Homage to Cairo (and beyond)


I’m loath to make historical analogies, simply because every historical moment has its own unique characteristics that would not be possible if we impose nonexistent conditions. So as the clutch mechanism of time slips, it would be unfair to compare the unreal moment of democratic potential in Egypt with those events in Spain when the libertines of Catalunya tasted freedom but were feeling Franco’s fascist forces pushing against the edges of their dreams for autonomy. Unfortunately for the Republicans of Spain, history didn’t side with them, and the freedom fighters of the Spanish Civil War were crushed and wiped out as the world’s leaders stood by, or as was the case of Stalin and Hitler, made sure that they were destroyed.

So why are my thoughts on Spain during these days of North Africa’s fight for democracy? As I read via the twitterverse the incredible ways in which everyday Egyptians are self-organizing to fill the space of a collapsed state, I’m reminded of George Orwell’s profound passages about free Barcelona during the early days of the Spanish Civil War (if you haven’t yet, you must read Homage to Catalonia). In it he describes a spirit of cooperation and brother/sisterhood that permeated cafes and barber shops alike, one in which a temporary autonomous zone of human potential was freed from the restraints of state terror and mechanized control. To behold such a space is a beautiful thing. To live it is a miracle. To unlearn it is impossible.

Now, one thing (among many, which makes this just a thought exercise) that differentiates the current situation from Spain in 1936 is the global interconnectedness of the events unfolding on our screens. Though the Republicans defending against Franco were shored up by a vast solidarity movement from around the world that sent volunteers and fighters to aid their embattled democracy, few could monitor and mobilize support in real time to prevent the horror that was unleashed by Franco and his allies. Though I’m not on the ground in Egypt to provide any physical assistance, through the Internet* I’m able to track, share, connect and extend an invaluable resource that drives any revolution: empathy.

I know it is vogue to decry net Utopianism, and to invoke something as woo-woo as “empathy” seems rather weak in comparison to the kinds of assistance that foreign brigadistas gave the Spanish Republicans. But I would argue that solidarity is a powerful force that feeds the people engaged in real struggle. The worse feeling is to be in an isolated cell somewhere, subject to random torture, knowing that you are completely alone and without help, as was the case for Spanish libertines who were abandoned after the fall of their republic. People are wired for connection and thrive from positive feedback. (For more about this, I highly recommend watching the Jeremy Rifkin’s RSA animation of his “empathic civilization” thesis.)

On this note, then, I want to balance some of the skepticism coming from the likes of Morozov who argue that net activism is as much a tool of repression as liberation. We could all point to Iran’s Green Revolution as an example of both the failure of the Net and empathy to save the situation. However, it is also not over, and the fact is that through our interconnectedness, we are stronger and more able to keep the struggle alive than to let it disappear into some dungeon in the periphery of an Iraqi or Afghan war zone. Let’s not shut down the optimism that empathy drives. And let’s not so quickly dismiss the role that media can play in supporting the hard work of organizing and rebelling that is now stripping old emperor’s of their illusions, parading them naked across the world’s screens.

PS A note on the strange irony of my historical analogy. Franco launched his attack on the Republic with his North African brigades.

* FYI, my own particular formula for monitoring events is a combination of Al Jazeera English’s Internet stream, the Guardian UK’s live news blog, Twitter, and Mother Jones’ “explainer” page. From these primary portals I’m able to link into a variety of sources. In particular I’ve been able to diversify my Twitter stream to be more inclusive of non-Western perspectives. Compared to the universe of American MSM, this is really a whole different reality. Here you get pointed questions from intelligent and independent thinkers who don’t feel compelled to ask the kinds of ridiculous questions that the Wolf Blitzer’s of the world are asking, such what role al-Qaeda has in the Jan. 25 movement. Give me a break. And while I’m at it, why hasn’t anyone in the MSM pointed out that new Egyptian VP Omar Suleiman was a key figure in the CIA’s rendition to torture program? Is the American press that cowardly?