Thursday, February 17, 2011

Youth without Future

The article “Why There's No Turning Back in the Middle East” has two things going against it.  The first is that it was included on the Top Stories list of Yahoo! News (in second place as of this writing), demonstrating once again the inability of Yahoo! to recognize the difference between news and opinion.  The second is that it appeared on the Web site, which is likely to make it suspect as an instrument of the consciousness industry rather than informed opinion.  Nevertheless, Fareed Zakaria has a reputation for keen analysis that deserves to transcend the dubious nature of this particular platform;  and, if Yahoo! is clueless enough to treat “Fareed Zakaria has an opinion” as news, then at least some (like myself) might be willing to seek out that opinion from a site they might otherwise avoid.

One of Zakaria’s great virtues is his ability to examine present situations in the context of the broader context of history.  In other words he is one of the best cudgels at my disposal when I choose to rant about our prevailing cultural ignorance of history.  Another, is that he recognizes that this is a situation in which the lessons of history (specifically the events of the revolutions of 1848) deliver some pretty bad news, since the “old and sclerotic” oppressive regimes targeted by those revolutions ultimately prevailed.  He thus approached his essay by appealing to that old this-time-it’s-different motto, with the intention of coming up with sounder arguments than those of the economists who got us into our current crisis situation.

Indeed, the fact that the current economic crisis is a global phenomenon is Zakaria’s primary reason why things are different.  Yes, there were economic problems in 1848;  Zakaria cited both recession and rising food prices.  What he did not cite, however, was the problem of unemployment and the extent to which that problem is tightly coupled with an ideology of globalization, whose primary consequence has been to widen the gap between rich and poor.  When we see all of those images of protestors, their distinguishing attribute is not that they are young but that they are young, unemployed, and with little, if any, prospect of a future of gainful employment.  It is not that they are protesting against authoritarian forms of government.  It is that they hold those authorities responsible for robbing them of any possibility of a future.

This then leads to Zakaria’s second reason, which is the role of technology.  Here is his analysis:

In the old days, information technology favored those in power, because it was one to many. That's why revolutionaries tried to take over radio stations in the 1930s — so they could broadcast information to the masses. Today's technologies are all many to many, networks in which everyone is connected but no one is in control. That's bad for anyone trying to suppress information.

At first blush this would appear to support all that cant from technology evangelists about how the Internet promotes democracy on a global scale;  but, as Zakaria is quick to observe, things are never as simple as evangelists wish them to be.  His case in point was the attempt of the Egyptian government to shut down access to the Internet.  Yes, this meant that the protestors could not communicate through Facebook or electronic mail;  but it also disabled just about all banking operations.  Yes, “everyone is connected but no one is in control;”  but what is more important is that those in power are as dependent on the Internet as those in protest.  To revisit “Stormin’” Norman Schwarzkopf’s famous epithet, the Internet is the mother of all double-edged swords.

This then leads to the question of how the United States should be reacting to this flood of events, which, whatever the quality of our intelligence services may be, appears to be unanticipated.  My personal feeling is that our government seem to feel obliged to comment on everything, even when they really do not know what to say.  Zakaria’s piece had the virtue of not trying to give advice to our government.  Personally, I think the best advice can be found in the fifth chapter of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.  I suggest that those inclined to let their eyes roll upward at this advice consider this passage:

… everyone can reach his goal if he can think, wait, and fast.

We are pretty bad at waiting for just about anything, which means we overlook the simple proposition that waiting gives us time to think.  As to the part about fasting, I would generalize it to refraining from our usual indulgences, such as making decisions on the basis of special interest groups (whose members do not need to be named because they know who they are).  As I see it, our country is being put to the test of whether or not we can be that “knowledge society” that the late Daniel Bell had in mind when he wrote The Coming of Post-Industrial Society;  and, given the extent to which our current work practices have stripped the word “knowledge” of just about all meaning, I am not particularly optimistic!

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