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From Berlin Wall to Firewall

by ALI CHENAR in Tehran

25 Feb 2010 18:4312 Comments
Berlin_Wall.jpg[ comment ] Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s, before the disaster of the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan became clear, lived in a different world. The USSR loomed as a monolithic empire with a prodigious Cold War army that had never suffered defeat, unlike its Vietnam-fatigued U.S. counterpart. Europe had been divided into Western and Eastern Blocs. Nothing symbolized this geographical, political, and social division more than the Berlin Wall that split Germany in two.

Who would have imagined at the height of the Cold War that the Wall could suddenly come down? Yet the Eastern Bloc collapsed, and with it fell the Wall. As always, we are left with the lessons of history--some of which apply to the current situation in Iran.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall signified that no government can effectively separate its people from the rest of the world. The task is particularly hopeless when the people have strong ties and share a rich cultural heritage with those in neighboring countries, as well as a global community. A regime might influence a people's self-image through strict laws and persecution, but a communal identity formed from centuries of tradition and culture is not easily abnegated. Iranians, like Germans, have a profound sense of identity. And in this era of the Internet and globalized mass communication, they have connected it to the outside world.

Today, firewalls have replaced physical walls in the effort to control and restrict communication, but these blockades are porous and surmountable. Unlike in the days of the Cold War, when Eastern Europeans were largely prevented from peering beyond their borders, today Iranians can experience a diversity of foreign cultures. They can obtain news from and exchange information with other countries thanks to a virtual global network that is so vast, not even the most oppressive regime can suppress it. Satellite television channels, social networks, chat rooms, and a virtually endless number of Internet sites allow access to the world in one's living room. That has significant consequences not only for citizens' awareness of and perspective on international affairs, but also for how they view themselves. Crucially, it has compromised their government's ability to shape the world according to its own political agenda. Firewalls have been able to restore a portion of that ability on a temporary basis by shutting down certain sites and blocking others. But firewalls are breached every nanosecond, and disallowing access to one site simply drives people to another, while adept hackers find a way around the embargo entirely.

Like the Berlin Wall, the main achievement of dictatorial firewalls will not be security at all, but rather self-deception. And like the Berlin Wall--an essential purpose of which was also to signify an impenetrable border--firewalls in fact expose the government's own insecurity, fear, and paranoia as it tries desperately to control its population. The Berlin Wall, along with the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic's notorious intelligence service, created a false sense of security that enabled the ruling elite to dismiss any call for change or reform. It engendered among those in power a belief in a fallacious identity, one not shared by their people, who used any means possible to venture west while the Wall stood and did not waste a moment to rush over its remains after it fell. Those who shielded themselves with the Wall thought themselves different from the rest of the world and from past regimes. They criminalized political opposition, and told themselves they did it to defend the values of a socialist society. The most important crime of all was so-called decadence, they declared, rather than the systematic violation of people's rights. Permitting no venue for challenge, they imagined that they had succeeded in controlling the public's thoughts, emotions, and desires. They thought themselves invincible.

Today too, firewalls are installed because the ruling elite in Tehran need to believe they are different from the rest of the world. They want to control the ideas of the masses through a ubiquitous propaganda system, to be in control as well as in charge. They want to maintain the illusion to themselves, their people, and the rest of the world that they are immune to decay and collapse.

Yes, they need their firewalls, not to protect their people from a corrupt world, but to maintain their own belief in the myth of their invincibility. The most significant difference between the Berlin Wall and the Iranian regime's firewall is that it may be more difficult to document the precise moment when the latter collapses, if it hasn't already.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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12 Comments

Ali talks of a physical wall- ignoring the physical wall in occupied Palestine- and tries to establish an analogy of sorts with a digital firewall.

I actually travelled extensively behind the "Iron Curtain" in the early 1970's. It wasn't the stereotype everyone in the West is led to believe. In fact, making comparisons between a socialist state like Bulgaria and Italy, the People's Republic of Bulgaria (PRB) had no detectable crime, no detectable poverty, full employment and it was one of the cleanest and most orderly nations on earth. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) were even more so. I have friends of the former GDR that actually miss their country.

Things changed in the 1980's, economically. Things are changing right now, economically, here in America. Who knows where we'll be in twenty years, given the un-sustainability of national debt and continued militarism on a global scale.

