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Yes They Can

February 22, 2011

It’s too soon to say whether the revolutionary eruptions of the human spirit that have occurred in Egypt and are now occurring in Libya and other Arab countries will end up being a good thing. As an American, as a Jew, and as a Zionist, I can’t be certain that everything will turn out fine.

But one thing is for sure: Something unprecedented is happening – something worth acknowledging — and the world will never again be quite the same.

Make no mistake; what we are watching is a youthquake. With almost two-thirds of the Egyptian population 30 years of age and under, this revolution is a generational conflict, and one greatly influenced and propelled by the internet in general and social media in particular. And for me as a boomer, there’s something reminiscent going on, with parallels with 1960s America, at least in one respect.

What helped create a generation gap with revolutionary implications here in this country back then was the fact that ours was the first TV generation. We were the first to be raised as much by mass media as by our parents. By the time I was 12 years old, I had as much in common with other 12 year olds in Baltimore, Boise and Boulder as I had with the mother and father I lived with. The tube was our baby sitter, playmate, teacher, entertainer, and tether to each other. The medium, as Marshall McLuhan had said, was the message, and TV’s message meant immediacy and connection.

So by the time we came of age, we boomers had a distinct culture and a palpable sense of we-ness that for many of us transcended even race and class. The result was that by 1970, America was a different place in ways no one could have imagined in 1960.

Well, something like this is happening now over in Egypt, throughout much of the Middle East, and across northern Africa – in Libya as we speak. We don’t yet know the implications of the first generation to be raised essentially by not only screens (TV; computer; telephone) but also by Google, Facebook and Twitter. We don’t yet know, but perhaps we’re getting a taste. It is technology that has connected and empowered the young over there in Egypt, and that helped topple the stubborn old dictator there. Theirs is the first Social Network generation, and revolution. (Note that the revolt in Egypt was bottom-up, non-hierarchical, and leaderless – just like the internet that helped spawn it. Their mostly non-violent uprising was largely influenced by an 83 year old writer in Massachusetts – Gene Sharp —  whose ideas they read about online. Another influential figure is Wael Ghonim, a young Egyptian who is the head of Middle East Marketing for – you guessed it — Google). They had neither power nor guns. All they had was each other, an idea, and the means to connect. One of the most entrenched despots on the planet was overthrown in 18 days by kids with keyboards.

We over here haven’t even begun to understand the implications.

Our newscasters and pundits cluck their tongues at the tyrants of the Middle East while not beginning to grasp what this could mean right here in our own backyard. By 2020, America may be a different place in ways no one could have imagined in 2010.

As this generation comes of age here in this country, connected to each other by a common language and experience, they will probably leave the rest of us scratching our laptops in bewilderment. Just the difference in experience between those raised before smart phones and those being practically weaned by them now is both a generation gap and a digital divide. You and I may be tech savvy (well, you maybe) but we haven’t spent our tender years updating our friends on our comings and goings the past 10 minutes 25 times a day. They will most likely attempt to remake the world in their image, just as we boomers had attempted, and partially succeeded, in doing. At least the potential is there. If the medium is the message, my guess (and hope) is they’ll be demanding not just true democracy, but, perhaps just as important, transparency and inter-connectedness – which is what social media is, does, and demands. If a kid in Brooklyn by the time s/he is 12 years old has far more in common with other 12 year olds in Bombay, Barcelona and Beijing than their own parents or even their older siblings, swapping intimately personal information with them the way some of us used to swap baseball cards, do you think old concepts of “us vs. them”, of national borders, or fundamentalism will seem rational or even relevant to them?

But I’m just guessing here really. No one knows where this is going. Egypt, a peaceful revolution, was just the starting bell. The un-shot heard around the world. To say the sixties are coming again would be ridiculous. But to say another youthquake is imminent  would not be.

A Million Egyptians Rally For Change -- And Get It

Consider this: Those who are young now will be the first generation in history able to carry access to most of the information available in the entire world…in the palm of their hand…from the time they could read. They’ve already bypassed email, and don’t bother leaving anyone under 20 (or even 30) a voicemail. If your children are awake, then they’re probably online,  according to a recent New York Times article by that title. It explained that on average, kids age 8 to 18 in America spend practically every waking minute they’re not in school – about 7.5 hours a day – using a smartphone, computer, TV or other electronic device, plus another hour and a half texting, plus another half hour talking on the phone. If this doesn’t portend change, then I don’t know what does.

