My 20-year-old son asked me this week if I’d been following events from Egypt. I said that I’d been reading some of the news reports but that, in truth, I’d followed the news from Tunisia more closely.
We have good friends living in Tunis so we’ve seen regular updates on Facebook, including photographs our friends took from their front yard of neighbors pushing an SUV down the block. Turns out the vehicle belonged to a member of the hated security forces, and the man knew it would be a target of looters so he’d parked it blocks away from his own home. Of course, our friends’ neighbors knew the same thing and they didn’t want the thing in flames on their block either.
The path of great events turns on thousands of small moments such as that one, but most of those never make it into official news reports. Thus following the events through the virtual eyes of a friend is far more immediate and, frankly, more fun and interesting. So, I told our son, I know more about what’s happened and is happening in Tunisia than in Egypt at the moment.
He’s been following the news from Egypt fairly closely, though, and finding these first “internet-driven revolutions” particularly fascinating. In fact, he told me, he’s been designing a two-person video game based on the events in Egypt. One of the key powers in the game belongs to the person playing the role of the state: the power to pull the plug on the internet.
Our son’s response to these global events struck me as perfectly and profoundly suited to his generation of Americans. There’s revolution in the streets? Let’s make a video game out of it.
I noted this to him and he chuckled. He’s joined me for more than his fair share of demonstrations over the years. In fact, he participated in his first anti-war march in utero in Chicago in the days immediately prior to the first invasion American invasion of Iraq in January, 1991. He’s been to prayer vigils, peace witnesses and protest marches often during the ten years of the war on terror.
When asked why there are not mass marches in the street in America today, he notes all of the ones he’s been in. And then notes the cold, hard fact that we’re still engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq despite the hundreds of thousands of people who have turned out for demonstrations over all of those years.
Protest doesn’t work, he says, in a refrain that is repeated a million times over among Americans of all ages these days whenever the spectre of taking it to the streets arises.
At the same time, the majority of Americans do not trust the nation’s foundational democratic institutions. Only about a third of Americans place much trust in Congress, according to a Gallup poll last fall. The same poll showed that about 50 percent trust the executive branch. The judiciary fares a bit better, at 66 percent.
If government earns no trust and gets less respect, does business fare better? It depends upon what level of business. Americans don’t trust big business any more than they trust Congress, according to Gallup research. Small business is far more trusted. Apparently, master Yoda was wrong: size does matter.
Despite such dismal numbers, even big business and Congress score better than American media. According to a Pew survey, less than 30 percent of Americans trust that news organizations will get the facts straight in reporting the news.
We trust Facebook more than we trust Fox News … or ABC, CBS, CNN, and so on, at least, according to a Reuters report. But I didn’t see that on Facebook, so it might not be true.
So, what’s the connection between taking it to the streets — or not — and our general mistrust of large organizations and, more to the point, of democratic institutions and news organizations?
While there is certainly a strong case to be made that our relative affluence plays a significant role, the last three years have seen widespread economic anxiety and the financial and housing crises have harmed tens of millions of Americans.
Although there have been in the past year a few large demonstrations in the U.S. from the political Right and Left, the ones here in the seat of power have felt less like transformative political action and more like reality TV, tired political theater or court jesters in action.
In each case, a large crowd showed up for a Saturday event, enjoyed a show, left a large mess on the National Mall, and went home more or less happy. Nothing more than weekend traffic in DC was disrupted. Some ginned up emotions were released. (OK, some real anger resulted from Metro’s failure to have enough trains running for the Stewart-Colbert event and tens of thousands — including yours truly and family — got stranded on platforms and missed the whole thing.) But nothing was changed, and, in truth, no one came expecting anything to change.
And by the Monday following, it was back to business as usual. Back to your lives, citizens, there is nothing to see here.
But in Tunis and Cairo there is no going back to business as usual. Crowds keep turning out, and not just on Saturdays. One government has already fallen, a second seems likely to go at any moment, and the wave is spreading into other Arab states.
Meanwhile, we continue to be engaged in wars in which the majority has long ago lost confidence and no longer supports, but antiwar demonstrations draw dozens not thousands, and college campuses are as quiet as midwinter snow. In fact, you can tweet up a snowball fight in Washington and draw more people than you can to a demonstration in front of the White House. It must still be true, as Paul Simon sung, that we can gather all the news we need from the weather report.
Millions of American families continue to struggle with unemployment and it may be an entire decade before the jobs picture returns to what it was before the crash. The crash cost retirees, collectively, billions of dollars as pension funds took major stock losses and hits from recession-caused early withdrawals.
One would think that the net effect of all of these losses coupled with record profits on Wall Street would be a lot of anger, but if there’s anger out there it’s only showing up in foreign media and on blogs.
Clearly, the challenges we face are huge, which brings me back around to the game my son is working on. He said it was pretty simple to design losing scenarios that would occur in the game when choices that the players could make led to unsustainable levels of violence. He was finding it much more difficult to design scenarios for victory.
War is hell. Times are hard. How do we win this game? I don’t know, but if you’re looking for signs of change that might point toward some answers, don’t look here. The revolution will not be televised, but you can follow it on Facebook or Twitter at #revolution.