Pirouz / February 25, 2010 8:23 PM

Pirouz, then it all came down crumbling because of a few years of bad economic conditions. Guess what, I think we have a stereotype about Iran now. It has the largest public health network, with high quality of life for middle class and educated people travel once a year abroad. I wonder where the talk of change and green movement is coming from.
And since when we have to say Palestine everytime we speak of Iran? aren't they two different countries? two different cases?

Firouz / February 25, 2010 9:23 PM

The Wall fell as a result of a bungled news conference, and 1 border guard who saw obsurdity of attempting to hold back millions, with no orders from HQ.

Same will happen with IRI.....

Might be a Nuke Youtube clip, a Tweet of Khamenie's death or a rogue Coup Pilot squadron bombing key sites.

Propaganda, rumor, disinformation, bits and bytes will lead to the tipping point...which is not far off.

Shah / February 25, 2010 9:42 PM

@Shah: have you smoked something? it must be really good, a little bit realism do you good.
@Pirouz: I wonder why didn't you immigrate to Bulgaria or GDR for that matter?

Ahmadreza / February 25, 2010 11:50 PM

Actually Shah is right. The wall would probably have come down soon anyway, but it came down the day that it did because a minister mis-spoke at a news conference and when people showed up at the Wall checkpoints, the guard said "screw it" and opened the gate.

Murple / February 26, 2010 1:28 AM

I too hate the Palestine comparisons, b/c as deplorable as conditions are there, sometimes we are comparing situations ... other times, we are simply talking about IRAN, and bringing up other countries is irrelevant.

HOWEVER, not in this case, because of the authors own tone: "Unlike in the days of the Cold War, when Eastern Europeans were largely prevented from peering beyond their borders, today Iranians can experience a diversity of foreign cultures." He himself is comparing places & people, so it makes all the sense to compare when there is ACTUALLY, A REAL, BARBAROUS apartheid wall in Palestine.

I actually don't think the internet censors is that big a deal. People find ways around it (unlike other things), and unfortunately, the writer's last two paragraphs:

"firewalls are installed because the ruling elite in Tehran need to believe they are different from the rest of the world. They want to control the ideas of the masses through a ubiquitous propaganda system, to be in control as well as in charge."

"they need their firewalls, not to protect their people from a corrupt world, but to maintain their own belief in the myth of their
invincibility."

Can be about many countries in the world today where big business rules. It may not be through actual firewalls, but the control of the flow of information, the power of big business and multinational corporations, etc.

Democracy Now! may not be firewalled, but really, can it ever compete with Fox News?!

Pedestrian / February 26, 2010 2:23 AM

But people DID show up! that is the whole point.

Ahmadreza / February 26, 2010 3:31 AM

And in Nazi Germany the trains were never "detectably" late, eh, comrade Pirouz?

Given a certain someone's thinly disguised longing here for the good old days of fascist rule, is it any wonder this person is always posting pro-thugocracy comments and splitting hairs with anyone who dares question Islamo-fascism's utter superiority to all other forms of running a society?

I only wonder if our correspondent from the "Twilight Zone" shares with the objects of his schoolboy crushes, AN & the SL, a desire for the subjugation of the entire world, including his chosen country of residence, the US, under the "leadership" of a caliph, i.e., the SL, and their lunatic, apocalyptic desire to destroy the world so the hidden Imam will "reappear" and usher in a paradise for the faithful Muslims and the eternal damnation of apostates and infidels?

Or is he too "sophisticated" or Marxist-Leninist leaning to believe in religion, the "opiate of the masses?"

farzad / February 26, 2010 8:38 AM

"@Pirouz: I wonder why didn't you immigrate to Bulgaria or GDR for that matter?"

Why Bulgari or GDR, Pirouz, please immigrate to Iran NOW. Where you would not need to worry about un-sustainability of national debt or continued militarism!!!!

Kia / February 26, 2010 10:59 AM

Pirouz

the Iran-Iraq war was "a gift from God" to Khomeini.

Ahmadinejad is a "gift from God" to Israel.

Ahvaz / February 27, 2010 2:53 AM

The Revolutionay Guards Conglomerate Business structure will make it very easy to confiscate these assets when the revolution comes.

A De-Privatization of the Bonyads with discounted share distribution compensation to original founders, will produce a brain funnel of all exiles and repatriation of intelectual capital.

This revolution will be based on technology and private equity recapitalization....woe to the clerics with their hyper inflationary currency and abacuss.

The economically illterate mullahs will be penniless, if alive.

Shah / February 28, 2010 3:53 AM

So close but so far.

fruit / June 13, 2010 10:04 PM