Susan Sontag famously wrote, “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” Those were fighting words in 1966, among a certain (probably not so large but then again much larger than it would be now) crowd. “Even more,” she continued, “It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of meanings.”
True enough, but what is the case when art itself becomes the revenge of the intellect upon . . . art?
Thus Origami Boulders, an experiment in creative expressionism that emphasizes the bridges between satire, infrarealism, hyper-realism, post-modernism, modernism, and plain old-fashioned mockery. It is not subtle. In an age when hyperbole has become truth and irony just means “bad luck,” Origami Boulders promises a return to simpler truths. What-you-see-is-what-you-get.
Fine enough, you might say, but where do you draw the line between “simpler truths” and fascism? This is a good question, since much of what is considered fascism is founded upon simple truth. At the same time however, it’s also true that only about ten percent of all simple truths are, in fact, fascistic. The problem is that that ten percent can foreseeably find the backing of an incredibly disproportionate amount of a country’s wealth and power. Here is the linkage between the artist, the slacker, the Tea Partier, and the hipster, “who in fact aligns himself both with the rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.”
Dear heavens—but the Origami Boulders were meant, in fact, to smash the conveyors of convention, to drown the purveyors of propriety, and to derail the fornicators of formality. How is it that such a bold experiment could so quickly become turned upon itself until it was nothing more than the opposite of what it intended? Much less than a hollow statement of artistic meaning in an artless world, the Origami Boulders, it would appear to the untrained and unwashed, are little more than tools of their own opposition, indistinguishable in effect from the contemporary Democratic Party. As the man on Ellis Island said to my great-great-grandmother (not that) many years ago, “Welcome to America.”
Pray this shall not be the case and that the stony weight of the Origami Boulders will come crashing down to Earth on November 2, 2010, raining like meteorites and asteroids on the dinosaurs, bringing to an end the rule of claw-toed, semi-feathered metareptiles and giving way to the rise of little birds and all the brilliance of avian plumage and delicacy. Sigh.
America, it seems, has become the revenge of the anti-intellect on democracy. Can we throw more than paper boulders in our defense?
Notes and Credits
Photographs of origami boulders and the artistic process by the author. This work, like everything else in America, is for sale. Please email guidry_z [at] hotmail.com for a price schedule and list of options to tailor Origami Boulders to your specific needs. The fact that there is printing on one side of the sheet of paper used is indeed a meta-critique of Western Society itself, leaving no stone unturned in the artist’s quest for antihistorical self-actualization. I am grateful to Rob Vanderlan, fellow political science graduate student at the University of Michigan, for introducing me to the joys of origami boulder sculpture in 1989.
Susan Sontag’s famous quotation from Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966). I tend to agree with her, so much so that I once paraphrased her statement in a cover letter for an academic position, alleging that social science is the revenge of the intellect on people. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), I was never called back on that one. Then again, I also think that Origami Boulders so deeply challenges the very fundamentals of both Eastern and Western artistic traditions that Camille Paglia should invite me to her house for cocktails, though that would be too close to my heart. I’ll keep buying lottery tickets for the better odds. In retrospect, it seems like Sontag’s statement is oddly prescient of Fox News.
How is it … that of each Pot of Coffee, only the first Cup is ever worth drinking,— and that, by the time I get to it, someone else has already drunk it?” To which Dixon answered that it’s because of “Coffee’s Sacramental nature, the Sacrament being Penance … whereby the remainder of the Pot, often dozens of cups deep, represents the Price for enjoying that first perfect Cup.”
Coffee is the original smart drug, but like all things good, it comes with a price. The key is to be mindful of how much you drink, for the beneficial effects advance only to a certain level, after which having more coffee produces something like a living nightmare of half-truths, unfinished thoughts, and incomplete sentences.
