Sometimes you just feel you’re stuck in a nowhere place at a nowhere time – all the big important events were in the past, as they always are, and if big things were happening now, well, they were happening elsewhere. It was like that in college in the late sixties, as the college in the dead middle of Ohio and that seemed the middle of nowhere. For a taste of what we all called the real world you could slip off to Newark – the one in Ohio, not the one in New Jersey. And if you wanted something that sort of seemed like a city, it was a long hour’s drive to Columbus – but it was hard to pretend Columbus was Manhattan, even if you could get actual bagels there. And there was no Greenwich Village with Dylan walking the snowy streets like on the album cover. But for us it was Newark – Wayne Newton’s hometown – or Columbus. Otherwise it was farms.
And on the radio the Mommas and Papas were singing California Dreamin’ – you’d be safe and warm if you were in LA. And there was a Summer of Love in San Francisco – be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. And the next summer there were revolutions all over the place – in Czechoslovakia the people rose up, and in gracious good humor, suggested to the Soviets that they really should leave. The Soviets were caught flatfooted, they seemed unable to deal with cutting and devastating irony, but their tanks rolled into Prague that August and put an end to that. Russians don’t do irony. But it was kind of amazing, and it all worked out in the end. And in Paris that May the Left Bank exploded in outrage at the old farts, the guys who had run France so badly for so long, and although that was put down, eventually, that changed everything. And that one included all that French philosophizing and surrealism. Cool. And in August the Democrats held their convention in Chicago – and there were the riots in the streets and Abbie Hoffman, and Dan Rather getting roughed up on national television by Mayor Daley’s police thugs. Something was in the air. The following summer was Woodstock. But nothing was happening in Ohio.
So we attended our classes and pretended to be interested in the courses one had to sit through for one’s liberal education – stuff outside your major that you had to take. And it was odd to sit through that history course on the Age of Revolution – 1775 to 1848 – revolutionary movements on both sides of the Atlantic and all over the place – absolutist monarchies teeter and get replaced by constitutionalist states and republics – the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, slaves revolts in Latin America, and independence movements all over Latin America. All the imperialist European states lose major assets across the New World, and of course the British lose the Thirteen Colonies – they’d have to target Asia and the Pacific for outward expansion if they wanted their damned British Empire. So they did. We would have none of them. Everything changed in those years.
Ah, those were the days. And of course someone would invariably raise their hand and ask the young assistant professor if we weren’t ourselves living through such an age right now, given what was happening all over (but not in Ohio). The response was a withering stare, and a snort – that was stupid. This was a class in history, not current events. Take it elsewhere. And the rest of the class yawned and shifted in their seats. We all had to pass this thing. And we were in Ohio anyway. Big things happen elsewhere.
And of course what was happening at the time here – and in Paris and all over – was just kids, or a Youth Movement as they called it. The conventional wisdom was to dismiss it. It was just the usual rebelliousness. The kids were just trying to piss off the old folks, as that’s what kids do. There was no cultural revolution. Everyone still liked Ike, and Lawrence Welk was still on air. This wasn’t the second Age of Revolution. It was just a bunch of spoiled kids whining.
And of course that was wrong. The sixties changed everything – not just popular music and political discourse. And the right is still angry about it. We lost Vietnam because the kids took to the streets and turned public opinion, or Walter Cronkite did, or something. No one any longer knew their place and all that – you know, gays and blacks and those people. The Pentagon Papers and Stonewall and Malcolm X – all of it was a shame. They said, America, love it or leave it – and then the wrong people were saying hey, we love it as much as you do, and we’re staying. Nothing’s been the same since.
So maybe we had a second Age of Revolution. And the kids drove it. And here we go again, as Fareed Zakaria in this item puts the current the Middle Eastern protests in context:
The central, underlying feature of the Middle East’s crisis is a massive youth bulge. About 60% of the region’s population is under 30. These millions of young people have aspirations that need to be fulfilled, and the regimes in place right now show little ability to do so. The protesters’ demands have been dismissed by the regimes as being for Islamic fundamentalism or a product of Western interference. But plainly these are homegrown protests that have often made the West uneasy as they have shaken up old alliances. And what the protesters want in the first place is to be treated as citizens, not subjects. In a recent survey of Middle Eastern youth, the No. 1 wish of the young in nine countries was to live in a free country, although, to be sure, jobs and the desire to live in well-run, modern societies ranked very high as well.
Zakaria argues that there’s no turning back in the Middle East, and what’s happening should sound familiar:
The year of the revolutions began in January, in a small country of little importance. Then the protests spread to the region’s largest and most important state, toppling a regime that had seemed firmly entrenched. The effect was far-reaching. The air was filled with talk of liberty and freedom. Street protests cropped up everywhere, challenging the rule of autocrats and monarchs, who watched from their palaces with fear.
