John Young wrote to the nettime-l list in response to a version of the previous post that I sent there. Here is my reply:
“A commendably hopeful essay. So far the Egyptian initiative has lofted a Mubarak stooge in his place and the elevated overt military control. These are not hopeful yet, and based on past examples of exactly these non-revolutionary, reactionary shifts, not much can be expected… There is little chance of ensconced and comfortable intellectuals to forego their perks… Al Jazeera is a lucrative business not a public service, and in that it is merely another self-promoting journalistic conceit like CNN, NYT and the others… It is disheartening to see Obama and others citing the giants of dissent, metronomically, stupidly… But then Obama is a millionaire, as the giants became as their hard-fought individual efforts became national and global enterprises. So what else is new.”
Thanks for taking the time to comment, John. It is interesting that several nettimers have written to me privately to say that they like and agree with what I wrote, but yours is the only response to be posted so far. Your comment seems to hinge on the optimism/pessimism pair. I have often been called hopeful or optimistic, even once Dr. Pangloss. But I believe that hope is only worthwhile if it comes with a large dose of realism. We are or could be engaged in constructing paths from the actual to the possible, from the real to the imagined. I consider it a waste of time to try to predict the outcome of events like those the world is experiencing now and we are right to fear the worst.
But revolutions have one undeniable effect, whatever subsequently happens: they clarify the social forces opposed to each other in the present moment. Most of the time these are mixed up in a confused way, making it difficult to take sides meaningfully. It is hardly surprising that politicians and intellectuals should be slow to catch on during a popular uprising. A running joke (for me) is the preoccupation with leadership in contemporary discourse. The best leaders follow the people and give them back what they have done in inspiring words. Lenin arrived at the Finland station after the soviets had taken to the streets. He wrote later that until then he was just another bourgeois parliamentary politician (all that vanguard party stuff), even if an exiled one. But the soviets taught him what was possible and he followed them.
I was attacked for posting Obama’s Friday speech on Facebook, shown photos of him shaking hands with Mubarak and reminded of his complicity in the US’s brutal policy for the Middle East. Many American liberals have turned from being diappointed in him to hating him. But he is the same Obama as before, maybe just another Chicago pol who talks the talk and is as divided as most of us. It is one thing to run for office and make stump speeches, another to be the figurehead of the awesome American state. He was the latter at the beginning of the week and roused himself to be the former by the end of it. Both are him, but the actions of the Egyptian people provoked him to remember his human side. It is always possible to speak to the humanity in everyone and he did then, quite effectively in my view.
Of course the forces of darkness have their own tried methods for subverting popular dissent. I recall reading a letter sent by Smuts advising Lloyd-George on how to put down the Irish rebellion, drawing on South African experience. A British civil servant had scrawled on this “Who does this man think he is? We have been putting down revolutions in India for fifty years!” But the Irish won and so too did the Indians eventually. The rhetoric of established power always speaks of eternity and yes the bulk of intellectuals follow the power. Taking a historical view of this or any other revolution is not about predicting who will win. It is about finding a realistic foundation for joining others who are on the same side and doing whatever you can to promote its ends. That’s why I posted a mesage on nettime, not truly in hope, but you never know.
Apart from making the sides in a struggle clearer, revolutions also show up history in a new light. 1989 made 1917 current history and brought the whole twentieth century into play anew. The Egyptian revolution and its aftermath shows us the history of the last half-century or more in a new light. I had bits of it already, but I never before saw so vividly the parallels between British world dominance in the late 19th century and the US equivalent in the late 20th. The Anglo-Indian superstate was a transnational colossus linked by the Suez Canal from 1870, the same time that Queen Victoria was installed as Empress of India. All the other powers had to react to that: the Russians by invading Afghanaistan, the Germans by building a railway through Persia, the French by competing in Afica. The US-Middle Eastern superstate is not formal, but it is real enough. People write about the Israeli lobby in Washington, but it goes much further than that. And now Iraq is a garrison on the spot. No wonder Obama and Clinton hesitated. At least they didn’t say it was all over before it had properly begun.
My point is that Egypt is not a foreign land as far as Americans are concerned. They may not know it, but their country has included Egypt for over forty years. That makes the revolution internal to the United States. In 1870 17 out of 20 British civil servants lived in India. The Mills designed a blueprint for Oxbridge education with that staffing problem in mind. American involvement in the Middle East today is more remote, but no less integral to home institutions.