For these and other reasons, people have blamed coffee for the Enlightenment and related revolutions in rocket science and politics. They all got started in coffee houses, perfect sites for the blending of conversation and caffeine, the ultimate result of which being a heightened desire for self-expression without, however, a commensurate acuity thereof. Or as Pynchon put it when describing the scene as Mason and Dixon slipped into a coffee house in Philadelphia in the late 1700’s—
With its own fuliginous Weather, at once public and private, created of smoke billowing from Pipes, Hearthes, and Stoves, the Room would provide an extraordinary sight, were any able to see, in this Combination, peculiar and precise, of unceasing Talk and low Visibility, that makes Riot’s indoor Sister, Conspiracy, not only possible, but resultful as well. One may be inches from a neighbor, yet both blurr’d past recognizing,— thus may Advice grow reckless and Prophecy extreme, given the astonishing volume of words moving about in here, not only aloud but upon Paper as well …
Coffee sounds a lot like alcohol. Coffee houses and barrooms once upon a time shared the combination of low lights and incessant smoking that leads two or more people to make very bad decisions based on what little they can see or understand of each other, half-remembered bliss and release lifting like a fog with the clarity of morning. The poor judgment brought on by low-lit coffee conversations that once resulted in revolutionary dreams, however, now leads mainly to snark and graduate theses. Compared to alcohol, it’s more difficult to appreciate the terrible results of coffee, because they are so often taken for success.
The Tea Lounge, Park Slope, Brooklyn: a revolution is being plotted right here, right now.
People often combine alcohol and coffee, as if the effects of one can cancel out the other. This is a mistake. When you drink coffee while already drunk, you don’t become sober. Instead, you achieve a much more keen awareness of how incoherent you are. It’s called coffee-boarding and is outlawed by several international accords signed by everyone but the United States.
The relationship of coffee and alcohol to the truth is easily demonstrated by the degree to which various world religions have grappled with either or both. Islam banned alcohol, and Muslims became coffee addicts, as did fundamentalist Christians though their coffee is not nearly as good. AA meetings would be intolerable without coffee. The Mormons banned both coffee and alcohol, which is why they wound up in Utah, though somehow Coca-Cola escaped the ban despite its (post-cocaine) base in coffee’s essential force, caffeine. The Buddhists call for people to avoid intoxication by alcohol or stimulants, but they don’t make it inflexible. This sounds like a pretty good idea, except that it’s impossible, which is the point.
The Tea Lounge, Park Slope
repurposing an old garage, the Park Slope way
The photos for this post were taken in the Tea Lounge, a venerable institution in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the neighborhood that everyone (else) in New York loves to hate, according to the local newspaper.
The original shop was located in the South Slope on 7th Avenue but had to close a while back due to increasing rents, leaving the larger Union Street shop (pictured here) as the flagship in the heart of the neighborhood. (Another Tea Lounge has opened in Cobble Hill, a couple nabes over on the other side of the Gowanus Canal.)
Every morning, it begins to fill up with freelancers of every type imaginable – writers, designers, editors, bloggers, people looking for jobs – who stay there all day sipping coffee and making the American economy what it is (hey, they’re telecommuting). One morning a week (which one has rotated over time) the place fills up with mommies and nannies and toddlers when Lloyd comes to sing for the kids. Those of us who’re working (including the staff) double down, shut our ears, and keep on working. The place features in Amy Sohn’s satirical send-up of (and not-entirely-ironic homage to) Park Slope mommyhood, Prospect Park West, as the “Teat Lounge,” so-called for the ubiquitous nursing of infants that goes on there to the soundtracks of Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, and the occasional contemporary indie-groove (think Jem).
Studious laptop users sat beside romancing couples and chatty friends and I have to say, between licking the whipped frosting off of my OREO cupcake and sipping a glass of Riesling, I was immediately at ease–especially when my friend bought me a second glass. So yes. Conclusively, I like Tea Lounge. Is it a perfect place to work? Eh. Maybe not. Is it a good place for a date or a drink with a friend? Definitely.
Notes and Credits
All photographs by the author.
Thomas Pynchon on coffee in Mason and Dixon (New York: Henry Holt, 1997) page 467 for the first quotation and 305 for the second. It’s an historical novel that follows the eighteenth century British astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon throughout their lives, from their early collaborations in England and South Africa through their pioneering work to survey the border between the Pennsylvania and Maryland colonies from 1763 to 1768. As novels go, it’s a wonderfully comic buddy film with a touching ending that reaches deep into the emotions surrounding friendship and fatherhood.
