27 Pri 2013

Presidential Election as a Political Action – Or not?

Abstract: in my opinion, participation in presidential elections of Iran is more like attending a popular drama rather than a genuine political action, whose functions are more social rather than political. This can help explain some of the surprising features of Iranian presidential elections.

Let’s suppose that you are using a state-of-the-art telescope, exploring the extremes of universe. And you, accidentally, come across a living, seemingly smart population of humans. You observe them for a long time, and try to make sense of what they do. No matter how much effort you put into it, you are always prone to interpreting their actions in terms of what they mean to you and people around you, on your own planet.

Back on earth, this very problem complicates intercultural comparisons. Seemingly similar acts might mean differently to people from various cultural backgrounds. And there is a huge body of anecdotes of weird, funny or embarrassing incidents caused by this problem. When making cultural judgments, one should be careful not to get deceived by this internal temptation to assume “some things are/mean similar everywhere.”

The political culture is no exception to the above miscalculation. Whenever I read papers in western media about politics in Iranian society, especially when it relates to the ordinary citizens, I can usually trace some sort of false presumptions of this kind. As a matter of fact, many forms of political activity in Middle East states are borrowed from their western counterparts, thus making them share a formative appearance. This, however, doesn't mean that people’s perceptions, motivations and post-mortem evaluations of such activities are similar in two sides of the world.

Iranian presidential elections have always puzzled external observers as much as internal ones. As far as I know, some of the important, exotic features of presidential elections in Iran include: high rates of turnout (usually over 60 percent) with unexpected results in some cases; the rule of Two Terms in Office despite dissents; popular demand for dramatic events leading up to the election (that, this time, includes confusion over possible candidates with less than two months to go before the election date); failure of pollsters in depicting the true landscape; a short-term political memory that surprises observers; limited public protests against state-sponsored barriers to political activity; and a cool political atmosphere before and after the election.

These features together make me wondering if there is a genuine political action in Iran’s presidential elections. I can assume that every four years, masses gather up for an exciting event that takes almost three months, culminating on the election date and gradually disappearing a week or two later. It can be argued that in its modern sense, pervasive election should be the last episode of an ongoing political debate among citizens to demonstrate who has garnered most of the popular support. In Iran, however, it seems that presidential elections are somehow disconnected episodes of political activity by ordinary citizens. During this highly turbulent period, one could notice popular discussions going astray: talking points range from very fundamental issues to most superficial ones, as if there is only a limited three month period every four years to review politics, just to cast it aside after the election. Considering consecutive elections, this phenomenon becomes more significant: people change sides very easily during the rest period between elections. That could hardly happen in a place where political affiliations are continually constructed over time.

In my opinion, popular participation in presidential elections of Iran is more like a ritual custom, bringing excitements of a popular drama to an event whose functions are more social rather than political. This theory could explain some of the irregularities noticed in the political behavior of Iranians, including those explained in above paragraphs.

The new Reality Drama is up again, scheduled to reach its peak on 14 June 2013. Don’t get surprised if a majority of Iranians vote for a conservative candidate this time. That wouldn’t mean they betrayed Green Movement formed after 2009 elections. They have just got past the previous episode.

P.S. This piece raises a valid question: what about massive protests after 2009 presidential elections? I will explain my view on that in another post.

14 Jan 2013

I'm Back

This place has been inactive for a while. No blame game. I’m going to write here frequently from now on. This is a place to practice English writing and journalism.

Major Life Changes:
A new window opened last summer: I’m currently a PhD Candidate in Media Management, University of Tehran. It is exciting, demanding and motivating. I'm glad it happened.

Minor Life Changes:
I celebrated my 31st birthday on December 27.

That’s all for now. See you soon :)

22 Dhj 2010

Daddy, I got a job!

(The previous generation believes we are lazy. That’s not true, I think. Here is why.)
As a kid, I used to hear my parents wishing me a happy life. They hoped to see me grown up, educated, living a decent life, and employed. To them, a good job would be an indispensable part of the bright future one might desire to achieve. They were right, indeed.

I managed to grow up, get higher education in prestigious universities, live a life conforming to principles I find reasonable, and find a job. I’m a freelance translator and media professional, doing business with many individuals, groups and companies. This is a lovely job with a good payment.

After a while of working, I’ve got a circle of friends whose occupations and preoccupations are somehow similar to those of mine. To keep ourselves up to minute and offer best services we can deliver, we practice many things, including surfing the web, reading news here and there, spending a good time on weblogs and social networks, attending conferences and meetings, etc. Even we have our hobbies related to the job we do. Watching movies, reading novels, participating in social events which have something to do with culture and media and taking photos are some of our leisure time activities. In sum, people who belong to this circle have a lot in common in terms of what they do.

