Commentary Magazine

Neda: The Cause, the Song

When a revolutionary cause hits the pop charts, it’s a fair indication that the cause is sunk. Pop stars don’t get behind campaigns requiring action, especially evil, American neo-imperialist, military-industrial action of the kind they’d prefer to write protest songs about. (In fact, there are more songs protesting that phantom phenomenon than songs opposing real dangers.) When a human-rights slogan is marketed as a three-minute rhyme set to a 4/4 beat, it means the artist has confirmed that the topic is yielding a safe degree of political inattention. There will be no risk of action beyond the purchasing of some music files. The true last resort in American foreign policy is consumerism.

So make room on your music shelf–next to your copy of Songs for Tibet: The Art of Peace–for “Neda,” the new single by Los Angeles band the Airborne Toxic Event. The song is a tribute to Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot in Tehran by Iranian Basij forces during protests over Iran’s rigged presidential election almost one year ago. As we near the first anniversary of Neda’s street-killing, Iran is on the verge of regional-superpower status, a good deal closer to building a nuclear weapon, and enjoying new alliances with old American friends. All this while Iran’s democratic Green movement is nowhere to be found. But we have a catchy song.

The “Neda” video, which consists of a hand-drawn comic-book treatment of Neda’s murder, closes with a statement: “The world is watching. The world is filming.” Therein lies the problem: revolution by audience. The world is happy to watch a lot of awful things for a very long time. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were going to suffer the death of a thousand YouTube hits, it would have happened last summer, when the video of Neda’s actual slaughter went viral. That stomach-churning footage makes the most airtight case against Iranian tyranny we’re ever going to see.

Yet the video’s comic-book portrayal makes a kind of sense. If you know you’re not going to do much about the dying woman on your screen, it’s far easier to watch a dying crayon woman bleed crayon blood than to watch Neda’s real life flow from her real face in all the immediate detail of digital video. Substitute action is best served by substitute atrocity.

As a crowning misfortune, all proceeds from sales go to Amnesty International, which is running a larger project, called Neda Speaks. Amnesty International’s recent record of human-rights involvement includes the serial condemnation of Israeli self-defense, an embrace of British Taliban supporter Moazzem Begg, and most relevant, complete silence on a recent Iranian ruling to expand the enforcement of veiling and chastity laws for women.

The Airborne Toxic Event no doubt mean well. Very well, even. In an entertainment industry infatuated with people like Saddam Hussein and Hugo Chavez, a rock band that calls out the Iranian leadership is, sadly, a rare gem. And being that they’re a rock band, the inaction of the American leadership is hardly their fault. In fact, the video’s advocacy of justice via webcam comes word for word from the White House.

There has been a lot of talk about the unprecedented challenges Barack Obama faced when he took office, and this talk is largely true. But it must be acknowledged that in one area, Obama was granted unprecedented opportunity, and he squandered it with comprehensive ineptitude. After a week’s worth of Basij truncheons and bullets were spent on Iranian protesters, the American president got before a host of television cameras and made his pronouncement of global audienceness: “The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching.” Heavy stuff–for a rock band. For a president, less so. This was, give or take a few more Zen-like remarks, the White House’s response to a democratic uprising in Iran.

Over the course of the last damaging year, the response grew less impressive still. Two months after the election fraud, and with protests still underway, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declared of Ahmadinejad, “He’s the elected leader.” And U.S. engagement with that leader never ceased, which made meaningless Obama statements, such as “The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government,” baffling.

This was all for the good, according to Obama supporters such as Time’s Joe Klein, who wrote that, “the reform movement is every bit as outraged by the history of U.S. meddling as the Ahmadinejad supporters are–arguably more so, because they are well-educated, sophisticated people who despise the neocolonialist condescension toward Iran that marked American presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush.” If only Klein could have convinced the reform movement. For their part, they chanted in the streets of Tehran, “Obama, are you with us or with them [the regime]?

The answer was no mystery. The White House and the State Department stuck with the regime. There were no clear words of encouragement, no material assistance, no pressure on Tehran. They figured that not upsetting Ahmadinejad was their best shot at striking a deal on the Iranian nuclear issue.

But a year after Iranians took to the streets to demand democracy, the U.S. gave the anti-democratic leaders in Tehran a great boon on that front. The sanctions against Iran just passed by the UN Security Council paradoxically confirm that Tehran has gotten the best of Washington on the nuclear question. These sanctions represent the very harshest collective measures that a year and a half of omnidirectional American sycophancy could yield–and they are still meaningless. Russia will still be able to sell Iran its S-300 anti-aircraft missile system and finish its work in support of Iran’s Busheir nuclear plant; China will still help to develop Iranian oil fields and construct Iranian oil refineries. This is the realization of what Hillary Clinton had claimed would be “sanctions that will bite.” Iran now knows that we’re all bark.

And so, this Saturday, June 12, will mark one year wasted. It’s been one year since Iranians took to the streets and asked Barack Obama for help. One year later, they get a song from an L.A. rock band.

About the Author

Abe Greenwald is the senior editor of COMMENTARY and writes regularly for our blog.

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