The Kitty Genovese model

I think that one of the greatest fallacies of our time — and one of the greatest leaps in logic that is made again and again by people who involve themselves in the worthwhile struggle to bring equality to all people — is the notion that awareness equals involvement. By providing a way for the world to see the terrible things occurring in Iran right now, we believe that we are somehow “doing something” about the problem — that we are, in some way, affecting change.

I don’t argue that this is sometimes the case. Many times, in specific sorts of circumstances, the rallying cry of “the world is watching!” is enough to defuse a dangerous situation. But many other times, it’s not, and the only person who is empowered or even enervated by global awareness of tyranny and oppression is the person watching events unfold…not the person in the middle of them.

Twenty years ago, the world watched on television and in the pages of magazines and newspapers as a young man, anonymous to this very day, stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, as part of a protest that served as a memorial for recently deceased official Hu Yaobang. His act served as a sort of visual icon for the resistence of the common man against the repression of totalitarianism, and is rightly regarded as deeply heroic. It also served to draw international attention to China’s brutal policies of self-censorship and intellectual repression.

Unfortunately, nobody knows what happened to that young man. Given what has been seen in other cases of protest in China, it’s likely that the poor guy is either long dead or serving out a prison sentence somewhere. And in the twenty years since that day, China has made only sporadic and small progress in the human rights arena, despite the efforts of millions of people in government, non-governmental organizations, human rights watchdog organizations, and the simple negative public opinion of probably billions of people around the world, who felt righteous indignation on behalf of that anonymous hero, unable to legitimately protest his government’s actions in his own land.

Zenarchery: The Kitty Genovese model

See also:

Grim Meathook Future

Let Them Eat iPods

Why there’s no such thing as a Twitter revolution


  1. What would your reaction be if this scenario took place in the U.S. and the demonstrators were an assortment of say, white supremacists, anti-choice fanatics, and religious fundamentalists?

    What means would you suppose the Obama administration would or should use to keep the demonstrators from, say, dragging the president out of the White House and beating him to death?

    Why would believe that these demonstrators deserve power any more than an allegedly corrupt government, even one that may have “rigged” the election?

    People who attend demonstrations seem to have forgotten, or perhaps have been made to forget, what governments remember all too well. By showing up in person, you are making a veiled threat of action. Hundreds of thousands of people who show up to a demonstration may think they are just peacefully expressing themselves, but deep down, there always exists the possibility, that if the right stimuli are applied, they’ll transform into an angry lynch-mob.

    It seems that the popular understanding of politics is limited to a few modes:

    1. Apathy (default);
    2. Symbolic expression;
    3. Symbolic action;
    4. Unorganized, haphazard, sometimes violent action as a result of frustration spilling over at not having needs or demands met; usually results in property damage, although occasionally punctuated by violence, mostly in response to police provocation.

  2. A very worthy insight. I hate to keep going on about my girlfriend Sir Karl Popper but he was saying similar things decades ago. Thanks for this link.

  3. Thank you for posting this…much appreciated!

  4. “What would your reaction be if this scenario took place in the U.S. and the demonstrators were an assortment of say, white supremacists, anti-choice fanatics, and religious fundamentalists?” Well, I suppose that would depend, in part, on whether the government slaughtered them in the street or not. Maybe the demonstrators in Iran don’t deserve to be handed the reigns of government, but there’s a bit of a gap between that and “Shut up and/or die.”
    As to the original article, awareness by itself does nothing, but is a step up from unawareness. Nor does it help to weep or be angry. To be fair, though, how many of us can think of *anything* we could directly do to help Iran? Write letters to politicians? Donate money to someone you think knows something good to do with it? The plain fact is, we’re over here, and we don’t really know much about Iran when it comes right down to it. You can’t fix much from a couch a few thousand miles away. Technology hasn’t changed that truth very much. If one actually wants to DO something about Iran, start meeting and communicating with Iranians, learn some languages, research the place, get closer to the action, and then get involved “on the ground”…but you’d better choose wisely. Sounds difficult, expensive, and dangerous, doesn’t it? Sure, we could start a charity and collect resources, but sooner or later, someone will have to get a little nearer to Iran (or wherever the crisis du jour is) and do something, like physically hand out food or pamphlets, provide medical care, and so on. Still, we have to look at this sort of thing in terms of incremental change. 100 years ago, we wouldn’t have even heard about events in Iran yet, and 50 years ago, we still wouldn’t have cared.