That could be a description of events in Tunisia and Egypt as those countries’ peaceful revolutions have inspired and galvanized people across the Middle East. In fact, it refers to popular uprisings 162 years earlier that began in Sicily and France. The revolutions of 1848, as they were called, were remarkably similar in mood to what is happening right now in the Middle East. (They were dubbed the springtime of peoples by historians at the time.) The backdrop then, as now, was a recession and rising food prices. The monarchies were old and sclerotic. The young were in the forefront. New information technologies – mass newspapers! – connected the crowds.
But Zakaria notes the original story didn’t end so well:
The protesters gained power but then splintered, fought one another and weakened themselves. The military stayed loyal to the old order and cracked down on protests. The monarchs waited things out, and within a few years, the old regimes had reconstituted themselves. “History reached its turning point, and failed to turn,” wrote the British historian A. J. P. Taylor.
And you know the questions that follow:
Will history fail to turn in the Middle East? Will these protests in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and beyond peter out, and in a few years, will we look back at 2011 and realize that very little actually changed?
Zakaria admits that is certainly possible, but you cannot dismiss “two of the most powerful forces changing the world today: youth and technology.”
So you have that massive youth bulge. And these kids have even less use for the medieval fundamentalist al-Qaeda old farts than they do for the current king or military dictator as the case may be. Don’t trust anyone over thirty.
And Zakaria does invoke the sixties:
Young people are not always a source of violence. The West experienced a demographic bulge – the famous baby boom in the decades after World War II – that is known mainly for fueling economic growth. China and India, likewise, have a large cohort of young workers, and that adds to those countries’ economic strength. But without economic growth, job opportunities and a sense of dignity, too many young people – especially young men – can make for mass discontent. That is what has happened in the Middle East, where the scale of the youth bulge is extreme – perhaps the largest in the world right now. From 1970 to 2007, 80% of all outbreaks of conflict occurred in countries where 60% or more of the population was younger than 30. And even places where the baby boom produced growth are not without problems. The peak years of the West’s bulge came in the late 1960s, a period associated with youth rebellions and mass protests.
But the region’s governments don’t seem to get it – youth unemployment remains around twenty-five percent, and they’re not happy kids:
The oil boom has certainly helped the Gulf countries pay off their people in various ways, but more than half of those who live in the Middle East are in lands that do not produce oil. Moreover, oil has proved a curse in the rich countries, where the economies have little to offer other than extracting hydrocarbons, where armies of foreigners do all the work and where regimes continue to offer their people a basic bargain: we will subsidize you as long as you accept our rule. Rattled by recent developments, Kuwait and Bahrain both decided to give all of their citizens bonuses this year ($3,000 in Kuwait, $2,700 in Bahrain).
Those payments are a reminder that in the Middle East, there are two modes of control: mass repression and mass bribery.
That’s not what the kids want, and then you mix in technology, assuring a population that is increasingly aware, informed and connected:
It’s too simple to say that what happened in Tunisia and Egypt happened because of Facebook. But technology – satellite television, computers, mobile phones and the Internet – has played a powerful role in informing, educating and connecting people in the region. Such advances empower individuals and disempower the state. In the old days, information technology favored those in power, because it was one-to-many. That’s why revolutionaries tried to take over radio stations in the 1930s – so they could broadcast information to the masses. Today’s technologies are all many to many, networks in which everyone is connected but no one is in control. That’s bad for anyone trying to suppress information.
Of course, the state can fight back. The Egyptian government managed to shut down Egyptians’ access to the Internet for five days. The Iranian regime closed down cell-phone service at the height of the green movement’s protests in 2009. But think of the costs of such moves. Can banks run when the Internet is down? Can commerce expand when cell phones are demobilized?
It’s simple – “For regimes that need or want to respond to the aspirations of their people, openness becomes an economic and political necessity.” And openness could end their regimes. The parallel is 1848, or 1968 – there are turning points.
Zakaria adds this:
It’s easy to be disappointed when looking at the Middle East’s sad recent history. And yet something in the region feels as if it is changing.
He was probably that kid in history class that raised his hand and asked the question. Something is up.
And in Bahrain, there was Obama’s call to King Hamad and the context for Nicholas Kristof:
There’s delirious joy in the center of Bahrain right now. People power has prevailed, at least temporarily, over a regime that repeatedly used deadly force to try to crush a democracy movement. Pro-democracy protesters have retaken the Pearl Roundabout – the local version of Tahrir Square – from the government. On a spot where blood was shed several days ago there are now vast throngs kissing the earth, chanting slogans, cheering, honking and celebrating. People handed me flowers and the most common quotation I heard was: “It’s unbelievable!”
