Reports in the last days of January that Egypt’s ruling government cut first social media and then all Internet access to the country’s 80 million people—many of whom have taken to the streets seeking long-time President Hosni Mubarek’s ouster—sparked outrage in the US among citizens and less vociferously, but with equal concern, among the diplomatic elite, notably Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests and to reverse the unprecedented step it has taken to cut off communications,” Clinton said.
What the people who are in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt are protesting for is the right to participate in their government, to have economic opportunity, for their human rights to be respected. We are very clearly asking both in public and private that the Egyptian authorities respond to that, that they start a process of national dialogue that will lead to a transition to such a democracy. And what President Mubarak himself said the other day—that they would begin to take concrete steps for democratic and economic reform—we expect to see happen.
Clearly Secretary Clinton must walk a statecraft tightrope in speaking both to the rights of peaceful protesters and to the sovereignty of another nation state.
But her comments come at an interesting moment for peak oil observers, among whom there exists a certain expectation that revolutionary fervor could spread not only to other repressive Arab regimes, but across Europe and even to the United States, as soon as this year. Their argument is that conditions exposing vast corruption in international banking, often rewarded by or in collusion with the state, along with the material pressures of rising oil prices resulting from peak oil, would be the tipping point pushing even Americans beyond tolerance, into demands for real reform and possibly into public protest.
Whether this is really likely depends on myriad factors, not least of which is the general American predisposition toward distraction.
Do we Americans really take to the streets when there’s a good episode of Glee on?
And anyway, our actual and mythical freedoms exert a powerful countervailing force to assuage discontent. If we are able to live wherever we can afford, take any job that will have us and practice our religious faith or lack thereof without hindrance, then we are less concerned that we don’t have any real voice in how we are governed.
Add to that an increasing decay in Americans’ sense of unity—or even of commonality; the prevailing trend is for us to engage in petty bickering over the wedge issues fomented by opportunistic political henchmen, from immigration to gay marriage to how responsible Sarah Palin was for the shootings in Arizona. We fall into this trap rather than seeing our common cause as a people increasingly suffering under a long “train of abuses and usurpations” by our own ruling elite.
From Tahrir Square to Times Square?
Lacking a crystal ball myself, I’m hesitant to say that a new American revolution is in the offing, though there are signs beyond the Tea Party’s tragically mixed-messages that unrest is burbling outside of the expected vanguard intellectual hotbeds of New York, Chicago, LA, or San Francisco. And added strife caused by the material conditions of peak oil, such as escalating gas prices, food shortages, and continued joblessness may be all the fire needed to rouse Egyptian-style civil unrest stateside.
What then would be the position of US leaders if mass numbers of Americans staged a general strike? Would the Obama administration and other elected officials feel as much sympathy for voices at home saying that American democracy is essentially broken, beholden as it is to corporate money and influence?
Would US leaders recognize that holding elections and allowing citizens to vote in them are not sufficient to demonstrate that we have a healthy democracy accountable to the people?
Would they be able to acknowledge that a moneyed class gone wild on an unfair economic playing field has brought about a gap between the richest Americans and everybody else and that such trends have undermined the lofty ideals upon which the American project rests?
In a Foreign Affairs article this month, “Why the Rich Are Getting Richer,” Robert C. Lieberman writes that for the past forty years incomes at the top have gone up, while everyone else’s have plummeted. Citing the book Winner-Take-All Politics, How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned its Back on the Middle Class, Lieberman writes,
Hacker and Pierson refreshingly break free from the conceit that skyrocketing inequality is a natural consequence of market forces and argue instead that it is the result of public policies that have concentrated and amplified the effects of the economic transformation and directed its gains exclusively toward the wealthy. Since the late 1970s, a number of important policy changes have tilted the economic playing field toward the rich…Corporate governance policies have enabled corporations to lavish extravagant pay on their top executives regardless of their companies’ performance; and the deregulation of financial markets has allowed banks and other financial institutions to create ever more Byzantine financial instruments that further enrich wealthy managers while exposing homeowners and pensioners to ruinous risk.
In response to the climate they helped create, elected American officials should now be willing to change course, moderating their own behavior and getting on task to do the people’s business. They should take a page from systems thinking and overhaul a sick system driven by corporate cash that undermines a fuller expression of democracy for all. And they should be more prepared to answer to the democratization of media that the Internet affords through honest, transparent methods. Finally, they need to get real that there is no such thing as a “jobless recovery” and that We the People cannot long remain healthy on a diet of hype served on a table of smoke-and-mirrors.
While Secretary Clinton’s purview is not American domestic policy, her recent words denouncing Egypt’s Internet “kill switch” maneuver add a disturbing layer to this story at home as Congress contemplates its own Internet “kill switch” bill.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) reintroduced Senate bill 3480 which would grant any sitting US president the power to shut down the Internet. Billed as a plan to protect the domestic Internet against cyber-attack, shutting down the Internet to save it would likely be ineffective against major cyber-threats but would certainly wreak havoc in the economy and throughout society. Any plans to let the White House shut off the Internet can only be intended to accomplish in the US what Mubarak sought in Egypt — to squelch popular opposition to the government, according to PC expert John C. Dvorak.