The London Coffee House lay in St. Paul’s churchyard, a crowded urban space steps from the cathedral, bustling with divinity students, booksellers, and instrument makers. The proximity to the divine hadn’t stopped the coffeehouse from becoming a gathering place for some of London’s most celebrated heretics, who may well have been drawn to the location for the sheer thrill exploring the limits of religious orthodoxy within shouting distance of England’s most formidable shrine. On alternating Thursdays, a gang of freethinkers – eventually dubbed “The Club of Honest Whigs” by one of its founding members, Benjamin Franklin – met at the coffeehouse, embarking each fortnight on a long, rambling session that has no exact equivalent in modern scientific culture.
It no doubt would be interesting for Mr. Johnson to survey the clientele at the Tea Lounge and find out what revolutions are brewing for the near future here.
Both can shine brilliantly, sparkling in the light to dazzle your eyes, making young couples blush with happiness and pride. Like the truth, diamonds aren’t nearly as rare as their market value would indicate. Both can be found with ease when you know where to look. Every once in a while, someone stumbles on a massive diamond in the plain light of day, just one more rock in the landscape until a chance encounter sets it apart. No small amount of truth is discovered in the same way. What sets these discoverers apart from the rest of us is as often as not luck.
The truth and diamonds leave two trails, one of bliss and hope, the other of blood and cruelty. More banal than ironic, this is the way of the universe. The same truth that turns a God of peace into a God of war also turns simple assumptions about fairness into human rights.
What happens when beauty and ugliness form a bond so tight that they become inseparable? The trouble with the truth and diamonds is that they can lead you anywhere. What really matters is where you want to go.
Notes and Credits
The opening photograph of the Hope Diamond is by Chip Clark, who passed away on June 12, 2010, away after 35 years as a photographer for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Mr. Clark’s beautiful photographs of gems, animals, birds, and other things can be found all over the web.
The Hope Diamond is surrounded by legend. It seems that most who have possessed it have come to tragic ends. It is currently owned by the United States of America and is on display at the Smithsonian.
The playing cards were photographed by the author, from a miniature travel deck for Patience (Solitaire) given to me in 1992 by Professor Raymond Grew, a mentor of mine in graduate school at the University of Michigan.
It should be noted that the truth also grows more precious with time, the simple truths of youth seeming to appear ever more complex and enduring as time goes along, much like the songs of Neil Diamond and just about everything touched by Johnny Cash.
“We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history … In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind … History consists for the greater part of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites which shake the public with the same.”
This passage from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, written as the French Revolution began in 1789, is shot through with contradiction, like Burke himself. It takes a little more time to digest than a shot of Santayana – Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – or the oft-cited quip, We learn from history that we learn nothing from history, which is often attributed (erroneously, it seems) to George Bernard Shaw. But it’s worth it, because Burke got it right.
Notes and Credits: Burke and history and quotations
This quotation from Burke is taken from the Google books archive, which features the 2nd Edition of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, printed in London for J. Dodsley, M.DCC.XC (1790), pp. 207-08.
Burke’s writing fleshed out the impassioned complexity of his own life and commitments. As a member of parliament in the 1770s, he was a staunch supporter of the American Revolution, something of a libertarian. With the fall of the Bastille, however, he became enraged at the treatment of the French royal family and the disregard for history and tradition by the revolutionaries and their Enlightenment muses.
In the Reflections, he seems to predict the horror that would follow in the “Reign of Terror,” as well as the problems of revolution in general, and this work became the foundation of modern conservatism. Interestingly, the degree to which a conservative relies on Burke in his or her own thinking is the line between the intellectual side of the movement (George Will, David Brooks, Thomas Sowell) and the populist mobs (Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh) that one such as Burke would so rightly disown. (Note: George Will’s use of Burke to attack blue jeans is just silly, but Will has earned it.)
A searchable, copyable, full text of Burke’s Reflections is available here. As a life long leftist, I don’t share the commitments that George Will and David Brooks have, but I do admire complex thinking and impassioned writing. As Sina Odugbemi points out, Burke’s supposed “conservatism” was really about finding the appropriate – and constant – means for reform of the state: “You reform in order to conserve; without reform you cannot really conserve a political system.” If only the opponents of health care reform had the tact and intellect of Burke.
