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Monday, June 15, 2009
Coleman Collins: Democracy Matters


While most of the basketball world was consumed by the NBA Finals, professional baller and TrueHoop contributor Coleman Collins was thinking about the events surrounding Iran's election. He writes:

This is a piece completely unrelated to sports except for three small references. Furthermore, one of those is only in a footnote, and further still, the metaphor is admittedly a bit of a stretch. This isn't about sports; this is a piece that is mainly about democracy. You may wonder what it is doing here, on what is ostensibly a sports website, but I would argue that it belongs, because without democracy, there would be no space for sports. Democracy means something -- it sets the table for all the sweet things in life that come afterward. When there is unrest in the world, the games are postponed; the Ted Williamses of the world go off in the prime of their careers to fight for something bigger than themselves. In a healthy democracy, a rivalry game can have the weight of a world war; in times of trouble, the only uniforms are worn by soldiers.

So, to the main point -- democracy is important. We saw that first-hand last November. It was a hard-fought election, to be sure, with plenty of ugly moments, but ultimately it went off without a hitch. A minority candidate was brought into power by a simple vote. He won in the state of Virginia, a state where his parents' marriage wasn't legal until 1967 (and then only by a landmark Supreme Court case); a state where he wouldn't have been able to buy a sandwich or grab a drink of water on a hot day 45 years prior. Elected to the highest office in the land without a single shot fired. There were the usual grumblings from the losing side about voter-ID fraud, but once the ballots were counted and all was said and done, everything was resolved and things got back to normal quickly. It cannot be overstressed; these peaceful transfers of power are invaluable to a civilized society. Even in 2000, when court challenges to the vote dragged on for weeks, there was no bloodshed, because by and large we believe in the system. We trust the system. We go to sleep every night knowing that we have the power to effect change and make statements about what kind of country we want to live in. Without that -- without the power of the ballot, without free will and the power of self-determination -- everything else we rant and rave about is inconsequential.1

Now consider the current situation in Iran. An election with results that most independent observers deem highly suspect. A highly controversial president re-elected with seemingly impossible majorities, followed by a concerted government effort to silence the opposition. The status quo maintained for the time being - but a glimmer of hope remains.

Robert F. Worth and Nazila Fatih report for The New York Times:

Hundreds of thousands of people marched through central Tehran on Monday to protest Iran's disputed presidential election in an extraordinary show of defiance that appeared to be the largest antigovernment demonstration here since the 1979 revolution...

... The vast and often silent march in Tehran was a deliberate and striking contrast with the chaos of the past few days, when riot police sprayed tear gas and wielded clubs to disperse scattered bands of angry and frightened young people.

The broad river of people - young and old, dressed in traditional Islamic gowns and the latest Western fashions - marched slowly from Revolution Square to Freedom Square for more than three hours, many of them wearing the signature bright green ribbons of Mr. Moussavi's campaign, and holding up their hands in victory signs. When the occasional shout or chant went up, the crowd quickly hushed them, and some held up signs bearing the word "silence.”

"These people are not seeking a revolution,” said Ali Reza, a young actor in a brown T-shirt who stood for a moment watching on the rally's sidelines. "We don't want this regime to fall. We want our votes to be counted, because we want reforms, we want kindness, we want friendship with the world.”

The people, in short, are not having it. And they're fighting back. There have been battles between citizens and police. People have been putting up a fight. They have been standing up and being counted, sacrificing life and limb for a little piece of what we take for granted.

As much as I have always been pro-democracy, I have been equally as passionate about being anti-Twitter. 2 It's always seemed frivolous - not so anymore. Not when I can go to the thread at twitter.com/iranelection09 and see this:

RT @persiankiwi apparently at least one dead in sadatabad tonight. several demonstrators shot/missing. #Iranelection
about 3 hours ago from web
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Rumors of gunshots in or around Tehran University, security forces & basij militia are said to have entered TU campus #iranelection
about 3 hours ago from web
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TUESDAY is a day of STRIKES throughout all of Iran, DON'T GO TO WORK #iranelection #mousavi
about 3 hours ago from web
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RT @iranbaan Former president Khatami has asked all to join march in support of #Mousavi tomorrow Enqelab Sq. to Azadi Sq 4pm #iranelection
about 3 hours ago from web

Thousands of pictures tagged "Iran election" have been uploaded to Flickr. Facebook groups organizing rallies across the U.S. Videos of demonstrations, of people chanting from rooftop to rooftop, documenting damage and bullet holes in dorm room doors - all uploaded to YouTube. This is the first revolution that is immediately accessible online - used by both revolutionaries and observers. This is a revolution led by people in a foreign country, using American websites to speak in English and Farsi to transmit ideas and plans, to warn each other of danger, to organize strikes and protests. This virtual tea party is amazing and earth-shattering and heart-breaking and admirable; it is a sign of the times, a reminder of the power of the individual. It reminds us that regardless of race or religion or political system, the ultimate power to decide our way of life resides with us. In us. This is the lesson provided to us by every popular revolution in history; what the current ruling class in Iran proved when they overthrew the government 30 years ago, what they seem to have forgotten with their overreach last week.

Now things are uncertain. This may be the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic of Iran. It may be the perfect distraction the opening, the U.S. and Israel need to swoop in and wipe out their nuclear sites. It may be just a minor setback for the government; it is certainly possible that they'll violently crush the dissenters and carry on business as usual. It is possible that, if installed, Mousavi would be even worse than Ahmadinejad has been. There are a million ways this could play out, and we'll see for sure in the near future. There will still be the threat of terrorists lurking in Iran and Afghanistan and the numerous other countries in the region. But for now, for today, this much is certain: as I sit here thousands of miles away, in the safety of my home, enveloped in the tinny sounds of chaotic videos captured by cellphone cameras -- I am in awe. With every breathless Tweet and uploaded snapshot, I remember again why democracy matters -- why individuals matter -- and so
should you. At the very least, attention should be paid.

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1 Token sports digression: Consider the much-bemoaned state of officiating in the NBA. This is of paramount importance to everyone involved in the game, because in any contest, be it an election or a basketball game, the zeal of the participants can be destroyed by any breakdown in trust. Do people go to the polls in droves when they think the votes won't be counted accurately? Do players play intense pressure defense when they keep getting called for touch fouls?

2 I have been talking and talking for weeks about meaningless Twitter is -- how no one with anything important to say could fit it into the character limit, how the fact that Ashton Kutcher has 1,000,000 followers delegitimizes the whole thing ... and now in this massive story, I have to admit I was wrong and take back something I said. Shame.