History by Proxy

I interviewed Pete Seeger a few years ago for a film I’m making. We started out talking about Woody Guthrie, but if you’ve ever heard Pete talk or spent any time in his company – and he’s very good company – you know that conversations with Pete Seeger have a tendency to wander amiably from subject to subject, sometimes with no apparent purpose, until (I’m not sure how it happens, but it does) you discover yourself talking about what you wanted to talk about all along.

Somehow we ended up talking about what I guess I’d call the power of witness, the power of people who hold up a mirror to the world, or to history, to brutality or injustice – and Pete remarked: We used to think the pen was mightier than the sword. Turns out it wasn’t. But the camera lens might be.

I’m reminded of this exchange as I watch the video of demonstrations and police brutality coming out of Iran in the wake of the election. The Iranian regime may not be worried about its international reputation; but the video and pictures are showing the world just what the crowds in the street are up against. We in the West can admire their courage, utter all sorts of noble-sounding sentiments and encouraging words, and try to figure out ways to stand with them; but more importantly, right now we must not look away.

That’s where our vigilance comes in. We pay tribute to the courage of the Iranians in the streets so long as we in the West have the courage not to look away.

This, at least, is where I’ve arrived, after watching the Twitter streams of news from Iran, and trying to figure out what we in the West, online, trying to help Iranians hold the line, can do — beyond re-tweeting information and videos and pictures, participating in attacks on Iranian government websites, providing proxies so Iranians can continue to post updates online, and joining in the criticism of mainstream media outlets in the U.S. for running stories about Sarah Palin and David Letterman or Britney Spears while in Iran the Basij militia shoot and beat and terrorize demonstrators.

What to do? Few of us can take an action that will have direct consequences in the streets of Tehran. This is the frustration of being a witness – one is an observer, in this case, an observer from afar, rather than a participant – but I think it’s also where the power of witness lies, just in looking at what is happening, and refusing to look away.

I know we have a real stake in staying true to that commitment, in keeping watch. What is that stake? I’m still groping for an answer that satisfies me. I want to say something about our shared humanity but I’m concerned that it’s too vague, a platitude, a cop-out of sorts. I know that we are changed by what we witness. So maybe by bearing witness to what’s happening in Iran right now, we gain some new stake in the world that’s being born even as the Islamic Republic of Iran dies.

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