In response to a call-out on Facebook to find out where the G. B. Shaw statement mentioned above came from, my friend Katie replied with:
I tried to use the power of the internets, and what the internets are telling me is that I should infer that it is a popular misattribution. It’s not on his Wikiquote page, but it was on the Anonymous Wikiquote page for a while–if you look at the talk page someone mentioned a similar quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck. Here is an actual political scientists saying it’s popularly attributed to Hegel: http://bit.ly/1Xp8RD .
Notes and Credits: The teacup
The Chinese teacup in the photograph is half-filled with lukewarm jade tea. It belongs to Kaoru Wang, a friend who responded to my call-out for photos of half-filled glasses in the first E/F posting. The teacup has been in her family for “years and years and years.” She photographed it on a pretty carpet of unknown origin. She sent another photograph showing the cup with its cap, which lets you keep the tea warm while taking your time to drink it over pleasant conversation or in reflective solitude.
Teacup, with cap
The tea itself was given to Kaoru by a friend who left his family’s tobacco business in order to build a tea company in Vancouver, bringing his knowledge and experience with leaves into a concern that could contribute positively to the health and well-being of his customers. Among his clients are some of the most prestigious hotels around the world.
In her note to me about the teacup and its surroundings, Kaoru wrote that it is “comforting to reflect how much history and warmth there is in the most basic of items,” a sentiment that drives my own writing here and elsewhere. Kaoru’s observations about life, her experiences, and her work can be found here. She is currently making a film about education and change called “The Killer App,” which she writes about in several places, including the film’s blog under its previous title, “Something Far Finer.”
... with persimmons and more of Roosevelt Island
Through the window, behind the teacup, we have a blurred view of Roosevelt Island, a 2 mile long sliver of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. A self-contained family farm from the late 1600s to 1828, it was known as Blackwell’s Island (after its owners) for most of its modern history, being named for FDR only in 1973. After the Blackwells sold the island to the city in 1828, it was given over to “a long succession of institutions and hospitals,” which included a lunatic asylum (“The Octagon,” so called for its signature building); a hospital; a Smallpox laboratory (The Strecker Laboratory); and a prison that at one time or another housed Boss Tweed, Emma Goldman, Mae West, and Billie Holiday.
In 1969, the city leased the island to the State of New York Urban Development Corporation, which has created a unique urban community on the island. Home to about 12,000 people today, the island is closed to car traffic and accessible by bus and tram. The Roosevelt Island tram is a notable piece of New York architecture, frequently featured in films and television (CSI: New York, City Slickers, The Professional, Spider-Man, Cold Souls, and others). The residential buildings have innovative designs – such as duplex (multi-story) apartments that make is possible for the elevators to stop only every 3 floors. In the spirit of contemporary wealth-and-consumption-driven governance and planning, The Octagon has been restored and is now a high-end apartment community with a mall and a lot of solar panels.
For as long as I can remember, people have been trumpeting the big changes that were supposed to occur in my lifetime. In this span of years, roughly the 1960s-forward, change was the key ingredient of the future, which amounted to three alternatives: progress, dystopia, or annihilation. Looking back on the future of the last 45 years, however, it turns out that these aren’t mutually exclusive alternatives.
Einstein observed that the experience of an event is subject to relational factors like who’s observing it, where, and under what conditions. So it is with the future. It may not be the world itself that changes, but rather how we experience it, a future that happens inside our bodies to make the world look, sound, feel, taste, and smell different. The House of Tomorrow may well be the house of yesterday, but it won’t feel that way.
This is the first of three posts on The truth and change. The series will look at how tangled, ironic, and weird (to invoke a favorite category of Hunter S. Thompson’s) the future will be, if it’s not that already. The exercise in lateral thinking takes us from perfection to dystopia, annihilation, technoredemption, slacker paradise, Qoheleth, Big Pharma, and cyberchange.
From perfection to dystopia
The future, change, and progress are products of The Enlightenment. For millennia, people were assumed to be what they were. Thinkers in the West and the East had explored all sorts of ideas about how to create good societies, find peace, and achieve enlightenment (The Buddha’s kind) – but there was no belief in a “future” that would be different from the past. Differences in politics, spirituality, or technology were seen as superficial, and the great wheel of history rolled along.
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! …
One generation passes and another comes, but the world forever stays …
What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done.
