Constructive Activism, Part II: Freedom of Association

Internet | Accountability

Now that I was committing money to buy a Google AdWord for Alaa, my cause was his. I realized I ought to spend a little more time to learn about him.

The thought crossed my mind that he might have different politics than I, and that somebody might pick on me later for this. Whatever were his thoughts on Israel, I wondered. I searched his website, and found some topical entries– but couldn’t find any actually written by him, only by the folks he was drawing in. I figured if I ought to draw the line somewhere: I couldn’t support anybody who advocated aggression against U.S. or Israeli interests. Anything else he had to say– well, it was up to him, I was defending his right to say it.

In fact, I had trouble finding anything personal from Alaa (I would find out bits and pieces about him through his peers later). This was odd: bloggers are famously supposed to be the opinionated, passionate, unedited voice of the individual. Alaa’s role instead appeared to be merely providing an aggregator for Egyptian blogs. He also used Drupal, and contributed some modules. I use Drupal and build modules and contribute ideas to it. So that sold me.

Certainly, many people were supporting Alaa because he’s a blogger– at least in the sense of the term of being an independent publisher. It’s a great passport; I’m continuously amazed, and grateful, that the blogs carry my words near and far as well. I still resist calling myself one, because my process is much closer to that of a researcher/reporter in bringing together the facts. It’s fantastic that the community sees an assault against one to be an assault against any– no matter what one’s politics.

The presumptive self-importance of bloggers aside– having a blog, an online personality, a picture and a home page, are the very things one needs if one is to be an effective symbol of the now hundreds of jailed protesters. But let’s not forget that self-importance. Here in America, for any given topic, there is no shortage of bloggers, pundits, reporters, commentators, authors, or people who’ll volunteer an opinion. But who else do you know writing regularly from Egypt?

That said, should I be supporting only bloggers? There are folks who may be as deserving as well. I pledged another $30 in the budget to advertise on the keyword China— pointing to the website for Yang Jianli, my old Brookline neighbor. Yang is not a blogger, but he’s a high-profile international activist who has been in a Beijing prison for four years. I never actually met Yang while he lived down the street from me, and it took almost two years for me to learned of his detention in China. My service in his name was visiting our neighborhood shops to see whether anybody was still thinking about him. It was cheap piece of shoe-leather journalism, but his wife Christina was kind enough to appreciate my effort– and to fill me in on who had done what for him.

One last notion entered my head. It was 160 years ago when a 29-year old man, living in a cabin in the woods in Concord, Mass., about 15 miles from where I am now, chose to go to jail rather than pay a tax to a government which allowed slavery (he had been refusing for 3 years). His mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him in prison, and reportedly asked him, “Henry, what are you doing in jail?” To which Henry David Thoreau reported replied, “Waldo, what are you doing out of jail?” And from that came Civil Disobedience and the great protest movements of the 20th Century.

This as much went through my mind on Monday, May 15th, a week ago. Over the week. I also thought about this level of charitable effort. Never before, aside from my odd times of giving to panhandlers, had I contributed singularly to such a cause.

Over the week, as I watched the news trickle through, I thought some more.

I have volunteered with Jewish organizations before, and it’s a frequent exercise is set aside time for reflection.. Can one volunteer without putting their heart into it? The question has circulated since Maimonides, the preeminent Jewish philosopher of the middle ages. Born in Spain in 1190, he ended up, traveling to Morocco, Israel, and then settled in Cairo, where he became the physician to the Sultan of Egypt. Thus it seems like Maimonides is a good place to start.

Maimonides devised a code of eight levels of tzedakah, or charity. It is almost common sense today as it was eight centuries ago. At the bottom rung is giving, but unwillingly. Up the ladder, a higher value is placed on giving before being asked, instead of after. It’s also better to give anonymously, lest one be driven by vanity. That’s one reason I told Mary, Ethan, and Seth to not divulge to anyone that I had bought the AdWord.

The highest level is to provide enough so that the person in need can be lifted out of desperation. In other words, you have to stick around for the results.

So, consider the few hundred bloggers that had joined the effort to do the googlebombing. It would seem that at least a few of them would have checked after a few days whether the campaign had actually worked. And they might have just looked at the ads, and if they found the “Egyptian Blogger Detained” and later “Save Justice in Egypt” in the paid links, I would then have expected to hear about some blog post somewhere about that.

What I was giving was not charity that would go into Alaa’s pocket. And I didn’t expect for my contribution to earn me any rewards. But I did choose to make a sacrifice. What will follow in this series is some of things I learned.