Thursday, June 25, 2009

Missing the Point on Iran

Why a preening opportunist like John McCain has any credibility left on Iran after joking about bombing it is beyond me, but nonetheless, there he was yesterday, flanked by the usual suspects and just loving the spotlight:
"As Joe said, we don’t take the side of either candidate. There seems to be some confusion about that. We take the side of the Iranian people to have human rights, to have the freedom that we deem universal. And this argument about that somehow the government may be more repressive if we speak out on behalf of the people, we’ve seen that movie before.

The liberal left, during the Cold War so warned that if we spoke out for the people who are captive nations, members of captive nations, that that would lead to greater oppression. We found out after the Berlin Wall came down that we were, in their words, a beacon of hope and liberty and freedom for them.

So the liberal left will, again, continue to argue that we should be nice to the Iranian regime and we shouldn’t encourage dissidence. That is in direct contradiction to the fundamental principles of the United States of America."

Where do you start? With the baseless charge that anyone - much less the American left - is arguing that we should "be nice" to the regime? With the lie that the "liberal left" (and here, he must be referring to President Obama) is discouraging dissidence? The President - and, as far as I can tell, other Democrats - have done no such thing. (To say nothing of the sneering smile creeping over McCain's face - which, if you happen to see video of this, you're bound to notice - when he attacked the "liberal left." Trying to score partisan political points over this is disgusting.)

But addressing these arguments one by one would miss the larger point: Iran's brave protestors would be seriously harmed by overzealous American involvement in their efforts.

McCain, in the passage I quoted above, is conflating two distinct arguments:
1) That there are some people (of course, they are left unnamed) who are insisting we must not speak out against human rights violations in Iran because it would increase the regime's oppressiveness.
2) That the dread "liberal left" (again composed of these suspicious unnamed characters) is arguing that "we should be nice to the Iranian regime and we shouldn’t encourage dissidence."
For McCain, these are one and the same - that America, by not sufficiently backing the victims of the regime's brutality, is being "nice" and discouraging dissidence.

But this is an incredibly misleading way of presenting the dilemma faced by the international community. President Obama has been wise to focus his comments not on the protestors and their cause, but on the government and its actions. By condemning the violence against mostly-peaceful protestors, the United States can advance legitimate concerns about human rights without seeming to take sides on what are basically political questions: was there election fraud, and is Ahmadinejad a legitimate president? (The answers to those questions are unknown, of course, but they're probably "yes" and "almost certainly not," especially if one considers not just this election, but the Iranian electoral process overall.)

For what it's worth, the United States has spoken out about human rights violations in Iran: President Obama declared that he was "appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days." He added, "I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost." Yet even this relatively strong language is wisely cautious: it focuses merely on the regime's actions against the protestors, not on the legitimacy of the protestors' cause.

So McCain's first argument - that there is somehow silence over the atrocities taking place in Iran - is just wrong. And it does not follow, despite his confused declarations, that the United States is being "nice" to the regime or discouraging dissidents from protesting against the election results. In fact, the US has done little to discourage or encourage dissidence, and for good reason.

For the supporters of Mousavi to have any credibility, it is absolutely crucial that their efforts be understood as an internal rebellion of Iran's people against their government. It is therefore necessary for the United States to focus its limited influence on condemning and deploring the regime's actions against its own citizens, in order to underscore the fact that the Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are not locked in a struggle against the United States, but against their own people. Openly encouraging continued actions against the regime - which McCain apparently wants the US to do - would be taking sides, and it would undermine Mousavi's supporters terribly. Iran is crushing its own people in the streets. It is beating them with clubs, hacking them with axes, and shooting unarmed peaceful protestors, including young women. In this struggle, the enemy of the Iranian government is the Iranian people. For those courageous people to have any chance of success, we must not make this about us.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Welcome, Visitors!

Google Analytics is telling me that I'm receiving more than a few new visitors from the website of the Jeff Farias Show, which featured a link to my post "The Ethics of Outing Publius" when Mr. Farias interviewed Publius a few days ago. Thanks to everyone who's visited the site; I hope you'll return or add it to your RSS feed.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Was There Just a Coup in Iran?

Ahmadinejad's vote tally is extremely suspicious, says Juan Cole: the numbers claim, for example, that he won Tehran by over 50%, even though he is unpopular in Iran's urban centers. There are numerous other dubious results, including Ahmadinejad's eerily similar margins of victory among Iran's provinces, provinces which have historically displayed very different voting patterns. The uniformity of their results, and the myriad other strange happenings, lead Cole to conclude that "this post-election situation looks to me like a crime scene."

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that over 100 reformists have apparently been arrested, and Mir- Hossein Mousavi's supporters say he is under house arrest. Mobile phones, Facebook, and foreign news sources have all been blocked. Twitter still seems to be working, and Mousavi's supporters are using it to organize. The Huffington Post quotes a reader whose neighbor's brother, living in Tehran, says "the rooftops of nighttime Tehran are filled with people shouting 'Allah O Akbar' in protest of the government and election results. The last time he remembers this happening is in 1979 during the Revolution. Says the sound of tens of thousands on the rooftops is deafening right now."