My friends and I share a similar background, as well. We are from middle class, somehow traditional families. Our fathers, now retired, had been employed in state-run companies and organizations, working a certain number of hours a month to get a somehow fixed compensation. This latter issue plays a significant role in their definition of work and their perception of proper job.

Let’s recall their jobs. Their working hours were fixed, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the case of my father who worked for Iranian Telecommunication Company. They had to carry out some predefined tasks which were determined by the boss. In other words, they were paid for doing what they were ordered to do. They never had the chance to run a business, to get to know the dynamics and forces of the market, to take risks.

And they had a permanent and almost fixed source of income which was risk-free and payable in the end of each and every month. In fact, the state-run economy of Iran in last decades made many people swear by almost risk-free status of employment in public companies. To them, the sense of security brought about by this type of working was very desirable, very true.

And they used to separate work from hobbies, job from the life. To them, whatever tasks which could directly lead to an income would be considered job, and other things were nothing but hobbies and leisure time activities. In that model of public economy, when the employee needed to learn a new method or technology, he/she was paid by the boss to do so. Hence, “taking time and even paying some money to learn something new which might probably lead to an income” could be just a secondary occupation, not the primary one.

However, above characteristics may not apply to doing business in free market. And in the case of what my friends and I do, none of them actually applies to our career.

Such differences are not problematic per se. The problem arises when the past generation judges us upon his preferred standards. Our fathers never try to understand that to work doesn’t necessarily mean going to office every morning. (In fact, I can stay in my own room and work and make a nice income.) To our fathers, taking working time to surf the web or participating in social events is a waste of time, while to us, i.e. idea-sellers of the information age, this is an investment and real work. To them, watching movies is a leisure time work, while we consider it a work-related practice.

Given above differences, my father believes that I’m not doing my best, that I’m lazy, that I’ve not yet found a real job. Sometimes I wanna yell, “Daddy, I got a job, believe me!”

22 Nën 2010

Tech Effects, Iranian Style

- Technology is more than a noun – it’s a lifestyle!

A lot is said about the effects of technology on our lives. Such effects can be positive or negative, simple or complicated, superficial or profound. The technology is not per se neutral for it intrinsically encourages some special ways of doing things. In my opinion, however, there is no such a thing as good/bad technology because new technologies usually affect our lives in many diverse ways, some of which may be indeed very good while others might be very problematic. The effect’s spectrum gets even wider should various applications developed for a certain technology be considered.

There are numerous examples to cite here, ranging from two centuries old inventions such as Steam Engine to Information-Age phenomena such as World Wide Web. Take, for example, Email. On the plus side, it is cheap, saves time, allows us to make frequent contacts with the people we love and value, and to make it green, it saves tons of trees and fuels every day! On the negative side, it increases the possibility of (mutual) misunderstanding, replaces face-to-face encounters which are (were?) a richer form of communication, contributes to obesity and laziness, increases our exposure to unwanted messages, and even opens the door to new crimes and illegal actions.

By the above, I surely didn’t mean to share with you something new or extraordinary. BTW, above paragraphs was a review. Now I would like to turn my and your attention to a more nuanced aspect of technology’s effects: local characteristics of the effects of global technologies. Or put it slightly differently, recall the title: “Tech Effects, Iranian-Style.”

As it’s self-evident, in such a debate no one can cover all technologies, much less all of their effects. Hence, I would like to focus on a profound effect of Cell Phones: how cell phones helped establish new norms and practices of Privacy. To demonstrate this effect of cell phones on Iranian lifestyle, we first need to know how life used to be before Cell Phone Age.

When I was a teenager, private room was a luxury privilege. (For the first 15 years of my life, my family used to move every year. Some years, I had a semi private room, enjoying solitude during the night but sharing the room with other family members during the day. In other years, I had to completely share the room with another family member.) Another example: I usually had a personal commode. However, it was not that personal: my parents frequently took a look at it, often out of my sight, “just to make sure that everything is OK.” It was kind of a preemptive monitoring, even if there were no sign of threat. BTW, that was a common characteristic of many parents in that period. Diaries had a similar fate as personal commode. Even though I personally didn’t use to write diaries whatever the reason, I’m almost sure that if I did, it would have been subject to unwritten, non-negotiable rule of “preemptive monitoring.”

While these facts surely had something to do with common parental worries, there was another element in them as well. Intimacy and love had a special meaning for parents: the mental arena and most of the physical world should be shared by all members of the family. If it didn’t happen, they would feel as if they were outsiders.

This “your private space makes me feel as if I’m outsider” was a general behavioral rule of that period, not only applicable to parent-child relations but also relevant to peers’ relations. Moreover, “I need some privacy” was often interpreted as “I want to do some bad things.” The rationale for this was very simplistic: if what you want to do is not ‘bad,’ you can do it publicly.
All above facts and analysis converge on one simple point: privacy was not recognized, acknowledged and respected.

