Iran sympathy protests, thoughts?

There have been several demonstrations around Palo Alto, and presumably elsewhere in the U.S., Europe, etc., in support of the Iranian demonstrators.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the plus side, anything that gets people thinking about politics and believing in a good cause and experiencing other people believing in a good cause and, you know, acting in concert with others is a good thing.

On the other hand, this shit is completely useless for the actual Iranians. In fact, it might even be counterproductive to the extent the government and the “death to America” crowd can use it as “look, this movement is really driven by foreigners” propaganda. It would be different if we were talking about sympathy protests in Muslim countries. But we’re not. We’re talking about a bunch of Americans (and some Persian emigrants) publicly declaring the shocking, shocking, position that they’re in favor of clean elections and against the rogue theocracy that runs the Iranian government.

And it also gives people the illusion of making a contribution to good in the world without, you know, actually having to make a contribution. If people have a limited budget for political activism, they ought not to be spending it on empty sympathy protests.

So I’m cautiously against, but willing to be convinced otherwise.


11 Responses to “Iran sympathy protests, thoughts?”

  1. ben wolfson Says:

    I’m with you.

    Why don’t these people protest Obama’s behavior w/r/t state secrets? That would be nice.

  2. Bilbo Gubbinz Says:

    Bugger me purple and call my ethics Nicomachean, but surely the ‘anything that gets people involved in politics.’ is a bigger argument than you give it credit for? Who knows, if enough people do so it might seep through and we’ll actually get a world where people are thoughtfully commited to principles such as democracy and human rights and keeping to the left on the stairs in the Underground.

  3. Richard Says:

    I agree that explicit support from western governments would be counterproductive (for propaganda purposes), but do you think that extends to the general populace too?

    For a contrary anecdote, I’ve heard of Iranians saying/twittering things to the effect of, “Hey, whaddaya know, Americans actually do care about others besides themselves!” Seems like a good message to convey, taking a long view of things. Sympathy protests also improve American attitudes, insofar as the “bomb Iran” brigade will have trouble gaining such traction now that Americans are noticing that the target country contains real people.

    As for the opportunity costs, I agree that there are better things one could do. But I doubt that those better things would be done by most in any case. So, better this than nothing.

  4. Claire Says:

    Does this argument extend to any public protest? Or do you think some types of public protests are more likely to carry weight than others?

    I agree with you that we want to stay away from giving Ahmadi and Khameini any more anti-U.S. fuel. That’s why it’s a good thing that Obama has used such measured language. But perhaps the combination of measured language from our leaders + public support is the best we can do: don’t give the leaders the fuel they need, but show the people of Iran your solidarity.

  5. Paul Gowder Says:

    Both Bilbo’s and Richard’s comments call into question my model of the way that the American people actually function — Bilbo’s on the impact of this kind of behavior on the (for lack of a better term) “civic culture,” and Richard’s on the counterfactual about what they’d be doing otherwise.

    On the first, perhaps this is a project for some intrepid political scientist (other, cough, than me). I’d like to see someone compare the change in pre- and post-protest political involvement between protest participants and nonparticipants.

    On the second, I’m not sure that I share Richard’s perception of the alternative behavior. This is mostly speculation, but I suspect what really matters is where competent organizers turn their attention: if a competent organizer tells people to show up, they’ll show up for any issue they agree with. If that’s right, then there’s room to pay attention to the opportunity costs, because we can expect competent organizers — the most engaged people — to listen to the demand that they focus on something where they can do more good.

    (And is it really the U.S. protests that improve American attitudes/the recognition that there are human beings out there, or the consciousness of the facts that give rise to the U.S. protests, viz., the Iranian protests?)

    Claire, that’s a really good question. I used to be one of those scruffy anti-globalization protesters, but one of the reasons I dropped out of that was that there didn’t seem to be any reason to believe that it was doing any good.

    But I think some kinds of protests can at least in principle do some good as a source of information to non-protesters. They can demonstrate (perhaps qua costly signal) to the rulers that there are enough angry people to sanction them (subject to median voter/credible threat issues).* Or they can communicate to non-protesting citizens, either by highlighting the arguments or demonstrating that many others agree with them. (This cries out for someone to model the idea that protests create common knowledge of political unrest and permit people to coordinate on sanctioning rulers.)

    But this goes back to my main gripe: the people of the U.S. have basically no power to sanction the rulers of Iran. So Ben’s suggestion might be right-on: they really ought to be turning out to protest, e.g., Obama’s hushing up of torture photos and cowardice on gay rights.

    And, of course, if the people of Iran are really drawing hope, etc., from this, of course, that’s something serious to consider.

    Finally, Bilbo, can I steal “bugger me purple and call my ethics Nicomachean?” Please?

    * Oh, hell’s bells. Now I want to model this. (Like I’ll ever find the time.) Intuition: expending costs to protest serves as a signal of preference intensity. At sufficient preference intensity, people become willing to take large risks (like revolting in non-democratic states, or expending the costs to attempt to coordinate on outsider-party challenges in democratic states). Implication: as costs of protesting increase, i.e., because of state repression, protests that exist indicate ever-higher preference intensity, raising probability of dramatic change. A model of Lenin’s strategy?

  6. JL Says:

    There is another danger to these protests. Neocon groups might take this as popular US support for the long-festering idea that Iran needs outside interference. The idea goes that the US would bomb/invade Iran, and the Iranian people would rise up to overthrow the mullahs. All of a sudden there’s a gusher of democracy in the Middle East, world peace, yadda yadda yadda. Maybe one debacle is enough to bury that idea, but maybe not.

  7. DirtCrashr Says:

    Well, it is Palo Alto after all and they have to feel useful somehow – because they live such purpose-feeling lives, compared to everybody else – like those slackers up in San Carlos especially.

  8. eric Says:

    “it also gives people the illusion of making a contribution to good in the world without, you know, actually having to make a contribution.”

    Isn’t that what the Bay Area does best?

  9. Bilbo Gubbinz Says:

    “Finally, Bilbo, can I steal “bugger me purple and call my ethics Nicomachean?” Please?”

    Paul mate, consider it a gift.

  10. ben wolfson Says:


  11. homais Says:

    I have some long and complicated thoughts about Iran, particularly this need to feel like we’re somehow involved, but I think they’re too long for a blog comment.

    So instead I’ll just say this: if you see people waving those flags with the lions on them, walk the hell away. I seriously doubt you’d want to be associated with them.

Leave a Comment