Bishop: Iran, the Shining City? The Troubling Story of Nasim Aghdam

Thursday, April 12, 2018


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Little noticed in the orgy of social media condemnation generally, and lost in the implication that shooter Nasim Aghdam was upset because Youtube “demonetized” her videos, is her broader message (as archived by the New York Times): “There [Iran] they kill you by ax; Here [America] they kill you with cotton” 

This condemnation is surely reminiscent of black author James Baldwin’s exploding the apocryphal dichotomy of an enlightened north and a racist south in America: “There’s no difference between the north and south. There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you, but the fact of the castration is the American fact.” Thus Aghdam begs us to notice that Iran struggles more honestly with competing mores and the social status quo, while America sweeps its coerced conformity under the carpet.

Aghdam continued with her reflections on the United States: “If you are superficial, you will think it is heaven here, that you can go naked outside and have sex left and right like other animals without any morality. But if you enter the system, you will see that it is worse than Iran. Those who want to inform people against the system and big companies get censored."

It’s not actually all about money

Bitching about being demonetized by Youtube to please advertisers is hardly anything unique. It is her frank invitation to us to see the United States as no better than Iran – perhaps worse – that is the enduring challenge left by this troubled character. And I am ashamed to say that she could be right.

Some of this criticism lands squarely on our anything-goes culture. Ironically, it is the timidity of Youtube in this respect that set off the Ahgdam rampage by adopting a “not everything goes” policy, in the face of controversies that scared off advertisers.

Conservative Regulation?

But the ironies only start there. Over at Breitbart, conservatives who venerated Ajit Pai for taking to the barricades to almost single handedly and deservedly pitch ‘net neutrality’ into the ashbin of history have now discovered that there are progressives in silicon valley. So it’s not enough to have prevented these progressives from taking the upper hand with internet suppliers by deep-sixing ‘net neutrality’ regulations, conservatives are begging for content regulation!

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“Congress should pass real consumer internet protection legislation that will protect us from Facebook and Google – or any other company – blocking and censoring the content we want to see or stealing and selling our personal information.”, claims the oh so ironically named “Free our Internet” campaign to which Breitbart links conservatives concerned their voice is being squelched. What happened to the longstanding objection of conservatives to the concept that everything is a public accommodation. What happened to the conservative solution that citizens should choose accommodating businesses rather than plague businesses they find unaccommodating as is properly demand of gay couples who petulantly insist that some poor Christian baker celebrate the marriage of Bob and Ted instead of Bob and Carol?

And what happened to the vaunted entrepenurial spirit?  If Facebook and Youtube don’t like conservatives, which they don’t, why doesn’t Drudge or Peter Thiel or some lesser known wunderkind offer a competing service? And even such a service as that is either one that you would pay for or you would still be subject to the whims of advertisers who do pay for it.

Oh yeah, it is all about the money

While surely Mark Zuckerberg is aghast that his progressive credentials have been undermined by any inference that Facebook was the butterfly’s wing that cascaded into the Trump election, he is much more worried about how many users he has than their political proclivities. Youtube was no doubt equally thinking about viewer statistics when it summarily demonetizied Ahgdam’s harmless exercise video while countless videos of Nicky Minaj grinding on men, women and ice sculptures of motorcycles or whatever else happens to be on the set remain with advertisers lining up.

This is, of course, just lazy poll taking. 750 MILLION views for Minaj; 750 for Ahgdam. You can guess which is going to hit the cutting room floor. But it is hardly some criminal act or even deserving of regulation. It is no excuse in hindsight (pardon me miss Minaj) to regulate Youtube. It just is. If you want the real edge, not the more rounded Minaj, you’ll have to go elsewhere.

Will the real Shining City please stand up . . . eer . . . shin

It is unsurprising that Ahgdam, who saw this as a conspiracy as serious as the persecution of her religious beliefs in Iran, was exercised to the point of suicide -- and she didn’t need to see Paul Logan’s infamous suicide forest video to further her pyschosis. But it is a far more complex statement on her legacy that a young woman who escaped the persecution of her Baha’i faith in Iran should openly muse that her American respite is worse. Indeed, that she can see hope in Iran even though the uber tolerant Baha’i are routinely discriminated against, subject to property seizure, detained and, according to the International Federation for Human Rights, beaten, tortured and executed is the challenge to America’s onetime standing as the shining city on the hill. Have we given up that role to Iran of all purported axes of evil?

There is perhaps no country more representative of the stain to America’s international reputation than Iran where the CIA aided the overthrow of the democratically elected government in a cold war era maneuver motivated in no small part by British kvetching over the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry. By the Suez crisis, several years later, America actually thought better of intervention and left the British and French exposed in their invasion of Eygpt which lead to the resignation of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden. But reinstalling the Shah had already done its damage to the US reputation in the middle east – a shameful gambit for which we are still paying.

Indeed, one of the few things that Obama did right was to signal the possibility of rapprochement with places like Iran and Cuba from which we have been so long estranged. That is not to say that he was a dealmaker of the sort purportedly occupying the Whitehouse now. The resulting diplomacy was oft one-sided and while America bears much responsibility for the longstanding hostilities, that hardly insulates these regimes from criticism of their own autocratic grips on power and resulting encroachments on civil rights but civil rights are not a universal concept or one dictated strictly by United States standards. As illustrated, we are hardly in a position to dictate about international norms to Iran.

Ahgdam in some ways may have spoken for or to a more tolerant strain of Iranian who is not anti-western but neither ready for wholesale westernization. She maintained Persian Youtube channels – which have been characterized to an extent as comic relief, even so bad they were funny. She took such criticism head on and her inreach to her former home was not as a veiled or submissive women -- although very occasionally so costumed. But neither did it stray to what could be properly criticized within any culture as, at minim, a decency challenged parade of women’s attributes. As one can perhaps glean from my cadence, it isn’t that I am not tempted by indecency, but I recognize it as that.

Although Aghdam’s final act was hardly diplomatic and, thankfully, not deadly to anyone else, hers was possibly a more effective ambassadorship between cultures that have refused to acknowledge each other’s legitimacy than any President’s or Ayatollah’s. There is criticism to be shared in both directions, but one cannot fairly criticize that which they do not respect. If Nasim Aghdam raised the tiniest conviction in any of us that we ought to walk in the other’s shoes before we decide how badly they fit, one hopes that can temper the contempt for her sociopathic denouement.  

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Brian Bishop is on the board of OSTPA and has spent 20 years of activism protecting property rights, fighting over regulation and perverse incentives in tax policy.


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