Gary Sick, the former National Security Council member, summarizes the developments - including the barricarding of the Ministry of Interior and the deployment of huge numbers of security forces into the streets of Tehran - and concludes, "All of this had the appearance of a well orchestrated strike intended to take its opponents by surprise – the classic definition of a coup. Curiously, this was not a coup of an outside group against the ruling elite; it was a coup of the ruling elite against its own people."

There's still much that remains unclear, and because of the restrictions on foreign media, news organizations are relying heavily on firsthand dispatches - which are spotty because of the restrictions on Internet access and mobile phone service. The most significant question will probably be answered in the next few days: is the popular outrage strong and well-coordinated enough to lead to even greater violence or an attempt to overthrow the government?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Credit Where Credit is Due

Whelan apologizes and Publius accepts, keeping the conversation focused on the bigger picture:
The real story here wasn't really about me anyway -- it's about whether the norm of pseudonymity is a good thing.  And there's a legitimate debate about that.  Personally, I think that pseudonymity is a net benefit, whatever other costs it brings.  More voices are better than less -- and pseudonymity (to me) enriches the public sphere by adding voices that could not otherwise be heard.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Ethics of Outing "Publius"

Just another episode in the long, sad, ugly decline of National Review, that once-formidable, now-cringeworthy home of American conservative thought: Ed Whelan outs Publius, the formerly-unidentified blogger at Obsidian Wings.

Whelan, who is the president of a right-wing think tank called The Ethics and Public Policy Center (home to such luminaries as the brilliant former senator Rick Santorum), apparently threw quite the hissy fit because Publius committed the horrible offense of noting another blogger's demonstration that Whelan's demagoguery regarding Judge Sonia Sotomayor was disingenuous bullshit.

Basically, Whelan was riffing on the right-wing refrain that Sotomayor is an activist judge, and he used as evidence a joke she made three years ago (no, I'm not kidding). Eugene Volokh, publisher of the prominent legal blog The Volokh Conspiracy and a law professor at UCLA, wrote that there was nothing wrong with what Sotomayor said. Even when Whelan revised his criticism, Volokh wrote that it "still isn't quite apt." Publius noted this exchange, said that Volokh had "decimated" Whelan's argument, and criticized Whelan (a Harvard Law grad) for "playing the role of know-nothing demagogue" in order to advance dishonest right-wing talking points. 

As it turns out, Ed Whelan does not like to be criticized. He wrote an email to Obsidian Wings and told the site he had sources about the true identity of Publius. Publius responded, saying he blogged pseudonymously for private and professional reasons, and that he preferred to keep it that way. 

That, it seems, was when the president of a think tank whose stated mission is to "reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate over domestic and foreign policy issues" decided to defy the explicit wishes of Publius. Calling Publius a "coward and idiot" (and, oddly, making a hurt reference to having been called a "legal hitman" by a totally different blog), Whelan proceeded to expose the identity of Publius on NRO's The Corner. 

Publius, it turns out, is the pseudonym of John Blevins, a graduate of Yale and UVA law and a professor at the South Texas College of Law. Blevins had many reasons for remaining pseudonymous, reasons which Whelan decided to disrespect because his feelings were hurt. "One bane of the Internet," Whelan whined, "is the anonymous blogger who abuses his anonymity to engage in irresponsible attacks."

Clearly, Blevins had succeeded at getting under Whelan's (apparently thin) skin. Whelan's decision to "out" Publius brings some interesting questions to the fore. Because blogs are a relatively new medium, there is a certain ambiguity about which practices conform to blogging's etiquette. I think, though, that Whelan's actions clearly cross the line. I think bloggers - or anyone, for that matter, who is publishing original material - ought to reserve the right to remain pseudonymous in all but the most extreme of cases. What Whelan did is hardly about "exposing" an "irresponsible" antagonist, because all Blevins did was point out a third party's criticism of Whelan

No, Whelan acted for a far more sinister purpose: to silence a major critic, one whose effectiveness was undermining his credibility. He rightly assumed that Blevins had important reasons for insisting on pseudonymity, and by ending that pseudonymity, he thought he could shut Blevins up. The ability to speak freely is, in some cases, dependent upon the ability to speak pseudonymously. Whelan's think tank claims to be devoted to "individual freedom," but apparently Whelan only wants that freedom for people who agree with him. If they disagree, he'll do as much as is in his power to silence their voices.  

Furthermore, consider Whelan's weird reaction to being criticized: he informed the team at Obsidian Wings that he was "reliably informed" that Publius was a pseudonym for John Blevins. Where did Whelan get this information, and for how long was he sitting on it? Did he know, for example, that Publius was a law professor when he asserted that he lacked basic legal knowledge? The bullying, disrespectful actions he took against a legitimate critic are sadly typical of what's left of the conservative movement today: a small (and ever-shrinking) group of thin-skinned, demagogic, dishonest hyperpartisans whose devotion to political power far outweighs their devotion to even the simplest standards of decency. 

Whelan should be (but won't be) ashamed of his actions. Hopefully he won't intimidate Blevins into keeping quiet - and hopefully others won't mimic his despicable tactics.