So let me take a moment now to stand back and look at all these opinions I’m putting forth here today. I have to admit that one reason I choose to believe what I’m writing here is because it’s more fun to live with hope and optimism. To connect the Joyful dots rather than the gloomy ones makes for a better picture. Most of my adult life my favorite spectator sport has been as a racing fan: I root for us as we humans race against our self-destruction. But I realize my predictions could be wrong.

And no doubt you could respond to this post with evidence my optimism is unjustified. Such evidence exists. But one could point to other evidence as well, and just in our lifetime. Think of this: If anyone back in 1979 were to have predicted that within 10 years the Soviet empire would collapse without a single shot being fired, they would have been laughed out of the room. If anyone back in 2004, or even 2006, would have predicted that Hillary Clinton would not get the Democratic nomination, that instead it would go to an unknown black guy whose name sounded more African than American, why they wouldn’t have even been let into the room.

We live in strange times, when miracles can and do happen. And there’s a chance we’re in for another youthquake here, and a chance for real change to occur.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2011 12:16 pm

    Beautifully written, insightful, and I love the positive spirit.

  2. Meiling Zhao permalink
    February 22, 2011 1:35 pm

    Charley – when are you going to join the Ron Paul rEVOLution? The Tea Party is just the sort of youthquake you referred to. The idea of getting OUR oppressive and deceitful government off OUR backs — in other words, the idea of Freedom — is appealing. I like it. As a 1960’s hippie, I never could get as excited over the socialist-anarchist aims (they were mostly bad ideas) as I am now, over the true REVOLUTIONARY ideas of Freedom of Speech, Freedom from the I.R.S., Freedom from the T.S.A., the F.B.I., the B.A.T.F.E., and from the whole Big Brother state. The REVOLUTION is HERE; it is NOW. Google Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Peter Schiff, and Judge Andrew Napolitano.
    Your friend,

  3. Dave Abramowitz permalink
    February 22, 2011 3:59 pm

    I found much in this blog ninteresting and insightful, Charley. Am wondering how much the TV we were raised with back in the “50s and ’60s really gave us a greater vision of freedom, of possibility, and a new way of looking at things. If anything, it largely acted as a drug to most of us, a poor wasteland, though a sometimes interesting and sometimes an entertaining one, but still largely the sponsors’ step-child and a trove of mediocrity, for the most part. Granted, it, to some extent, gave us something of an alternate reality, a fantasyland, a Disneyworld we could largely hide in, and granted that the very grossness of it, (Remember 23.862 doctors assure that Kent’s quarter of an inch, recessed, filter tip mean Kent is the clean and safe choice of discriminating smokers) eventually more fully exposed us to the lies and emptiness to what they were purveying. So, I’m wondering what seven and a half hours a day hooked and often addicted or semi-addicted to the latest electronic media is doing to young people, locking their eyes into fixed positions in an often semi-hypnotic trance state, while, also, exposing themselves to massive doses of cumulative radiation.

    Yes, it’s great when dictators fall and old farts finally fade away, and, undoubtably the internet and facebook, twitter, Google, and the rest is making it less easy for dictators and the corrupt and greedy systems that support them to stay in place, but am thinking, also, of the importance and sacredness of the family,where life is restored to balance and a place of real nurturing takes place and tolerance is learned,and how that is being diminished by parents having less time for children, and children less time for their very parents, so busy they are staying up to all hours texting each other.

    Life is increasingly getting out of balance when children no longer go outside and run around and play after school, the way I was happy to grow up, doing, and did you?

    So, yes, it’s good to be positive and hopeful and see opportunity in how even negativity can be used and turned to positive ends, and the courage of these largely young people can inspire us all, but, hopefully, we can all seek deeper and clearer direction from it.

