Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Stop me if you know this song!

The Iranian Regime has changed its tune. Instead of singing about conciliation, they've switched to a more sickeningly predictable ditty; anyone who recognizes this song already knows how it goes: propagandist state television broadcasts, forthcoming show trials of state enemies, killing protesters in the streets, banning burial of those protesters, rigged elections, and state-supported mobs of pimply young men encouraged to beat anyone who seems disloyal. Generally, tyrannies continue this business until everyone is disloyal, and therefore an enemy of the state, but at least they're all lying about it, in one-part harmony. A state rooted in lies needs a lying populace, the hope being that eventually, no one can recognize the truth anymore.

The song began in earnest after the Ayatollah spoke at length on Friday about the election. It seems as if most authoritarian leaders speak "at length"; the more power granted to an individual, the more loquacious they become apparently. You wonder if you could judge a ruler's power simply by measuring the length of their speeches. At the far end of absolute power, you have Stalin, who was known for giving five-hour speeches and sentencing to death whoever stopped clapping first. This created the spectacle of audiences clapping to the point of exhaustion; it's better to have bleeding hands and stay alive. Authoritarians do save some time by cutting the jokes out of their speeches, and they never seem to have a question and answer period; they certainly have answers, but take no questions. One might hope, however, that a man of God would emulate the Lord, who is known for very rarely speaking in public. No such luck.

The Ayatollah's lyrics were fairly clear. The election was fair. Of course, the regime counted all of the votes; they were so concerned with counting the votes that they counted them before anyone voted. The protesters are criminals and will be treated as such. If they want to criticize the election results, they can do so, provided they're not criminals. Incidentally, anyone criticizing the election results is breaking the law in doing so. Finally, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a free and open democracy and will be glad to discuss the results of the election with any citizen who would like to meet with the local militia at a jail cell of their choice. Sing along if you know the words! Of course, if you know the words, you might not feel like singing right now.

While doing this canny musical impersonation of tyranny, the Republic has started the steady drumbeat of manufacturing martyrs, whose strangely beatific photos have circulated around the Internet. There's something oddly aesthetic about martyr images that one assumes every martyrologist recognizes, although none would say so aloud. The martyr achieves a state of beauty in this moment that is all the more painful for being their last moment. Perhaps it's the pain of realizing that the sort of person who would give their life for their society has done so. And, after all, every martyr gives their life for their society. The cheap view is that they die "for an idea" or "for their beliefs". I think this is wrong- instead, they die so that their civilization may live. It's akin to older tribal sacrifices- they die to expurgate evil, by being a victim of that evil.

So far, the Islamic Republic, which is neither, has created a few hundred martyrs, but they're just getting started. Following the 1979 revolution, and incidentally with Mr. Mousavi singing along, they created something like 20,000- possibly more than the Shah's secret police had done in nearly four decades. This was still a low ball figure for the twentieth century. It was just a warm up to get the populace singing about theocratic democracy. The song entitled "Theocratic Democracy" told of a "republic" in which people voted and political life as usual took place, only the state was overlaid with a body of religious clerics who had final say on all decisions. So, basically, a democracy with a dash of absolute power.

[Incidentally, my favorite news moment was when a question-asking haircut on CNN asked an Iranian scholar on the air: "Do we have anything like the body of clerics in our American government?" The scholar nervously replied, "Uh... no." But, not for lack of trying, eh?]

What's amazing is how easily it would have been for the regime to maintain this nonsense about a democracy with theocratic absolutism even being possible. All they would have had to do was open the election to a recount. Iranians want to believe. Instead, when it came time to choose between democracy and tyranny, the regime decided to reinforce the tyranny quite publicly, but keep calling it democracy. It's another old tune, but of course, no population can sing forever, even if stopping for breath gets them the death penalty. Indeed, the regime itself has started singing off-key, as if even they can't repeat the lying lyrics with a straight face.

One last note: the 1979 Revolution took an entire year to be completed. It's hard to believe the regime can keep singing for that long, even if they do only know one note, but there's no doubt the Persian people can sing longer than their state.

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