The Egyptian uprising had a significant Internet component, as dissidents famously used Facebook, Twitter, and other social media services to organize. It’s tempting to view this as the dawn of a new age, in which new media make oppression increasingly difficult, and democratic flowers bloom in fertile online soil. Liberty is, after all, the second-most viral idea in the philosophical inventory of mankind.
The most viral idea is oppression.
It’s remarkable how often tyranny rises from the waves of history to devour men, long after the realities of limited travel and communication that should be required to sustain it have been conquered. Social media are an evolutionary step in a process that stretches from swift and reliable mail, through telegraph and radio, into the age of the Internet. They represent astonishing conquests of time and geography.
The Internet is mankind’s crowning intellectual achievement. If you have a smart phone, you are carrying the accumulated knowledge of millennia in your pocket. You’re a few seconds away from knowing the precise length of a day on Mars, or reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You have voice, text, email, Twitter, and Facebook options for communicating with anyone you know, at incredibly low cost.
Depending on exactly when we care to mark the beginning of widespread Internet acceptance by the masses, the world has been digesting this incredible power for more than a decade… but the Chinese Politburo is still there. Iran’s theocracy is still in power. The Castro family still rules Cuba with an iron fist. Tyranny has not dissolved in a sea of electronic communion.
We have an understandable tendency to project aspects of our own lifestyles into foreign environments. In reality, Internet access is not as widespread in the darkest corners of the Earth as we might imagine. A recent STRATFOR analysis estimated that about 35% of the population in the Middle East has ready access to the Internet, while the figure in Egypt is actually much lower, at roughly 15%. Authoritarian regimes in China and Iran have become adept at filtering what their people receive through the Net, and tracking embryonic liberation movements back to the source.
Even allowing for these matters of electronic infrastructure, it’s striking how much of the Web’s intellectual commerce is conducted with the coin of oppression. Islamic fascists have very sophisticated web operations, with lively online forums that even include a smattering of American suburban women like “Jihad Jane” LaRose. The exact composition of the Egyptian anti-government protests is hard to determine, but at least some of the groups active on the streets of Cairo are not really agitating for “democracy.” They just want their turn at running the dictatorship.
In a less violent vein, consider the propagation of ideas across the Web-saturated United States. The American Left, which is now entirely preoccupied with using State power to impose its ideology on unwilling citizens, has a bigger share of the Internet than the libertarian and conservative resistance. Statism doesn’t fare well on talk radio, but it dominates all other media. This is not to sell the achievements or influence of outlets like Fox News short… but Fox has a long way to go before it can claim to have won away the combined audience of ABC, CBS, and NBC news. The media atmosphere vibrates with excitement and reverence for large-scale collective solutions, imposed by force. Their growth is still hailed as “progressive,” while the expansion of liberty is condemned as greed.
This isn’t some vast conspiracy to mind-control hapless media consumers. There is real and lasting appeal to the concept of using raw power, sanctified by the authority of the State, to acquire security and benefits at the expense of others. The defenders of liberty would be careless to dismiss this notion as a foolish dream from which their fellow citizens will soon awaken. It is an intellectual virus of greater potency than the appeal of freedom. It’s even good at disguising itself as a species of freedom – the freedom from material want or insecurity, which only a vast and powerful State can provide.
Totalitarian environmentalists and anti-capitalists have long used the Internet for highly successful recruitment and organizing. The Tea Party movement is the libertarian echo of leftist forces which have been churning for many years. The big differences are that the Tea Party is more thoughtful, refrains from violence, and cleans up its own garbage. Tea Party activists also have the humility to concede that liberty is a concept even they do not fully understand yet. Leftist ideology is more virulent, because it’s much easier. All it requires is someone to hate, and mindless slogans to chant while demanding their submission.
We look at the Middle East today as a mass of dry kindling, ready to be set ablaze by the fire that began in Tunisia. Authoritarian regimes totter on the verge of collapse, as the Internet wind blows those flames in their direction. What we must also understand is that the serial collapse of dictatorships is not necessarily equivalent to a string of victories for “democracy.” Our enlightened notion of freedom is a relatively young and difficult concept. An older and simpler philosophy of oppression remains highly contagious… and unlike liberty, it doesn’t require universal acceptance to thrive.