Responsibilities of a pundit
Struggling to keep up with events in Iran yesterday occasioned some good discussions with friends, which in turn generated a few thoughts on responsibility. I’ll try to keep them brief.
The idea that allegiance to one side or another is a universal responsibility is usually taken to be constitutive of politics. Much like the injunction to get a job, this demand is usually preceded by an acknowledgment that one really wants something else: a pure utopia of some kind, or just to be lazy, ‘absolutely’ free, to give the finger to someone in authority, etc.
That is, responsible politics tends to be articulated from a position of more or less tragic realism.
An example. Mainstream commentators on the Iranian post-election protests think the election was obviously rigged in favor of a politician they were already contemptuous of, Ahmadinejad. The people on the street are therefore ‘good’ rioters who just want freedom from tyranny, like the CIA-backed ‘popular struggle’ against Chavez. Insofar as they support Mousavi, the pro-economic liberalization reform opponent, veering no further left, they will remain good. Liberal reform is “realistic,” “college-educated,” “urban,” “tech-savvy,” and “at least it’s better than Islamofascism.”
On the other side, a number of left commentators are willing to at least water down critique of Ahmadinejad’s reactionary views and repressive policies in order to resist this sort of propagandizing appropriation by the western press. I’ve even seen it argued in the past that it’s “every socialist’s responsibility” to “support” the Islamic state, along with the Taliban, Hezbollah, etc. But generally with Iran, and conservative or radical Islamic political actors overall, there is a good deal of confusion over what side leftists should take.
It’s still of course too early to tell exactly in what direction things are going, if the election really was rigged, what the strength of the anti-Ahmadinejad protests are, who is involved, to what extent they’re being irresponsibly inflated (probably a lot).
But the point is there’s a relationship between wanting freedom for others and claiming freedom for oneself. Especially for anyone who considers themself a radical egalitarian, in this world siding with a national party should always be the option of last resort. I see no reason to voluntarily submit to the stupidity of bad against worse in another country when most of us are already pressured to do so in our own. It’s not ‘strategic’ for an actor in the spectacle (a blogger, say) to compromise his or her political or moral views to vicariously ‘participate’ in other peoples’ struggles. Defending Hamas or Hezbollah’s resistance (an extreme example) to Israeli aggression makes the defender neither a subject nor an official ally. On the contrary, protest is necessary when your country is vicariously participating in other peoples’ struggles. Solidarity is with people. Not their states or their twitter profiles. I find it a pretty warped idea of politics that refusal to make a show of obedience to someone else’s party line, especially when there are no material consequences for oneself either way, should be looked on as weakness, incoherence, dilettantism, or ‘bourgeois’ vanity. The opposite is closer to the truth — it is after all the MSM’s favorite propaganda tool to associate its critics with fictional cabals, while affirming the “true desire for freedom and democracy” of “the people.” The mark of the informed-but-still-ignorant pundit is to think of everyone else as the conscious or unconscious minion of a higher power, and of himself as a ghost.
To make an even more general point, I don’t pretend to know what’s best for Iranians, autoworkers, women, or illegal immigrants in their capacity as Iranians, autoworkers, women, or illegal immigrants. Being a media consumer of other peoples’ problems is a privilege. It’s a privilege to be informed free of direct involvement, not to be forced to take a side contrary to one’s real interests and desires. Which is why I am automatically suspicious of any attempt to convince me to give it up in the name of some greater responsibility that has little or nothing to do with my material existence. The ‘irresponsible’ fantasies and inner urges presumed by tragic realism (utopias, lands of Cockaygne, ‘savagery’) are figments of its own foreclosed imagination. As a blogger/pundit (an even greater privilege), my only ‘job’ — which in all but the most exceptional cases can only carry hobby status — is to listen, transmit what I hear, and attack lies told at the expense of those struggling to defend themselves.
This is all potentially useful, and I accept no guilt for voyeurism as such. But I can’t “identify” with the televised other, or “see the world through their eyes.” No revelation of exploitative supply chains, no tearjerking column in the New York Times by an ‘authentic’ refugee, no Oscar-winning independent documentary, and no Facebook group, however informative or compelling, can permit me to be them. The media’s most powerful feature requires so little discernible effort by users as to qualify as its ‘unconscious’ effect, what makes both its truths and lies maximally productive. The power to make your problems look like those of other people, and other peoples’ problems look like yours.