James Carroll

A new world dawns digitally

By James Carroll
February 7, 2011

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‘CHANGED, changed utterly.’’ W.B. Yeats’ great phrase applies to Egypt, and the Arab world broadly, even as events there continue to unfold. How deeply into the structures of politics the transformation goes, even abstracting from particular outcomes in Egypt, won’t soon be clear. As revolutions always show, the return of fierce repression remains a lively possibility, as much in Tunis as in Cairo. Whether, how, and when democratic liberalism can build on the ruins of despotism will also be indefinitely at issue. “A terrible beauty is born,’’ Yeats concluded about his revolution in Dublin. A like balance in the Middle East is still being struck.

Nevertheless, the last two weeks mark the birth of a new world, and not only for Arab peoples. The utter change, of course, begins with them, all those heroes. “The street is not afraid of governments anymore,’’ one protester said. “The new generation, the generation of the Internet is fearless.’’ More than mere bravado, that sentiment reflects an essential note of what is different now. Revolutions have always depended on surges of collective boldness which, paradoxically, generate intense experiences of individual integrity. “Power to the people’’ and “I am somebody’’ go together. The discovery of this inviolable interiority is what democratic liberalism calls freedom, and democracy resides in political structures that exist to protect such interiority for every person, especially from the intrusions of government. I am somebody — and so are you.

In the past, that politically charged communality depended on vast assemblies where the previously powerless could experience the act of public demonstration as itself empowering. That has been played out in Tahrir Square. But the collectivity in this case is not merely physical, or only a matter of the street. There is also the ether, the elusive but real connectivity of digital culture.

When the Mubarak government shut down the Internet last week, the communal esprit of protesters was energized, not dampened, because in that feeble attempt at its silencing, the potency of the Internet was affirmed and enhanced. It can be locally and temporarily muted, but not stopped. Citizens of Egypt, especially the young, are citizens of the wired world. Of the Web. Julian Assange, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey have all been in Tahrir Square, too. More than an advance in information technology, comparable to cassette tape recorders in Tehran in 1979 or fax machines in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the social network wholly transcends the power of government — and is itself revolutionary. Changed utterly — a new form of consciousness is born.

If the Arab world is being transformed by these events, so is America’s idea of itself. The obsolescence of the bi-polar political order that was established during the Cold War has been so blatantly exposed that not even Washington can continue to uphold it. The choice between stability that requires shoring up friendly tyrants and uncontrolled popular unrest has been shown to be false. Despotic “stability’’ is the ultimate cause of unrest, not its cure.

Yet this Cold War order of the American past is only one system shown to be ruthlessly destructive. Another is the present global economic order over which America presides. The complacency with which wealthy nations regard the hopeless stagnation of countries, decidedly including Arab countries, that have been cut out of world markets for everything but oil is shattered by the prospect of millions of the dispossessed taking to the streets. Protesters in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Gaza, Algeria, and Tunisia are denouncing the malignancy of joblessness as much as the corruptions of oppressive rule. There can be no political transformation without economic transformation. The global free market is brutal, but it is also self-defeating. Americans see that because the Arab street is every street now.

So change is here, but there should be no glib assurance in that. It is the business of change to be dangerous. The new consciousness of the digital revolution can undermine basic human values, such as privacy. The crumbling of the old order can usher in unpredicted disorders. Protest heroes can lose their lives. Old tyrants can strike back, new ones arise. W.B. Yeats knew these things. His revolution had already failed when he wrote his poem. Yet he gave expression to a spirit that refused to be defeated. Terrible, beautiful — that spirit lives.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.