Iran Watch: 50,000 Buses and One Million No Shows

Before the USSR collapsed, “smart” observers bet that the regime had broad support and the people only wanted reform. This was a theme of writers like Stephen Cohen and required reading during my graduate school education.

Similarly, outside observers assumed that nominally democratic Iran maintained broad support for the Islamic Republic. Sure, sure, college students and urban elites would demonstrate but the people outside the capitol were loyal to the regime. Then the disputed election, massive protests and yet . . . still observers wondered if the demonstrators—matched by counter-demonstrators—represented only the educated stratum.

As Michael Ledeen shows in a recent Wall Street Journal column, we now know the answer:

The regime sent 50,000 buses across the country, offered free food and drink for the anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the turn out was abysmal (imagine one person per bus!). This “demonstration of silence” is more powerful than the clashes we witnessed a year ago.

This boycott demonstrates the importance of civil society: that sphere buffering between individual and State. In communist nations (think Cuba), the buses would be full because the State controls everything—including your food rations. In authoritarian nation States where civil society exists, there is room for protest, even if it is refusing to show up for state-sponsored propaganda plays.

Libertarians loath neoconservatives but perhaps there was something to their distinction between authoritarian (civil society) and totalitarian states (no civil society). What remains to be seen is whether the government trends toward the totalitarian.

Meanwhile, don’t look for President Barack Obama to speak out. The people of Iran showed courage by remaining silent and staying home. President Obama demonstrates cowardice by doing the same. One is an act of defiance (the Iranian no shows), the other a “sin of omission.”

Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
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