Why Obama’s statement is the key to understanding Egypt, technology and freedom

The departure of Hosni Mubarak sparked euphoria in Egypt yesterday.

UPDATE:  My father Ed Lowenstein had the following to say:

Yes, Jeff. But perhaps another problem that the Obama actions demonstrate is that depending upon 140 character messages, 30 second sound bites or 600 word articles rather than doing the work required to learn the past beliefs, behaviors, actions and effectiveness of candidates means that those we vote into office will actually govern completely differently than we expect. As you point out,this has certainly been true in many respects for our current president. And I suspect many Republicans who voted for George Bush did not expect the expansion of government or Social Security enhancement they got. An uninformed and disinterested electorate may be the greatest enemy of a successful democracy.

ORIGINAL POST:
The scenes in Egypt yesterday were enormously uplifting and inspiring.

People’s unalloyed joy at the departure of dictator Hosni Mubarak after 30 years oppressive rule and 18 days of mass protest could not help but move anyone who supports the causes of freedom and justice in our undeniably imperfect world.

A solemn President Barack Obama quoted Dr. King about Ghana’s being the first African nation to earn its independence,  “Like Martin Luther King said in Ghana…’There’s something in the soul that cries for freedom.'”

Crying for freedom.

The phrase has been the movie title for a Steve Biko biopic starring Denzel Washington and the line in a powerful song by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Then, as now, there is a contagious spirit of change in the air.

In 1963, Dr. King wrote on scraps of paper in a Birmingham jail about how black people were getting caught up in the zeitgeist of the time that saw African and Asian people moving toward independence at light speed, while the civil rights revolution to abolish legal segregation was faltering.

The independence of Ghana, the launching place for  thousands of slave ships, gave succor to other countries like Kenya in the same way that, as Anthony Shadid and others have noted, Tunisia’s swift revolution sparked the Egyptian revolt.

We saw a similar spirit in the late 80s and early 90s, when the Soviet Union’s grip on Eastern Europe and then its own people came loose due to people’s protests.

The differences of course are in location and in method of communication.

Thomas Friedman wrote a postcard from Cairo about the ease at which the use of Facebook and Twitter could be applied in other countries where there are the same cries for freedom that Obama invoked yesterday.

Obama’s cautious and incoherent response to the crisis and his citation of Dr. King underscores the challenges ahead for the Egyptian people and the citizenry of other countries who engage in similar action.

Obama’s statement was far more in keeping with the transformational rhetoric and vision he offered repeatedly during his history-making campaign.

A major part of his success in reaching people and raising record amounts of money came in his far more skillful use of technology than his fellow senators and vanquished opponents Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

Obama’s web site and use of social media made it remarkably easy to participate in, and contribute to, his campaign.

Yet his performance as president has disappointed many of these same supporters, who have found the gap between his poetic campaigning and prosaic governing, to paraphrase former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, too large to handle.

A major part of the responsibility for this lies with Obama, of course.  Yet there is inevitably a gap between the euphoric push for  a historic moment and then the arduous and nitty gritty work of establishing the infrastructure for, and running, a functioning and just civil society.

This is truly the challenge of this time, as the disjunction between the democratic nature and speed of transmission of social media in which more and more people participate and the creaky pace of government is getting larger and larger.

The dangers in Egypt are many, as Friedman wrote about in his piece.  While his advice to savor this moment is probably sound to be heeded, the bigger question is how to reduce that disjunction.

This disjunction was clearly visible in the difference between Obama’s statement and soaring campaign rhetoric.

Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail and Tapscott and Williams’ The Long Tail are just two of the many books that help us understand the role technology can play in shaping our world.

In many ways the Egyptian revolution succeeded because it used technology for mass action in a similar way to that described by Tapscott and Williams, who write about the role of mass collaboration.

What remains to be seen is how they will convert that same mass mobilization into a functional post-revolutionary society.

We probably shouldn’t look to Obama or Africa for that. Many of the nations who gained independence have struggled with the kind of post-colonial corruption and abuse Chinua Achebe described so vividly in the work that got him banned from his native Nigeria.

Still, as always, history is not inevitable, but waits to be written by the people living in the present, not the past.

The fact that the gap between Obama’s campaign rhetoric and governing reality points out, but does not solve, the problems ahead does not mean that one does not exist.

It just hasn’t happened yet.

Advertisements

2 responses to “Why Obama’s statement is the key to understanding Egypt, technology and freedom

  1. Ed Lowenstein/Dad

    Yes, Jeff. But perhaps another problem that the Obama actions demonstrate is that depending upon 140 character messages, 30 second sound bites or 600 word articles rather than doing the work required to learn the past beliefs, behaviors, actions and effectiveness of candidates means that those we vote into office will actually govern completely differently than we expect. As you point out,this has certainly been true in many respects for our current president. And I suspect many Republicans who voted for George Bush did not expect the expansion of government or Social Security enhancement they got. An uninformed and disinterested electorate may be the greatest enemy of a successful democracy.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Dad, for the comment, which I will post as an update. I hear you about the perils of superficial communication, and would suggest that Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, gave a pretty clear vision of where and how he planned to lead the country. Beyond that, and more to your point, there is some intersection between technology’s role in reaching people who had previously been outside the realm of meaningful civic participation and the limitations of understanding to which those technological tools can contribute.

      Jeff

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s