Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Scent of Revolution

“A lie will travel half way round the world before truth gets its pants on.” – Mark Twain

Revolutions and institutions begin with good intentions. Too often, the institution then becomes the enemy of the idea. The communications revolution is such an example. Early enthusiasts, like Marshall McLuhan, thought that improved connectivity would create a kind of “global village” where a better informed, or better educated, world would evolve. McLuhan’s optimism was an academic variant of Hegelian or Marxist determinism which often mistakes the passage of time with progress. Indeed, scientific expectation often confuses technical innovation with moral, cultural, or political advance.

The internet revolution of the past two decades is thought by many to be a validation of McLuhan’s optimism. Internet social sites (e.g. You Tube, Facebook, and Twitter) are feted as the enablers of social, political, and cultural change; unvarnished truth in 140 characters or less. The so-called “jasmine revolution” underway in the Arab world is celebrated, in a similar vein, to be a direct and salutary consequence of global social networks. Unfortunately, early reports and hasty judgments are seldom true.

The World Wide Web is a tool. Yet, akin to a pistol in the wrong hands, it can also be a dangerous weapon. A better metaphor would be to describe the Internet as Chekhov’s gun; if a rifle appears in the first act, someone will be shot before the curtain falls.

Banality might be the primary ethic of the virtual world. If we can believe the numbers, personal computers are used mainly for pornography, mindless socializing, shopping, and surfing – the latter a catch-all for many activities, such as games and videos. Personal videos posted on sites like You Tube provide a global forum for stunts, bad taste, voyeurs, and associated nitwits where the host primes the pump by keeping score. Site visits or “hits” and “followers” are the principal measures of merit, or achievement, on the Internet.

Social networks use a kind of ego arithmetic; recording and posting member’s site visits, friends, “followers,” “pokes,” and associated vanity statistics. Not all of the activity is frivolous, however. Bullying, personal attacks, privacy violations, and hacking have become more malicious over time. Informal or secretive players like Anonymous and Wikileaks feature deadly serious political agendas and few scruples about truth, the law, or civility. Personal malice and political mayhem are the predictable consequences when rhetorical assault mediums fall into the wrong hands.

The virtual world exhibits Orwellian pathologies beyond language; encouraged, if not sponsored, by Internet hosts. Anonymity is the most pernicious. Traditionally, authors in the print world used pseudonyms to mask race, sex, or class. However, what used to be a harmless literary convention has now become a malicious digital rule. All manner of mischief and agendas hide behind “screen” names. Privacy is the usual defense for the anonymous; but, nameless users exhibit precious little concern for the truth about, or the privacy of, their targets and victims.

With all, ignorance is the biggest fly in the Internet ointment. And the difficulty is not simply error in fact or analysis. The problem is the conscious propagation of falsehoods in the name of science or politics. Robert Proctor of Stanford University elevated this spread of ignorance to a scientific study, “Agnotology.” Proctor documented how faux science was used by the tobacco industry to defend cigarette smoking. Other investigations have exposed similar frauds associated with climate change (nee “global warming”).

The internet does not create information; it merely carries it. Sadly, the internet has few content standards and ignores most moral hazards. Indeed, ignorance may be more likely than truth in the virtual world. The growing dependence of state “news” outlets, such as al Jezeera and a host of Western cicadas, on unsourced social networks is not an advance for objectivity, enlightenment, or truth.

The ongoing “Arab Spring,” “awakening,” or “jasmine revolution” is a telling case study. The rolling mayhem in the Middle East has become viral, in part, because social and news networks have represented political mayhem as consequence-free. Upheaval in the Arab world is obviously not peaceful and outcomes are not likely to be democratic. Nonetheless, news readers and politicians underwrite illusions by insisting that riots and insurrection are “peaceful” protests or “pro-democracy” movements.

Social technology and social revolutions may be related, but they are not necessarily symbiotic. The Internet is an echo chamber where repetition is too often confused with truth. Euphemisms like “jasmine revolution” or “awakening” are a kind of rhetorical wishful thinking; serial insurrection or civil war in the Muslim world is not likely to be good news for oppressed apostates or na├»ve infidels.

Whilst Americans and Europeans bleed for fantasy democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Libya; the bankers of ideological jihad in Riyadh and Doha are ruthlessly suppressing any threats to totalitarian rule at home. If regime change were helpful anywhere in the Arab League, Saudi Arabia or the Emirate regimes would be the first logical targets.

Surely, the relationship between Sunni theocrats and Arab royals is a marriage of convenience. Sectarian imperialists need funding and tribal tyrants need to purchase immunity from regime threatening fellaheen.

Nevertheless, the rolling revolt in the Arab world is not a struggle between democracy and tyranny. There are no democratic states in the Arab League or the Gulf Cooperation Council and few if any political movements which merit the adjective “moderate”. Yusef al Qaradawi, the Sunni voice of al Jezeera and al Ikwan al-Muslimeen ( the Muslim Brotherhood) says it best when he claims the “the train of revolution” has now reached Damascus. Qaradawi’s target is Sunni secularism - and his politics have little to do with democracy and everything to do with irredentist religious identity.

Middle East and North Africa civil wars are struggles between seculars and theocrats, not tyrants and democrats. Europe and America seem to have (as they did with Iran, Algeria, Turkey, Lebanon, and Gaza) cast their lot with the Islamists; again, allowing naive hope to mask the threat of religious reactionaries.

Several decades back, Tennessee Williams wrote of the “sickly sweet smell of mendacity.” Indeed, lies are the cheap spices we use to mask the stench of truth. The books are being cooked, without doubt, when fragrant adjectives like “jasmine” are used to sweeten the sour breath of revolutions.

Those who thrive on chaos seldom lend a hand to restore civility. The flaw in all radicalism - technical, political, or religious - is that zealots and activists obscure the end game and care little about unintended consequences.


G. Murphy Donovan, a former USAF intelligence officer, writes frequently about national security matters. This essay originally appeared in the 13 April 11 edition of Family Security matters.


About Me

The author is a native of the Bronx, a transplant to DC. He is a Vietnam veteran and former USAF Intelligence officer with tours at all of the major 3 button Intelligence agencies. He is a graduate of the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. School and Cardinal Hayes HS in NYC. He also has several degrees from less illustrious institutions. Check Six writes primarily at G. Murphy Donovan and Agnotology in Journalism. His work has appeared in various political, national security, and Intelligence journals.