Many Ways to Watch Iran
By Tom Plate
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is unpopular in many places around the world. It should then follow that almost everyone watching the vivid video reports of the antigovernment demonstrations in Tehran from afar is cheering all the jeering. But that is far from the truth.
Western observers tend to regard protest demonstrations as always a good thing ? as a sign of healthy dissent, almost angelic in their innocence. This is probably a global minority view. In many places outside the West ? and especially in Asia ? the opposition movement in Tehran gets mixed reviews. This is because people around the world don’t necessarily look at the world through the same rose-colored glasses as we do.
To the binary Western eye, we cast Ahmadinejad as the bad guy and so therefore anyone opposed to him has to be a good guy. In our Manichean political morality, no room is allotted for ? well ? gray guys. It’s so simple, really, we hardly even have to think about it.
But binary thinking can be foolish.
The West in general made exactly this kind of kindergarten error of perception and simplistic branding in the late ‘70s as the government of the ill Shah Pahlavi of Iran was falling over.
Many in the West viewed his Peacock Throne as a portrait of total evil whose time to go had long come.
Almost no one listened to Henry Kissinger’s efforts to give a nuanced perspective to the historical drama: He worried that the successor regime in Iran might well prove worse than the Shah. For once he was right ? and was he ever: The world got to welcome the birth of a new and even more virulent style of repression in Iran.
Around the world, indulging in romantic flights of interpretation over large-scale street demonstrations is often thought to fly in the face of the reality of history.
Too many centuries of melancholy have produced too many rotten revolutions. For every liberty, equality and fraternity, there is Lenin, Stalin and Pol Pot.
In Asia, perhaps especially, the suspicion of student-led street revolutions is practically embedded in the region’s genetic coding and fear-section of the brain.
Chinese authorities fear largescale street assemblages like the plague.
One imagines privileged older leaders in Beijing watching their Al Jazerra or CNN presentations of the mass demonstrations in Tehran with near-neurotic outbursts of post-traumatic stress disorder. Not a word about the parallels to the Tiananmen Protest of 1989 will be uttered, of course, but no one watching will fail to make the connection.
It’s not just mainland authorities that tend to harbor mixed feelings about today’s Iranian street scenes. Many Chinese know all about the ravages of the adolescent and violent Red Guards during the phenomenally vicious Cultural Revolution to automatically sign off on street demonstrations led by students. Freedom and democracy may be wonderful ideas and all that; but sometimes very troublesome things happen along the road to utopia.
For many who have lived through the horrors of sudden violent change, a slowly evolving status quo may seem as close to heaven as it will get on political earth. A democracy since 1987, South Korea, for instance, has taken its share of lumps in the streets. Anti-riot police are constantly ready to go in the capital city of Seoul. And so when Koreans watch the developments in Iran, they view through the prism of their own long and dramatic national development ? and the region’s political history.
Let us make the point this way: Were the streets of Beijing suddenly to mirror those in Iran, the newspapers of the West would be filled with opinion commentaries hailing the pandemic of democracy. But that would not necessarily be the case in the news media of Asia. A Tehranian- type uprising would more likely scare the daylights out of Asia than immediately delight it.
A stable and politically evolving China has largely contributed to the region’s peace and prosperity.
And a successor Chinese government might even be more internally cruel and less positively oriented toward neighbors ? as in Iran 1979.
Surely Japan ? to extend the point ? has enough political troubles of its own right now to wish trouble on any neighbor.
Decades of Liberal Democratic Party post-war dominance look to be flying out the window. But will what replaces it be an improvement? The Japanese will vote for political stability throughout the region while it sorts through its next political phase.
Blossoming street demonstrations make excellent political television. But they don’t always transition into better government, to a better life and livelihood for all. They are a lot more fun to watch than endure.
Westerners are by and large happy to take them as positive political morality plays, but Asians, for the most part, would just as soon leave them to others.
Journalist Tom Plate, an American university professor for 14 years and author of “Confessions of an American Media Man,” has written six books, and is now working on his 7th and 8th ? both about Asia. He can be reached at platecolumn@ gmail.com.