  5. I posed those questions mostly as rhetoric.

    I’m not a particular fan of the Iranian regime, nor am I fan of any regime. I don’t think people with even a quarter of brain should be fans of established governments.

    That being said, the USA, the UK, and the various private oil companies intervened for decades and continue to intervene in Iran. They overthrew the democratically elected government of Mossadegh, installed the Shah and the SAVAK, and when the Iranians figured the whole thing out, they were understandably furious. The nice thing about a fundamentalist culture is that it makes infiltration more difficult in some respects. I view the fundamentalism post revolution as an attempt to keep out foreign influences.

    What happened after the revolution?

    The Iran-Iraq war. The USA et al. (even the fucking Soviets) supported Iraq against Iran. This resulted in millions of deaths.

    And the Daily Show has the nerve to feature interviews with Iranians who like Americans; if anything, they should rightfully be baying for our blood.

    The Western media has absolutely no moral authority whatsoever when it comes to what goes on in Iran, the West having intervened and caused millions of casualties in attempts to realize their own selfish gains.

    In my opinion, some of the demonstrators are probably historically ignorant. They don’t like the current regime, but they are too young to remember the SAVAK, and maybe they distrust what the regime tells them about their history. They view Western culture as their friend, much like high school students do, and not some cynically imposed, parasitic memetic infection designed to increase consumption and extract capital. This is, however, an understandable reaction to the forced austerity of the previous decades.

    A significant percentage of them may also be the functional equivalent of White Russians.

    I don’t recall any of us enlightened Western types doing one lick of good during GWB administration years. In our own country, our own backyard, we failed miserably at exerting the slightest bit of positive change. We did worse than the anti-Vietnam crowd. Although we may have had larger participation, it was captured participation cynically directed towards utterly futile symbolic acts like marching in circles and waving signs while dressed up Abu Ghraib detainees. All of these acts operated under the historically demonstrable false assumption that the politicians and their constituents were ignorant and had consciences, and not heartless sociopaths. And we’re supposed to somehow influence the Iranians on how to run a better society? The Iranians have a semi-closed society as a reaction to meddling. More meddling is only going to be taken the wrong way.
    The only thing one can do is to share ideas in the spirit of good faith with other Iranians and hope that they are taken seriously.

    But I think we take for granted that our so-called open society, which isn’t that open when you start getting into politics, is really just the result of an elite ruling strategy of divide and conquer. Rather than force conformity, they encourage diversity to the point of atomization, where people will eschew each other over something as trivial as musical or artistic preference and balkanize into stupid little cliques.

    BTW – You might check out the Ralph Peters essay the cryptogonian always posts about how Western Culture is a bayonet thrust into the heart of the enemy, the enemy being non-Western culture.

  6. Bill Whitcomb

    June 26, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    Really, not trying to imply moral authority of anyone (particularly not me). It was astonishing how short our national conversation about “why they hate us” was, when the real question was why are “they” still talking to us at all. Mainly, I was agreeing in a roundabout way that, while communication is essential, it does nothing by itself. If that’s all that is occurring, essentially, we’re just trying to talk someone else into actually doing something. (That’s generally been MY plan.)
    Of course, even on the communication front, we’ve (the US) been pretty pathetic. For example, has anyone hired a bunch of Koran scholars to dig up appropriate quotes. Have we tried making religious aruguements, couched correctly, in native dialects, arguing that suicide bombers are despised by Allah and explaining why?

    Not sure that recent anti-war activities were so useless, but there has been evolution on all sides since the Vietnam era and portions of the government may have learned more than the anti-war movement. There wer so many things that were set up so that the war in Iraq would never rile the public to Vietnam levels. If we’d had a draft, the war would have lasted about a week. No horrible tv reports, no magazine covers showing little girls covered in napalm.

    >Western Culture is a bayonet thrust into the heart of the enemy, the enemy being non-Western culture.

    Gawd. Did he really say that out loud? Shh!! Of course, Western Culture is also a bayonet thrust into the heart of…Western Culture.

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