Nothing is new under the sun. [Eccl. 1: 2, 4, 9]
Then in the eighteenth century the philosophes in France and other spots around Europe started to think about the life we could have on Earth through science, reason, and (in one form or another) “democracy.” The twin notions of change and the future became tangible, captured in a repurposing of the word “progress.” In The Invention of Air, Stephen Johnson shows how these ideas were tied together across science, politics, and religion. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Joseph Priestly (the nominal subject of Johnson’s book) were scientists and radicals who imprinted the American Revolution with the Enlightenment’s vision of the future.
As Jefferson wrote to Priestly after the presidential inauguration in 1800, “We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun. For this whole chapter in the history of man is new.” In another context, Jefferson famously quipped, “Every generation needs a new revolution.” Compromised as Jefferson’s revolution was, eventually even the enslaved and formerly enslaved African Americans, written out at the beginning, would build their own revolution to insist on (some of) Jefferson’s ideals, among others. The times, they would be a-changing, and the early Abolition movement itself was a part of the Enlightenment’s vision of change.
New industries and the “New World” conjured an image of humankind’s infinite malleability – we were blank slates on which a better world would be drawn. People were, in a word, perfectible. Yet perfection was a contestable quality, and disagreements over perfectibility would draw the lines of ideological battles that lasted from 1776 to 1989. One of the central lines in the struggle over change was who would make change happen best — freely acting individuals, private corporate entities, or the state.
These conflicts underlay Adam Smith’s own writings. He placed great faith in individuals and very little in either the state or corporations. In Smith’s ideal world, we were a self-correcting society of individuals guided “by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of [their] intention.” In other words, people following purely individual motives could create social good, almost accidentally.
Smith applied his faith in individuals to economic life, but he saw a conflict between the capacity of individual action to create a moral world and the effects of capitalism’s main motor for change, the division of labor. Far from perfecting mankind, the nature of industrial production (and with it, the creation of wealth) would render the bulk of people ever more ignorant even as democracy expanded their ability to affect their world:
The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human to creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment … Of the great and extensive interests of his country, he is altogether incapable of judging …
This would be the product of capitalism, said Smith, “unless government takes some pains to prevent it.” Smith never resolved this conflict in his understanding of change, and his fans have ignored it and instead dwelled on the “invisible hand” alone, taking this half-premise to logical extremes.
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand made a grand dystopian plea for her version of capitalist utopia that in general (if less radical) terms is part of everyday political discourse in the United States, where faith in powerful, dynamic individuals is strong. The fear of the state is great, and the relation to mass politics is complicated. The masses are fickle and in general not to be trusted (even by the masses). To wit: In the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, “going John Galt” has become the calling card of dissident financiers holding out against the reactions of the federal government and the populist fervor aimed at them, though this fervor was short-lived and now is turned against the government and health care reform.
Over time, dystopia transcended the narrow limitations of the conflicts between capitalism and socialism, seeing in both a massification of industrial society that used technology to dampen the very urges toward freedom and expression unleashed by the forces that Jefferson and Priestly heralded with such optimism. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We combined his experiences in the Russian Revolution and in the British factories of World War I to describe a true dystopia that was the forerunner of Orwell’s 1984. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World concentrated our gaze on the manufacture of pleasure as a way of breeding conformity and social order from the “torpor of mind” that Smith lamented in 1776.
Yet numbing sameness wasn’t the only threat to Jefferson and Priestly’s House of Tomorrow. The rocket scientists who stood on their shoulders (among so many others) eventually helped us create weapons of unparalleled destruction that could end all life as we know it. Beyond dystopia, the future created by reason might actually annihilate us all. These were our choices by the time I was growing up: Smith, Marx, Rand, Huxley, Orwell, Dr. Strangelove, or Charlton Heston on a beach some time in the distant future.
The Apes were able to perfect themselves greatly with people out of the way. The surviving humans, able to carry on through accidents of history and rocket science, became vermin and slaves until the moment in which Taylor and Nova became a new Adam and Eve under the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, now a fallen, man-made Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If you look hard enough, you can see in the background the shadows of Priestly, Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Teller. Thoreau and Whitman are nowhere to be found. They were buried by the knowledge of good and evil.
Notes and Credits
The quotation from the opening of Ecclesiastes is taken from the New American Bible, Eccl. 1: 2, 4, 9.
