News & Politics

The Next Hot Thing in the Digital Frontier for Americans: Political Revolution?

Leaders from the Arab Spring explained how technology assisted the political revolutions from Egypt to Tunisia.

 Over the past few years, the annual Personal Democracy Forum has emerged as one of the few truly essential gatherings of its type – and the recently concluded eighth PDF gathering was no exception.


Each year I go into the conference excited about one or more items on its crowded agenda, only to be surprised at what later emerges as the most important takeaway. This year the key word was one you don’t hear much any more in an American context: revolution.


At PDF, a fascinating procession of speakers, all intimately involved in what has euphemistically become known as the “Arab Spring,” laid out the measures that led first Tunisia, then Egypt and now a number of other Middle Eastern lands to rise up and revolt against their unresponsive and corrupt governments. From Riadh Guerfali to Rasha Abdulla to Mona Eltahawy to Alaa Abd Al Fattah, they explained the process of how they and millions of supporters are  “weaving a network for change” in their countries, and what role the emerging media plays in making that happen. 


As speaker after speaker explained, the Arab Spring actions were emphatically not “Twitter” or “Facebook” revolutions that coalesced online – they were instead the outcome of literally decades of resistance offline. At the same time, they were clearly facilitated, and to some extent accelerated, by the decentralized organizing power of the new social media. The result of this offline/online action mashup was surprisingly successful revolutions against long-entrenched political forces.


“The Internet has helped revolution; but the Internet is not revolution,” as Nigeria’s Omoyele Sowore told the assembled. “Maybe the United States is also overdue for a revolution – this country can do a lot better than it is doing now.”


It’s not surprising, I suppose, that it takes an outsider to point out the obvious to us. After all, the corrupt nexus of media and politics has spent decades – and billions – to convince us the Empire is wearing clothes, when any fool without blinders on can see its naked nature.


Sowore’s remarks instantly transported me back in time to a hot and sweaty basketball gymnasium in 1968. I was sixteen years old and had just left home to attend Boston College, still a conservative bastion where jocks literally threw rocks at longhairs in a fading and futile attempt to hold back the sweeping changes already beginning to swirl through society.


Somehow the Student Activities Committee had managed to book a new group called Jefferson Airplane to play at BC. Tiny Roberts Center was packed way beyond capacity on a steamy autumn night when lead singer Grace Slick began to sing the anthem “Volunteers of America:”


Look what's happening out in the streets
Got a revolution Got to revolution
Hey I'm dancing down the streets
Got a revolution Got to revolution!

I don’t know if I had ever heard such an idea expressed other than in history books – and it resonated deeply among the thousands of young people crammed into the gym:


One generation got old
One generation got sold
This generation got no destination to hold
Pick up the cry
Hey now it's time for you and me
Got a revolution Got to revolution!


As the brilliant Alaa Abd Al Fattah pointed out in his remarks at PDF, the roots of the current revolution in Egypt go back nearly as far – to 1972 and efforts by his parents’ generation. Ultimately, however, they were stymied by a clever power structure that painstakingly divided and thus conquered the protesters, marginalizing some, buying others off with favor and access… 


Sound familiar?


But as Fattah also pointed out, the emerging media now make it possible “to make noises louder online, to build local movements with one narrative and then build them online to a mass movement.” 


Come on now we're marching to the sea
Got a revolution Got to revolution
Who will take it from you
We will and who are we
We are volunteers of America


There’s rightfully been an outpouring of praise in this country for the brave revolutionaries of the Arab Spring. So here’s a question to my fellow Americans: what are you waiting for? This country could be doing so much better than it is.  It’s time to volunteer again for America –and if that takes a revolution, so be it.  After all, as another Boomer anthem of that long ago era aptly put it, once again there’s “something in the air…”


Call out the instigators
Because there's something in the air
We've got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution's here, and you know it's right
And you know that it's right

Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor is the author of "Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio" (AlterNet Books, 2008). O'Connor also writes the Media Is A Plural blog.
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