Such legislation reminds us of the USA PATRIOT Act with its bold stripping of American freedoms under the guise of any number of rationalizations concentrating power in centralized government at the expense of the people. On the business side, big Internet service providers attacking Net Neutrality and trying to privatize the Web also threatens our civil liberties.
Such a lack of accountability is starting to rub more than a few people the wrong way.
Et tu, Brute?
In the same January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, Clay Shirkey writes on the political power of social media. He makes a case that the more pressing concern for US foreign policy than directing or influencing other states on the instruments of free expression—the Internet, specific sites like Wikipedia and Google, and social media like Facebook and Twitter—is consistent attention to the underlying freedoms—of assembly, speech and the press. Even so, the combination of rights and the tools to advance them remain crucial for any population seeking to realize the highest form of its own governance.
“The more promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere,” Shirkey writes.
This poses an interesting and ongoing question to US officials concerning how their votes and policies on something like the Internet, with its underlying issues of freedom of assembly and the press, either meet the needs of all American citizens, or whether they favor corporate dominance and privileges for the few.
At the same time the situation in Egypt creates an opening for all Americans to ponder how we wish to use the tools at our disposal to further democracy, participatory governance, transparency and accountability.
Can we use the Internet in a meaningful way to press for and expect action on our own version of what Secretary Clinton called “legitimate grievances,” such as banking malfeasance, corporate socialism, and the unwillingness of our elected officials to take seriously predicaments such as peak oil and climate change which are knocking at our door, threatening our very lives and livelihoods? The difficulty of dealing with these problems so far brings into question whether the apparatus of the American state and the two-party system remains able to effectively respond to a large population across a broad land mass with diverging interests and new tools of communication at the disposal of all?
Temptations might arise for some to dismiss the concerns of Americans, arguing that they can’t be compared to the depth of suffering found in Myanmar, Tunisia or Egypt, where a combination of flagrant repression, poverty and joblessness play out against despotic leaders living high on the hog while holding the people down with aggressive state power. Surely, in that light, the struggle of a people to wrench freedom from an unapologetically oppressive ruling elite resounds with the lofty yearnings of the human spirit; to live and move and be and do with the dignity of essential human rights. And we applaud this, we empathize with the citizens of these nations, and we cheer them on.
And as we do, it’s all too easy to discount American discontent as it plays out against a backdrop of not only guaranteed freedoms, but clear privileges and, in the main, material comforts. The United States of Starbucks seeking redress does have a tinny ring to it. The spoiled kid. “I want my MTV!”
But there is a clear sense among many that with our endless consumer options, media saturation, and moneyed interests driving key elements of the social, cultural and political process in the US, we have in America what some call “Have a nice day Fascism.”
While it’s become almost verboten to use the word fascism lest one be seen as making a false equation to the Nazi era, it’s worth remembering that fascism is defined as a “corporate state.” To that end, “Have a nice day Fascism” is the equivalent of corporate control with the veneer of a happy face. Indeed, in the US we do have many freedoms, and many privileges. But do the more essential aspects of liberty and democracy get lost under the plethora of consumer options available to both satisfy and sedate us?
Man cannot live on Wonder Bread alone.
What, me worry?
As multiple converging elements come to the fore both abroad and at home, it becomes crucial for Americans to engage with these issues and a mood of change in the most peaceful, hopeful, and purposeful way.
This is our moment, too.
If revolutions in other countries teach us anything, it’s that it is possible to change a regime given a clear enough consensus among the people that change is needed.
In that regard, improving American democracy, and beating back the power of corporate influence on government at federal and state levels is in some ways more difficult than a long-aggrieved population rising up at last against an autocratic regime. At least in an openly repressed country you know who you’re up against.
Corporate power is at once more diffuse, and yet its insidious reach is more deeply buried in the circuitry of our whole way of life, obscuring its real effects on legalized inequality.
By far, class warfare begins not with a heave of the masses from the bottom, among the consciously or unconsciously oppressed, but lobbed by the top, as a greedy elite grabs too much wealth and goes too far demanding special treatment from government, entrenching its advantages and blocking the path for ordinary citizens to redress grievances much less to be in the conversation in a meaningful way on the core issues of the times. Achieving consciousness of that, and then taking action, calls for much more than waving a flag or wearing one on our lapels. It calls for more than dressing up in early American revolutionary costumes. It requires a unity that bypasses wedge issues to find a more essential common ground. And far from shirking our relationship with government, or growing disgusted with it, we should, as Secretary Clinton put it in reference to Egyptians,
Encourage that people who have been the voice of protest and been the voice of civil society (to) be the ones at the table trying to design the transition that would meet the democratic and economic needs of the people.
And we should expect our government, just as Clinton said about expectations of the Egyptian government response that,
First and foremost words alone are not enough. There have to be actions…We want to see the full diversity and dynamism of Egyptian society represented.
Okay. From your lips to God’s ears, Madam Secretary.
— Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice