Liberty Leads the People, Even in Tehran

Mark Perry

Bitter Lemons, June 18, 2009

We in the “the West” have a special place in our traditions for anniversaries. We celebrate two important ones just now. It was twenty years ago that thousands of children arrived in China’s Tiananmen Square to petition their leaders for greater rights. They built a papier-mache statue of a white-clad lady that looked familiar to us. They carted her around for a time, as a kind of icon for their movement. Then one night they were murdered in their thousands, as the world looked on. The US ambassador there, James Lilley, told me, “it is a sad time for the Chinese people”.

It was a sad time for all of us.

The lady first appeared 180 years ago, in Liberty Leading the People, a painting by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the French July Revolution of 1830. Painters before him had focused on the Messiah. But Delacroix took him down from his cross, clothed him in white, made him a woman and placed a tricolor in his hand. Women who came to see the painting sank to their knees, as Mary once had before the empty tomb. The painting changed the world: on one side of this new symbol of modernity a boy surged into the future. All innocence, eyes ablaze, he understood the meaning of freedom. On the other, a wounded veteran and patriot marched, dedicated to the new catechism of freedom. Jesus no longer led the people; it was a simple woman. Liberty.

Zhou En-lai, the former premier and foreign minister of China got this right. Asked once in the 1950s to assess the impact of the French Revolution, he answered, “it’s too soon to tell.” She moves on, this woman, like a wave.

After Tienanmen the symbol was no longer western, but universal, as was democracy itself. Liberty led the people in South Africa and South America and in Eastern Europe. The impossible happened through no agency of our own: the Berlin Wall fell and the politburo washed away so suddenly it left us breathless. Ideas themselves did what no force could accomplish.

We anger history to ignore this, do violence to our ideals to reject it. They our not simply “our” ideals, they are everyone’s. Mother Courage bore witness to what happened to the revolutionaries of France; they transformed a society of nobles into a nation not of “peoples” but people. They bore witness to the children of Tiananmen who stood helpless in the face of those who, acting on behalf of “the workers” and “the party”, shed their blood. We, in the name of realism, stood silent.

What is it that Barack Obama doesn’t get about this?

The people in the streets of Iran are not protesting the outcome of a vote, but the foundation of a system. It does not matter who won. The issue is not votes, but the system. No recount will set it right. It is not a recount Iranians seek, but freedom. They do not fear their leaders; they fear a future without liberty. It does not matter to them whether we support them or not, and it will make no difference to their inevitable victory. But it will matter to us. Our silence will show complicity, especially from the current US president.

Barack Obama is showing great care, because after a season of meddlesome politics America must show that nations and people must act on their own. And he has said this. That’s all to the good. But that’s not enough. America did not elect Barack Obama simply because we hoped he would be a realistic president–though that is certainly what we wanted. We also elected him because he talked in ideals. We believe in those ideals. We understand them. We would like to live up to them, knowing we often do not. And so Barack Obama must say the obvious: we will not meddle, we will not interfere, and we will leave this to the Iranian people. But in each and every instance, when the people speak we are with them. We are for the people of Iran and we must hope they prevail.

Liberty is leading the people again, this time in Tehran. We must stand with them and with her.

One Comment

  1. Mehran wrote:

    I really doubt that they are actually motivated by liberty. They are most likely motivated by the western media and of course demands of their class as mostly Tehrani upper-middle class. I saw them in London standing side by side with the English Defence League and chanting against pro Palestinian demonstrators with quite a racial tint.

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