The Moral Failure of Promoting Democracy
Marc Lynch, aka Abu Aardvark, has posed a depressing, if necessary question. If internet activism rarely topples an authoritarian regime (see, for example, the failure of Burma’s Saffron Revolution or Egypt’s April 6 Facebook strike, which I perhaps too cheerily praised back in Jan.), isn’t it morally problematic for Westerners to egg on activists they know will not succeed? For all our efforts to praise individual movement leaders, all we end up doing is putting those folks more squarely in the crosshairs of the secret police.
This is all in line with the appropriate caution that Evgeny Morozov outlined in his recent Boston Review piece (see also my thoughts on that piece here). Power is power, and in most of these countries, it continues to flow straight from the barrel of a gun, not any robust notion of democratic legitimacy. X Arab autocracy or Y East Asian dictatorship is likely to feel threatened from within by an independent blogging class and humiliated from without by the ridicule of Westernized democracies. When the Burmese junta could no longer take the heat, they simply downed the internet completely, convenient to do when all ISP’s are centrally licensed and controlled anyway.
Still, for all due cyber-pessimism, it’s refreshing to hear Lynch speculate on what positive effects internet access may have in the long view. It’s a point I’ve several times made here. The web may not knock over a petter tyrant with Facebook groups (Lynch is spot on; the political cost is too low), but it’s naturally open and anti-hierarchical structure is bound to have some kind of effect on democratic thinking. That is, blogs and social media resist centralization and control. They are naturally individual, cacaphanous and difficult to quash: in a word, democratic. Lynch (channeling Antony Loewenstein on the Muslim Brotherhood) understands this:
I argued that the real impact of political blogging is still likely to lie in the longer term impact on the indivduals themselves, as they develop new political competencies and expectations and relationships. The impact of the new media technologies will likely be best measured in terms of the emergence of such new kinds of citizens and networks over the next decades, not in terms of institutional political changes over months or years. The rise of young Muslim Brotherhood bloggers through the ranks of the organization may well change that organization over the years.
This may be all we can reasonably expect of the technology’s impact on world democratization. But I’ll still take this over fatalistic realism any day…