Over time, many factors helped transform that situation. In my opinion, Cell Phones played an important role in this regard. When cell phone technology entered Iran, it was an expensive option. To make a comparison, consider that while acquiring a mobile phone subscription would cost around US$ 1,000 just ten years ago, nowadays a prepaid subscription costs only US$ 5. Therefore, in recent years, many Iranians have found Cell Phone affordable and consequently got used to it.

However, the cell phone technology didn’t come alone; rather, a new lifestyle accompanied it. The lifestyle associated with Cell Phone Age may be analyzed in terms of its features. First of all, it has made communications easier and more personal. While family members used to share just one landline phone, today each one of them has his/her own cell phone. Moreover, one can easily define with whom he/she wants to exchange calls and messages. And he/she can easily hide his/her contacts, making them his/her private asset.

In addition to easier communication, cell phone has many built-in features such as calendar, alarm clock, cameras, games and GPS services, each one of which has impacted our culture in its own unique way. What matters in regards to our discussion is portable memory and interface (Bluetooth technology) that allows easy file sharing. In second place after contacts, this feature made cell phones much more personal. One may record or save various files on his/her cell phone, classify them, and define several levels of privacy for those want to access classified files. In some ways, cell phone memories can reflect much of the personality of the owner.

In sum, personal services of the cell phone technology and almost absolute control of the user over it has made some privacy out of it.

As an increasing number of people turned to cell phone and took advantage of its personal features, they better learnt that each person needs his/her privacy be recognized, acknowledged and respected. And in this way, I believe, cell phone technology contributed a lot to the emergence of modern values and norms of privacy.

Cell Phone and its privacy-related effect is just an example to show how profound the effects of new technologies can be. In fact, many other technologies imported to Iran deserve close look to reveal their hidden socio-cultural aspects.

In the end, I would like to emphasize an important point. Even though new technologies “encourage some special ways of doing things” and can introduce a new lifestyle to the society, we have our ways to adapt the technology to our needs and expectations. As George McRobie nicely put it, “The choice of technology, whether for a rich or a poor country, is probably the most important decision to be made.”

P.S. Title of this post is borrowed from Divorce, Italian Style, a 1961 movie. Subtitle is borrowed from William Arthur Ward who once said, “Love is more than a noun – it is a verb.” Many other things are borrowed from many other people. Big thanks to them all.

26 Tet 2010

Slavery Mall in Israel

A few days ago, I came across a piece of news (Prostitution in Israel) in a pro-Ahmadinejad news website, Rajanews. Quoted from another website, significant sentences of the story were as follows:

“In an evident case of promoting indecency and moral corruption in Zionist society, women are displayed for sale in Israel’s chain stores... According to Haaretz, each woman has a label that includes her age, weight, dimensions and country of origin. Following pictures shed some light on modern slavery in Israel, the country which claims to be a democracy.”

Then, some photos of the store, along with ‘Slavery Mall in Israel’ caption, were provided to make the whole story even more striking.

Being sure that something should be wrong with the story, I checked the web. A simple search in Google made it clear: “the display was part of an installation by the Working Group Against the Trafficking of Women, part of a widespread campaign.”

I criticized the fallacy in my Persian weblog and sent an SMS to a friend close to Rajanews administrators, asking them to hire qualified gatekeepers for their website. Several other people made fun of Rajanews as well. Consequently, the page was removed from Rajanews website. (Its cached version is still available in Google, copies of it are available here and here, and to get an impression of its impact, check Persian webpages that reported it).

According to Rajanews, original website that reported the fake story was either Mashreghnews or Qodsna. Given the frank, unambiguous article published in Haaretz, I can hardly imagine that this case could be a simple misunderstanding. Rather, it’s fair to believe that the original news editor/translator distorted the story, assuming that no one would ever dare to find the truth. Such a bitter fact that awkward distortion of the truth is still considered a suitable instrument to manipulate the minds of the audience.

Second implication of the event, however, is far more important. Many Iranians had visited the page, found the story to be consistent with their preconceived perception of the Jewish state, thus related to it and cached it in their long term memory as another indication of Israel’s brutality and corruption. The Israeli society I knew, however, could not be this wild and obscene. That is why I doubted the originality of the story, while many other people, even the educated and the elite, did not even give it a second thought. In other words, average Iranian perception of Israel is far different from the objective truth. Unfortunately, the same point arguably applies to the Israeli side as well.

Opposing or disagreeing with another country is one thing, hating it for non-existent causes is a far different thing. Put it slightly differently, there is a knowledge gap that needs be bridged. When, how and by whom? It’s a difficult yet critically important question.