Friday, January 28, 2011

New World Order

"It's time for this government to change. I want a better future for me and my family when I get married." - Amal Ahmed, a 22-year-old Egyptian protester.

(By American Zen's Mike Flannigan, on loan from Ari)

If one takes even a cursory, hurried look at events in the Middle East this month, especially Tunisia and Egypt, it makes Time's Choice of "Person of the Year" seem unforgivably shallow and superficial. In an unexpected turn perfectly delineated by his apparently clueless and astonished face on the cover, the always-dubious honor went to 26 year-old billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, founder of an online community that made its, and his, fortune not the old fashioned way with advertising revenue through ads but by selling personal information to marketing companies, information we gladly give away to an overachieving Harvard grad nerd so we can more easily supplant actually meeting people.

To bring his amorality into conspicuous relief, Zuckerberg has recently climbed into bed with Goldman Sachs, a bailed-out Wall Street bank that no doubt can give the billionaire boy wonder another Ivy League education in corporate sleaziness. So far, all this has done is to grossly inflate Facebook's net worth and share price and, if one is smart, one will reserve a front row online seat to wait for the bubble to burst like a massive prank cigar.

In the meantime, as Time is quick to point out, the "Person of the Year" award doesn't necessarily go to the best, most do-gooding or even the most popular but to the person or organization that was the most catalytic. Zuckerberg's elevation puts him in rarified company, including presidents, other corporate titans and tyrants like Adolph Hitler. And it only serves to bring into merciless focus our own bottomless superficiality in that Facebook's founder would prove to be more catalytic to American society than President Barack Obama, former Senator Russ Feingold, former Rep. Alan Grayson or, (here's a crazy-ass idea), Wikileaks.

Not to give short shrift to Zuckerberg's Facebook, which easily toppled in a couple of short years MySpace's hegemony in the online networking community (It can be easily argued that as recently as the 2008 general elections, MySpace was much more instrumental in getting then Senator Barack Obama elected president than the still-fledgling Facebook). But a volatile online community that's just one major hack or Conficker virus away from complete and utter oblivion should not be considered more catalytic to American society than Wikileaks' Four Horsemen of Disclosures. Yet it is and last year's winner is as pitilessly reflective of our current values as the year in which the mirror-covered Time named us as the "Person of the Year."

There is a New World Order taking shape that's far more profound and important than a domain that plasters spam ads all over the place, harvests our too-free personal information and features groups such as "I'll Bet This Steak Can Get More Friends Than Sarah Palin."

Julian Assange's Wikileaks, to descend into a platitude for a moment, simply changed the world forever. It put and continues to put the largest and most powerful governments and corporations on notice that secrets are no longer safe and that they will not be allowed to practice their Machiavellian schemes in the shadows any more.

Of course, Wikileaks, as laudable as their intentions and catalytic effects is, is a mere conduit and Julian Assange is a mere conduit of a conduit. The power of Wikileaks comes from people like Bradley Manning, people who seem to have a sincere vested interest in proclaiming, "Enough is enough!" and effecting that change through disclosures of information much, much more devastating than anything your 13 year-old daughter or co-worker will post on Facebook.

"But, but... What does this have to do with me or my Facebook avatar?"

There's a New World Order that's superimposing itself over the world we used to know, a more transparent and (if you'll pardon the alliteration) pitilessly punitive palimpsest in which the people of the Middle East are also rising up against decades-long tyrannies such as the ones in Tunisia, Egypt and now Yemen. Understandably, the hypocritical and dictatorial Saudi Royal Family is nervously eying shaping developments with their neighbors.

It's notable that a few rock-throwing young men with bandannas over their mouths achieved in mere days in Tunisia what George W. Bush tried and failed to do in eight years and with the world's most powerful military at his disposal: Kickstarting the democratization of the Middle East. And the protests against autocratic rule puts our own president in the ridiculous position of actually supporting these despotic regimes simply because they're "our allies in the war on terror" (so was Yemen's dictatorship).

The riots in Tunis, Cairo and elsewhere in the Muslim world have brought about some startling changes and things we would've thought impossible a mere year or two ago: That the once popular Hosni Mubarek, Egypt's answer to Lyndon Johnson, would have his image disrespected by shoe soles (a grave insult in the Muslim/Arab world). For once, the mainstream media had actually gotten it right: This appears to be a region-wide revolution on a Che Guevaran scale.

But it's easy to scan the headlines and to assume that developments in the Middle East have nothing to do with us but they do.

One of the reasons the people of Tunisia rioted against the quarter century-long autocratic rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was there simply weren't enough jobs to go around. And they were organized and energized enough so that they'd actually routed the police and even regrouped when they themselves were routed. Now we're seeing the same thing in Egypt. As something of a sidebar, it also ought to be noted and remembered that this wave of democratization we're seeing in the Middle East is being effected from within with no need of invasions, carpet bombings, smashing of economic infrastructures nor the bank-busting involvement of American war profiteering corporations. Regime change is almost always untidy but ultimately streamlined and less costly in terms of life when effected from within.

Joblessness is and was during the 2010 midterms the single biggest concern for the average American voter. It would be easy to claim that online entities such as Facebook have taken the place of Juvenal's circus and that we're too distracted or anesthetized to similarly gather on Wall Street and Washington, DC to demand our jobs back. But we must remember that Facebook is also available in Tunisia and Egypt as well as virtually everywhere else in the Middle East. Yet these people were able to tear themselves away from their computer chairs and Facebook mood updates to risk (and give) their lives in the endless and timeless call for freedom.

What's happening in the Middle East isn't a Middle Eastern or a Muslim thingie. We are all human and have the same anxieties and concerns as Amal Ahmed and others 7000 miles away. We all want jobs, security for our families present and future, we all yearn to live freely and to have a voice in our governments, hence our destinies.

And, the last time I checked, these things were far from being guaranteed in our own country. The world is indeed changing and not necessarily for the worst. I see the Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemenese protesters, I remember the protesters in Iran, Mexico and Kenya and I see hope that the eternal flame of the human demand of freedom is far from extinguished. In the meantime, I wait and wonder when the day will come when the United States finally gets meaningfully involved in a worldwide cause that's even larger than national corporate interests.

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