My quotations from Adam Smith are taken from The Essential Adam Smith, ed. Robert L. Heilbronner (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986), pp. 265 and 302. Read this book, which includes abridged versions of both the Theory of the Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. They are indispensable critiques of the world that Smith’s fans seem to adore.
Last week, I went to the 140 Characters Conference here in New York. There, hundreds of people met to explore how Twitter, new media, and micro-blogging are disrupting life these days. People were asking important questions of all this new technology: What do we get out of it? Is it changing anything that matters in any interesting way? Where’s it going? What does it mean?
The conference couldn’t have been more timely, though this was completely an accident of fate: On the very days of the meeting, June 16 and 17, the Iranian people were using Twitter, cell phones, and other inventions to coordinate and narrate a national uprising to protest the (allegedly) fraudulent results of the recent presidential elections. The story is available only over the internet, because Iranian control of the press and media have made it impossible for regular journalists to cover the events on the ground. Thus we turn to Twitter and bloggers to understand what’s going on. Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney is singularly inserting himself into the moment by providing the only comprehensive, live blog of the event.
These are the largest and most disruptive public demonstrations since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when masses of Iranians overthrew the US-backed Shah of Iran. The Iranian Revolution was one of the few documented true revolutions (to use a political science term!), in which the structure of society itself, and not merely the regime, was changed in a rapid convulsion of political will.
Something similar might be happening today.
The events of 1979 have an interesting parallel to the present, for the earlier Revolution was spurred along by the innovative application of a radical new technology that not only subverted the regime but also fit neatly into the lifestyles and habits of regular Iranians. The new technology was accessible to everyone, regardless of education, age, gender, or geographical location. I am referring, of course, to cassette tape recordings, which in the 1970s took the entire world on a quantum leap of do-it-yourself cultural production, re-production, and mashing-up.
In the West, this took the form of the mix tape. We used the songs of our favorite bands to declare love or war, to apologize for insensitivity, to make a stand, break up, explain any of the preceding, or simply state the case for plain, animal lust. The truly radical could even place Yes, The Clash, and Air Supply on the same tape, just to make a point. The mix tape reached its all-time high with Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity, in the mid-1990s, which was later immortalized on the silver screen with John Cusak at the very moment in time when the cassette tape itself was tossed into the dustbin of history by the arrival mix-CDs, MP3 playlists, and (a few years later) the iPod.
At the same time that mix tapes reshaped the possibilities for personal expression in the West, Iranians were gathering in private, often hidden, rooms to listen to cassette tapes of sermons by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a prominent religious leader who was exiled from Iran in 1964. Khomeini took refuge first in Iraq, which has a large (majority) population of Shiite Muslims, and later in France. His sermons were smuggled into Iran, where they met a large audience, hungry for his words.
Khomeini’s message was both religious and social. He married basic Islamic piety to a consciousness of poverty, economic injustice, and outrage at the atrocities of the Shah’s violently repressive state. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was deeply tied to Islam’s notions of charity and essential human equality (not the same as “freedom” in any Western sense), tenets of belief that the Shah’s regime violated so openly and egregiously. Cassette recordings overcame the literacy barrier and brought this message to wide audiences that might have missed him had he been restricted to paper texts and photocopies. Cassette tapes were the samizdat of the Islamic world in the 1970s. Anyone could listen.
Cassette tapes allowed the Iranian opposition to gather, communicate, and plan for a better day. When that day came, in the heady rebellion of 1978-79, it seemed as if the world exploded, just like it did this week as Iran commanded center stage everywhere. It’s no small coincidence, it might be added, that some of the chief protagonists of the present turmoil – Ayatollah Montazeri, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Hashemi Rafsanhani – were there in 1979, in similar roles, only as much younger people.
So Twitter brings us full circle, from cyber space and cell phones – whose ubiquitous flip-top form bears more than a passing resemblance to the original Star Trek Communicator – back to cassette tapes. Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once noted.
Today, Twitter and cell phone videos are our cassette tapes of Iranian change, bringing us the haunting images of people shouting Allahu Akbar from the rooftops at night, just like they did in 1979. Then, as now, regular people sang the traditional Muslim declaration, “God is great,” to indict the regime in power.
That’s the original cultural source of change in Iran.
This is the first of 3 postings on “The truth and Twitter.” More to come…