation. It is a cause that can’t be so easily erased by media silence. The Internet has allowed new voices to be heard – anti-Zionists, pro-Palestinian activists and critical perspectives against the Israel lobby – and has posted a fundamental challenge to the decades-old narrative of defenceless Israeli against aggressive Palestinian. Journalists in Gaza said that they were humbled with Western activists and journalists coming to the besieged Strip to hear their stories.

But neither Palestine nor Iran (or even the recent Uighur protests in China’s Xinjiang province) could match the outpouring of global grief over Michael Jackson’s death. It was at once dispiriting yet fleeting. Like Princess Diana, the emotions expressed were both deeply felt and artificial. Jackson’s music was undoubtedly influential but I suspect many simply longed to reclaim his once-cherished innocence and wished he had been able to resurrect his stalled career.

The public passions experienced over Jackson’s demise were a manifestation of celebrity culture run amok. But the global Web community is now so fragmented, offering the ability to support or advocate for countless causes, that enough individuals are still following and supporting the Iranians, Palestinians and Uighurs.

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The baby boomers largely protested themselves out in the 1960s and 1970s – and many finally embraced the belief that pure capitalism was the best way to ensure social equity, despite the vast evidence challenging this thesis. In contrast, generation x and y are far less likely to burn out; activism is easy with the click of a mouse button.

As a member of Generation X, I don’t find apathy among my peers, but engagement, dedication and a belief in human rights. Perhaps the majority of the world’s population doesn’t care that Israel continues to illegally occupy the Palestinians or that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime tortures dissidents in jail, but the sheer force of powerful images and words transmitted by bloggers, satellite television and alternative media has created an unruly collection of conflicting messages and talking points. These causes are known because they are right and just. Solely relying on establishment news outlets to get informed is no longer a viable option.

Order is the enemy of progress.