When protesters announced that they were going to try to march on the Pearl Roundabout this afternoon, I had a terrible feeling. King Hamad of Bahrain has repeatedly shown he is willing to use brutal force to crush protesters, including live fire just yesterday on unarmed, peaceful protesters who were given no warning. I worried the same thing would happen today. I felt sick as I saw the first group cross into the circle.
But, perhaps on orders of the crown prince, the army troops had been withdrawn, and the police were more restrained today. Police fired many rounds of tear gas on the south side of the roundabout to keep protesters away, but that didn’t work and the police eventually fled. People began pouring into the roundabout from every direction, some even bringing their children and celebrating with an almost indescribable joy. It’s amazing to see a site of such tragedy a few days ago become a center of jubilation right now. It’s like a huge party. I asked one businessman – Yasser, how he was feeling – and he stretched out his arms and screamed: “GREAT!!!!”
Many here tell me that this is a turning point, and that democracy will now come to Bahrain – in the form of a constitutional monarchy in which the king reigns but does not rule – and eventually to the rest of the Gulf and Arab world as well. But some people are still very, very wary and fear that the government will again send in troops to reclaim the roundabout. I just don’t know what will happen, and it’s certainly not over yet. But it does feel as if this just might be a milestone on the road to Arab democracy.
As for the phone call, there’s this:
We don’t know what exactly President Obama said to the king in his call last night, but we do know that the White House was talking about suspending military licensing to Bahrain. This may have been a case where American pressure helped avert a tragedy and aligned us with people power in a way that in the long run will be good for Bahrain and America alike.
Wait. An American president said listen to the kids, they may have a point? Obama just doesn’t have the president thing down right yet. Or maybe he does:
Americans will worry about what comes next, if people power does prevail, partly because Gulf rulers have been whispering warnings about Iranian-influence and Islamists taking over. Look, democracy is messy. But there’s no hint of anti-Americanism out there, and people treated American journalists as heroes because we reflect values of a free press that they aspire to achieve for their country. And at the end of the day, we need to stand with democracy rather than autocracy if we want to be on the right side of history.
And see Andrew Sullivan:
Was it the turning point? I guess we’ll find out soon enough. If so, Obama’s outreach to Shiite Muslim democrats could be transformative in the Middle East. “There’s no hint of anti-Americanism out there, and people treated American journalists as heroes because we reflect values of a free press that they aspire to achieve for their country.” In fact, when was the last time you saw frenzied crowds in the streets in several Muslim Arab countries where the American flag wasn’t being burned? We finally figured out how to help democracy in the Arab world: get out of the way and nudge quietly from a distance.
Of course Sarah Plain and Glenn Beck will say this is madness, and have, repeatedly. But referencing data from the Public Religion Research Institute, Adam Serwer explained it this way – “The problem isn’t that Fox News viewers hear a lot of negative things about Islam, it’s they hear a lot of false things about Islam.”
And after reviewing that data – his charts are nifty – Sewer says this:
A conservative might argue that this just shows how complacent other networks are in the face of the “Islamofascist” threat. The problem is that much of Fox News’s coverage of Islam over the last year has been focused not on actual facts, but on the sort of fringe ideas about Islam in the United States that are rapidly becoming a permanent feature of the right wing culture war. Fox News spend a significant amount of time in the past year furthering the baseless conspiracy that most American mosques are radicalized, that the Obama administration has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and that Muslims in the U.S. are trying to impose Sharia law.
Last year’s debate over the proposed Islamic community center blocks away from the ruins of the World Trade Center provided another opportunity for Fox News to peddle this stuff ad nauseum, with on-air personalities accusing the Imam of trying to impose Sharia, of having “ties to the Muslim Brotherhood” (at this point, who doesn’t?) and that the project would be funded by terrorists.
The events in Egypt have produced some similar results – but because conservatives have been less unified on the matter, there’s been more balance than usual in their coverage of the protests. Nevertheless, if you want to hear about the coming European caliphate Fox News is still the channel to watch.
And you get what we have:
Republican viewers of Fox News come away thinking they’re genuinely informed about Islam, when the opposite is the case. That’s the worst part, because those views, once entrenched, are hard to dislodge. Conservatives frustrated with the right’s support for deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak might want to consider the monster they’ve helped create.
And somehow it feels like 1968 again, even if you’re in Ohio. We seem to be in the middle of a third Age of Revolution. You don’t want to miss this one too.