Reading and listening to the immediate euphoric response to the protests in Egypt, I realized that America’s proverbial optimism and its legendary escapism were beginning to look more and more like each other.
Remember the earthquake that struck Haiti almost one year ago? At the time, the airwaves and print-byways were full of voices hailing a new dawn for Haiti as a result. The argument was that the influx of relief money and the chance to rebuild institutions would clear the country of poverty and corruption. Haitians, predicted Bill Clinton, “can escape their history and build a better future.” The outcome? Most of the aid money disappeared into the usual deep pockets and the country is perhaps worse off than it was before the earthquake hit.
Jared Lee Loughner’s massacre in Tucson? A new day for civility and harmony in our torn polity, we were told. Right. The Middle East? The protests reacting to apparently rigged elections in Iran in June 2009 were promptly dubbed “The Green Revolution” as ecstatic voices predicted a new day for Iran and for the entire region. Nineteen months later, and not only is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime as repressive as ever, but organized resistance to it seems to have been completely crushed.
Even the atrocities on 9/11 had a silver lining for some of our more irrepressible fellow citizens. Speculating on the effects of the attacks, an article in USA Today excitedly asked at the time: “Are aging boomers overcoming narcissism?” (Six weeks later, The Baltimore Sun threw up its hands and ran this disappointing headline: “Return To Narcissism With Emmys.”)
Unlike Europeans, whose long history has instilled in them an ironical and pessimistic view of human progress, we believe that every day is the first day of the rest of our lives, as it used to say on the back of a cereal box. Our optimism is a blessing because it has made us intolerant of forms of hatred and fanaticism that more ironical, tragic-minded and pessimistic societies resign themselves to. But optimism is also our curse. It makes us turn away in indifference when our fondest and most virtuous hopes are disappointed. No civility and harmony after Tucson? Then the country is hopeless. Poverty and corruption still rife in Haiti after all our donations and happy predictions? Then Haiti is beyond helping.
You would think that following the brutal repression in Iran of protesters who had used Facebook, Twitter and texting to organize, the same people who rushed to proclaim the triumph of social media over Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tyranny would have learned something. Not a chance. Just hours after the protests erupted in Egypt, Times columnist Roger Cohen used the occasion to, once again, celebrate the triumph of social media over tyranny. Mr. Cohen swooned over the Internet’s “gifts” of “organization, networking, exposure to suppressed ideas and information.” In Tunisia, Mr. Cohen rhapsodized, “Facebook gave young protesters the connective muscle to oust an Arab dictator.” But in Tunisia, the dictator’s right-hand man is in charge of an “interim government,” which is provocatively complaining that the opposition has no plan, no agenda and no leaders to negotiate with. It is one thing to organize. It is another thing to take charge. The Tunisian army has pledged to “defend the revolution.” But who will stop it if it assimilates the revolution?
The power of social media to transform tyranny into democracy, replace injustice with justice and, in general, vanquish all bad and evil things is a constant in the American response to political unrest overseas. It is as if we cannot sympathize with people protesting a cruel regime unless we are able to reformulate them in optimistic Western terms. Once we see that they use our products–Apple! Facebook! Twitter!–and thus are driven by American energy and know-how, then we can cheer on these reassuring reflections of ourselves.
This is cynical, I know. But allow me to suggest that nothing is as cynical as sunny blindness to the particulars of other people’s predicament for the sake of feeling good about our own principled response to their plight. In such instances, the slightest skepticism–what about the role of the Egyptian army?–becomes the moral equivalent of complicity with evil.
So because Hosni Mubarak is an iron-fisted tyrant, he could not be given any type of positive attribute, such as intelligence, stubbornness or guile. He was, we were told, responding to the new Internet-driven revolution with the “traditional playbook” of repression. But that’s not at all what has happened. Rather, Mr. Mubarak pulled the hated police off the streets and punished protesters calling for the dissolution of the government with the specter of anarchy. This was meant to give the army the moral authority of society’s saviors. And, indeed, the protesters are counting on the army to bring democracy to Egypt when the army has promised nothing of the sort. The last popular revolution in Egypt also came from the army. Mr. Mubarak is its heir.
A few days ago, I came across this sentence in The Times‘ coverage of the events in Egypt (I pick on The Times because I love The Times). Anthony Shadid writes: “Egypt shut down Internet services in the country on Friday, in a remarkable demonstration of how powerful those tools have become.” This is all wrong. Mr. Mubarak’s government shut down Internet services in the country in a remarkable demonstration of how weak those tools really are, since the Internet can be disabled with virtually the flick of a switch. Once again, the media’s almost pathological reflex to hype the Internet every chance it gets crippled its common sense.
What has been almost entirely neglected in the reporting on both Egypt and Tunisia is how forces hostile to democracy may also be using social media. The Internet’s morally pliable nature is the subject of an excellent new book called The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov. Demonstrating how the Iranian regime used Facebook to learn the identities of protesters, and employed Twitter and texting to manipulate the opposition and the general population with subterfuge and lies, Mr. Morozov shows how the Internet cuts both ways in politics. One of the aims of his book is to get American policy makers to channel their resources away from an indiscriminate emphasis on the Internet and toward modes of dissent that are effective without posing a mortal danger to the dissenters. For his troubles, Mr. Morozov got himself attacked in Mr. Cohen’s column as a mere “rumpled, bespectacled 26-year-old” who is “dead wrong.”
Only a fool would deny that social media can fuel a revolution. But only someone with his head up his apps could think that social media are sufficient to create a humane new regime and a whole new system of government. Mr. Mubarak may well be gone from Egypt by the time this column goes to press. After all, people were predicting his departure last summer, a time of rising sectarian conflict when Mr. Mubarak’s illness strengthened hopes for change and the opposition gathered 800,000 signatures for a petition demanding that the constitution be revised to allow independent candidates to run for president in elections scheduled for this September. Mr. Mubarak’s imminent removal, by nature or politics, was set to happen, Internet or no Internet.
But a functioning democratic regime is not necessarily set to follow. Internet organizing among the secular opposition, even assuming that Internet service will be restored, will be no match for Internet organizing among the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group whose roots go back more than 80 years and whose sophisticated structure and ruthless commitment are qualities that survive tumultuous times without any type of technology at all. It is a crass kind of Orientalism to think that only Western-influenced youth can use technology, and not Arab Islamists devoted to the ways of the past.
Pray for the youth of Egypt, with their noble rage, and their high hopes, and their iPhones, and their Twitter feeds. But it is when their screens go blank, and our blind, fantastical positive thinking collapses, that their ordeal truly begins. I just hope that with regard to the Roger Cohens of the world, their continued engagement with the Egyptian people will not be dependent upon their continued optimism.