I am old enough to still be amazed by modern media; young and open enough to not be beguiled.
This morning I had an exchange with DC contributor Andras Bozoki. Yesterday, I had sent him, along with other DC contributors, an email message, asking for a brief bio and a photo for our enhanced and updated contributors’ page. He responded to me from China, where, unbeknownst to me, he is giving a few lectures in Hong Kong, and visiting other major cities. We took care of our mundane business. He’ll get back to me with the bio and photo upon his return home to Budapest. I invited him to write something about what he is seeing in China. He told me that he is quite busy these days, and not sure he will have the time to write, but he will contribute to DC if he writes anything about the very interesting things he is seeing on his trip. Let’s hope he finds the time.
Every Saturday or Sunday, my wife, Naomi, and I in New York have a Skype visit with our daughter, Brina, and her family, husband, Michel, and son, Ludovic, in Paris. Two weeks ago, we saw Ludo taking his first hesitant steps. Last week, walking had already become his primary means of locomotion, moving fluidly around their study, picking up his toys, now with two hands, finding more problematic materials (his daddy is an artist), more easily getting into trouble. This Sunday we will celebrate Ludovic’s first birthday. They will open the present we sent via snail mail. We will sing Happy Birthday, knowing that next year he will actually understand and look forward to the festivities. One of the great pleasures I had as a father was reading the good night book. I figure around that next birthday that may become a regular ritual between Ludo and me, as it was between me and my children.
When I explain to people about DC, trying to recruit them to write for us, I have a number of ways of appealing to them. One is rather academic, in Civility and Subversion: The Intellectual in Democratic Society, I argue that the democratic role of intellectuals is to be talk provokers, to make it possible for citizens to discuss pressing problems of the day, by civilizing differences among opponents so that enemies become opponents, and opponents become collaborators, and by subverting commonsense that hides social problems, revealing those problems so that they may be discussed and acted upon. DC is a website meant to provide intellectual space for such needed intellectual interventions.
Such spaces in the past were found in political pamphlets, small magazines and journals, and of course books. DC provides a forum for the type of discussion that used to appear in the small magazines like The Partisan Review. It is meant to be read by the general public, but it is informed discussion, not just polemical debate. There are differences between what we are trying to create now and what the circumstances were then, but the similarities I think are notable and appealing.
I worked on such similarities and differences in my book The Politics of Small Things. There I noted how the basis of power generated in the democratic opposition in the former Soviet bloc was quite similar to the power of the anti-war movement against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and of Howard Dean’s primary campaign in 2004. The democratic opposition used the mimeograph machine, the Dean campaign the internet and new social media. Here at DC I also have underscored the similarities to the Obama campaign of 2008 and to the Tea Party movement. The media used then and now were quite different, but the type of social power created was the same.
All of this comes to mind as we try to understand the role of the new social media in the revolution in the countries of the Maghreb and Mashreq. There has been a great deal of attention and speculation about these, the Facebook – Al Jazeera Revolutions. I have no doubt that the social media have made it possible for people to meet each other, speak in each others’ presence and develop a capacity to act in concert, i.e. creating political power in the sense of Hannah Arendt. But I am also certain that this kind of power existed and was consequential before the social media appeared, for example in the movements around the old Soviet bloc that contributed to the collapse of Communism and in the civil rights movement in the United States. The rapidity of the development clearly is a consequence of social media, primarily Facebook, and satellite television, primarily Al Jazeera, but there is an important sociological basis of the movement, it is not just a manifestation of the technology. There is something new, but it’s not all that new.
It is amazing that I can rapidly exchange notes with my friend Andras, thinking he is in Hungary, learning that he is in China, at eight this morning for me, eight this evening for him. (In fact as I am about to post this he sent a journalistic account of his presentation in Hong Kong, two in the afternoon here, two in the morning there). It is indeed amazing that I see and regularly interact with my grandson in Paris, from my home in New York, and that in my study at home, I am developing this blog, which is global in its reach. The transformations of 2011 are incredible. These manifestations of friendship, family, love, informed intellectual exchange and revolution are not created by the new media regime. While they can be facilitated by it, friendship, love, deliberate thought and political ideals must be independently created. As the French say: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” the more things change, the more they stay the same. By the way, that was one of my father’s favorite sayings.