  4. February 23, 2011 12:22 am

    Whoa! where to start?
    I totally sympathize with your wish for a positive, sweeping transformation of our society and others around the world. And I hope the spirit of revolt will spread to the USA, by means of twitter or any other electronic media. At the same time that people are rising up across North Africa and the Middle East, some people are trying to rise up (or at least not be smashed down) right here in the United States. In Madison, Wisconsin, the newly appointed Republican Governor is trying to take collective bargaining rights away from workers in the public sector–with the notable exception of the police, with whom he made an agreement during his election campaign. The labor movement is at an historical low. Only about 7% of private sector workers are now unionized. For the first time in history, there are now more union members in the public sector than in the private sector. Although public sector unions have always enjoyed fewer rights than private sector unions (for instance, here in New York State the Taylor laws forbid public unions from striking, which eliminates most of their real power), they are still deemed to be a sufficient threat to the interests of capitalism that they too are now being targeted. The Wisconsin Governor’s attempt to take away collective bargaining rights could set a precedent for similar actions which have already been proposed in many other states. AFSCME (the national union representing state, county, federal and municipal employees) is organizing with all its strength to fight the Governor of Wisconsin. They have filled the streets of Madison with protesters such as Madison has not seen for many years. Democratic legislators in Wisconsin fled the state in order to forestall a vote on the Governor’s measures. Hopefully they will win. But that won’t necessarily stop the enemies of labor from trying to do the same thing elsewhere, or taking less extreme but still damaging actions against labor. The right to organize collectively in the workplace is a basic civil right. Take that away and you are left with only naked force between the state and workers. That’s why the Governor was sure to strike a deal with the police. What’s so different, really, between this and some third world dictator? Is it any surprise that the Gini Index (a measure of economic inequality) is about the same in New York City and in the USA as in most third world nations and much higher than it is in the rest of the developed world? We live in the most rabidly oppressive capitalist society on earth.

    Regarding the protests in Egypt, is it really such a leaderless, bottom up revolution? Though I have been more focused on events here in the USA, my understanding is that the protests were successful only because the Egyptian Army, funded by the USA, refused to fire on protesters. The outcome of most of the uprisings abroad depend on what military officials decide to do.

    A comment on your analysis of the 60s. In my own recent research on the 60s I was surprised to find that many if not most of the leaders of the movement were actually not baby boomers (defined as those born between 1946 and 1964). Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, for instance, were born in the 1930s. An even older generation of activists including figures such as David Dellinger were born in the 1940s and cut their teeth on resistance to World War II.

    Although I don’t think television was the source of the movement, I think television did serve to popularize the movement in the 60s and 70s. I know that in my own case, born in ’58 and growing up watching TV in the 60s and 70s, that much of what I initially learned about the movement came from TV (and by word of mouth at school and in the neighborhoods where I lived). TV created a myth, or at least provided material for those such as myself yearning for utopian ideals to create a myth, of an earthly paradise that could be realized if we only chose to realize it, if we could only shift our consciousness.

    Of course, as the previous poster pointed out, television could just as easily serve nefarious purposes. In the 1960s, images of the Vietnam War mobilized young people against it. The Power Elite learned their lesson. Today, televised images of war are carefully screened by the Pentagon.

    In college I heard a lecture by Wilson Bryan Keyes, author of Subliminal Seduction, a book about the use of subliminal messages in advertising, that clinched my commitment to never watch TV again. Until this year I never owned a television (I use it to watch DVDs now). I viewed television as a potent brainwashing tool. A handful of large, centralized, corporate conglomerates control television and the messages it disseminates while millions passively absorb those messages without even being aware of what they are absorbing.

    The internet offers hope of direct person-to-person communication, a more radical, bottom-up network structure as opposed to the old top-down hierarchical one. But the jury is still out on what its effects will be. There is much of value on the internet. But the use of social communication technologies, smart phones, facebook, twitter, etc. to create virtual communities of “friends” is not a positive development at all. Rather, it represents the further dehumanization and technological mediation of social relationships. We have ever more virtual “friends” while we have ever fewer in-person friends or family. The new electronic technologies have also sped up the pace of life, further accelerating the treadmill existence that capitalism consigns its workers to.

    • February 23, 2011 12:25 am

      Correction: David Dellinger was born in the 1920s.

      • February 23, 2011 12:37 am

        Correction again: David Dellinger was born in 1915 but belonged to a generation of activists born in the 1920s.

  5. Dave Abramowitz permalink
    February 23, 2011 4:39 am

    I realize Ed and I are too serious. I’m going to Disneyland on the next plane.

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