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June 22, 2009



"Deciding is something performed by a will, and wills inhere in individuals, not collectivities."

Unrelated, but the above brought to mind a philosophical work that, while not influencing me much due to the fact I had already stumbled upon most of the arguments in my own personal introspection, is a good representation of the materialist project: "Goedel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter. Your statement reminded me of the book because in a few places it argues that collectives do have wills. I highly recommend reading it, not just for the philosophy, but also for the interesting writing style and structure: parts of it reminded me a bit of "Alice in Wonderland", an intentional effect, I'm sure.


As a point of fact, I think Iranians can decide who leads Iran in a number of undemocratic ways without Iranians being denied the right to decide who rules them. Mass protests, strikes, appeals to members of powerful councils and appeals directly to members of Iran's military forces can all potentially effect a change of regime. Further, if a particular powerful Iranian decides who rules Iran, then it is still an Iranian who is deciding rather than an American.

Nathan Smith

Maybe Obama should clarify by adding, "I didn't mean that it's up to *the* Iranians who should rule Iran, but only to *Iranians.* In this case it looks like the Iranians in question will be the Revolutionary Guard, the Guardian Council, and Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, not the majority of the people."

Because if he doesn't, people might get the idea from his words that he was saying the Iranian people as a whole should get to decide. And that would be so... Bush!


It's up to Iranians whether Obama says it is or not. This is a descriptive, not prescriptive statement. Perhaps Obama is wearing his lapel pin wrong, but unless one thinks that an expression of support for a protest movement from the President of the United States in the first several days of unrest would help those protesters, then I'm not sure what's wrong here, either with the PotUS' statement or the Economist's analysis thereof.

Nathan Smith



(a) "It's up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leader will be."

(b) "He'd rather let Iranians decide who will rule them."

(c) "The decision may not be made democratically."

These statements contradict each other. Unless we interpret the word "Iranians" in a deliberately obtuse way, if statement (c) is true, statements (a) and (b) are false.

Do you follow?


An Iranian mob could decide who will rule, and that would be Iranians deciding who Iran's leader would be, and not democratically. There are many ways for "Iranians" to decide who will rule without interpreting the word obtusely. In fact, context makes obvious that the key distinction Obama is attempting to draw in the quoted statement is between Iranians and non-Iranians, not "the majority of Iranian voters" and "the Iranian regime." Distaste for Obama's hands-off tactics does not entitle one to redefine the scope of his terms for rhetorical convenience.

Nathan Smith

If you're going to look at events in a non-constitutional way, chains of causation run backwards and forwards without limit and any assigment of "decision" is arbitrary. Did the mob decide, the generals who didn't shoot on them, or the parents who gave birth to them, or the newspapers that inflamed their feelings, or the people who decided to acquiesce in the *fait accompli* after the mob storms the government's buildings? Was it, perhaps, the leader of the mob, or the hothead who first knocked down the door? To say who decides you must, at the least, assign an end-point to chains of causation; and if the end-points are plural you must engage in some sort of exercise of reification to create a description of the collective decision-maker. Of course, some end-points are more salient than others, but whether Iranians or non-Iranians were "deciding" would be indeterminate.

That's why, when people say someone decides or someone rules in a polity, they are referring to some explicit or implicit constitutional process. Only when it is understood in that way would Obama's statement be meaningful, because only in that case could an end-point to chains of causation be set in a non-arbitrary fashion, so that Iranians or non-Iranians could be cogently distinguished. Of course, none of this really needs to be said. When Obama says "it's up to Iranians to decide," his words do not strike us as nonsensical because any civically educated person in a Western democracy and by now probably most of the world's population is accustomed to understanding that phrase in the only way it can reasonably be understood, namely as a reference to a democratic constitutional structure or process, such as the Iranian constitution and virtually every other constitution in the contemporary world at least pays lip service to. *I* am not the one who is "redefining the scope of the term."


Another person who I can safely say knows more than any of us here about what's going on and what will help:

And Obama has already taken Parsi's advice.

Nathan Smith

Sure, Obama should condemn violence. He could also take to calling Ahmadinejad "unelected." He could say things like, "US relations with Iran are complicated by the apparent failure of the ruling regime to respect Iranian constitutional processes. It is not clear whether we can engage with President Ahmadinejad's administration in the same way we would if his election win were credible."


Yeah, I think he might need to go that way soon, though I'm not sure it's time just yet. I think he's probably listening to briefings every morning from his intelligence services to decide when it would be useful to take that step.

It's certainly true that whatever the outcome, we *can't* engage a Khameini regime in the same way after this.

(Apologies if this is a second post - the first time seemed to fail)

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