Constructive Activism, Part VI: The Messengers

At the start of this series, I mentioned the “pinball nature of news” in expressing how I heard about Alaa. Of course, it’s not really random when we walk through the connections. Here they are:

Seth Finkelstein has been a terrific correspondent and mentor over the last year, and I have deep appreciation for his wry analysis on most anything. Seth got it from Jon Lebkowsky, who I’ve emailed every so often, and always enjoyed his Austin, Texas can-do attitude. Jon got a press release from Mary Joyce, an American ex-pat in Morocco. Over the week, Mary and I have chatted over email, and she’s helped introduce me to some of the other activists. I sent her enough updates of news I found just by browsing, that she invited me to contribute to the Free Alaa blog– though I thought I’d defer until I finished this series. Mary is connected in through Global Voices to its Middle East editor, Haitham Sabbah. During the Danish cartoon controversy, I found Haitham through Global Voices, and we had some great email exchanges that I’d always wanted to continue. Of course, Haitham, and now all of, have heard from the Egyptian bloggers. SandMonkey and Big Pharaoh crack me up.

It’s not the triumph of blogs, but of bloggers– and particular ones who are truly the messengers of hope and goodwill.

There’s been solid coverage in the newspapers– the Times, AP, Christian Science Monitor, even the Egyptian state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper has run stories about the judiciary protests. I didn’t get a whole lot today from the news, so I turned to SandMonkey. His dash of random quotes would not be out of place in any major U.S. public interest publication.

I sit here in Boston. I’ve never been to Egypt. In our little city we’ve got all this freedom stuff– statues of Samuel Adams and George Washington and the 54th Regiment Memorial, Faneuil hall and the Freedom and the Tea Party boat and the Boston Pops Fourth of July– all this stuff we make into trinkets to try and remember what we’ve been through, or otherwise as a nice souvenir to pass along. Two years ago, I went along with some coworkers to the gay marriage rally in the Massachusetts State House — not to chant myself, but to be amidst people who were chanting for something, and in a place, they themselves had never dreamed they’d be chanting for. When I think about the brave activists in Egypt who are protesting even though the law says they can’t, once again I yearn to be a witness to their chants for dignity.

A coworker of mine is Egyptian; he who came to America when he was my age, twenty five years ago. He still visits Egypt to see his family. I’ll call him Sal. Last week I had asked Sal to send Alaa’s wife Manal an email in Arabic, to let her know that I worked with him, and just wanted to send my support. Sal said he was afraid of even doing that. Egypt is no Iraq, but he still speaks of it as a country of fear. Years ago he had a relative who was all set to open a car factory– had every permit set. The night before it was set to open– it burns. “Was that just by chance?” he asked me. But we have hope. Egypt could be the key. We could use some democratic revolution from within, since it beats the alternative.

How to nudge this along, I don’t know. I keep hearing that the MSM needs to cover this more. If by MSM, people mean television news, by all means it needs to improve.

I get MSNBC, so I watch Keith Olbermann at 8,and then as much Joe Scarborough as I can handle. Olbermann is a snappy New Yorker whose style and content appeals to progressives; Scarborough’s a former Republican Congressman from the Florida panhandle. Olbermann idolizes the journalism of Edward R. Murrow, even ending his broadcasts with “good night, and good luck”; Scarborough casts himself as a “regular Joe” who waves the flag any chance he can. These guys could be crusaders for democracy; Olbermann even toed the waters in a crusade against smoking, in abandoning his pipe habit. But they tend not to venture outside these shores (with the exception of Olbermann’s “Oddball” fun segment) until the dung already hits the fan. And nothing conspires to make seemingly informed Americans dumber than the continued combined speculation on the presumptive Presidential campaigns of Al Gore and Hilary Clinton.

Maybe our peers in Egypt need to press the message better.

Independent judiciary threatened? Executive branch ramming through the legislature? “Emergency law” overrides civil liberties? These sounds like issues that hit close to home for American liberals.

But I’ve found just two posts from Daily Kos (May 11 & May 12) by people I don’t know, each with about ten comments, and neither of which pointed to the Free Alaa campaign. Kevin Drum of Washington Monthly wrote about Egypt last week, but only tangentially, he was mostly writing about Al Jazeera. This post attracted 15 comments (not counting spam), which tied it for last in comment count (for what that’s worth) among his 175 blog posts so far in May. The other post was a brief pointer to a detained Iranian blogger. Buried within the America Abroad section of Josh Marshall’s TPMCafe, Bruce Jentleson has been casting appeals for an Iranian dissident, but nothing on Alaa.

By contrast, the familiar conservative blog provocateurs have banged the drum for Alaa: Michelle Malkin, Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs, and as noted, Glenn Reynolds, with his multiple appeals for Alaa. Rebecca MacKinnon, has noted how the leading liberal bloggers tend not be as active in pulling for bloggers’ rights around the world.

Now, it’s possible that liberals have enough to chew on with all the scandals in Washington and the President’s plummeting ratings, and that conservatives are happy to focus on anything else. Or that Democratic are more obsessed with not losing this November. Or it’s possible that conservatives see more camaraderie with voices opposed to the “established media.” I should have asked Kos when he was in town this week– on his book promotion tour.

All that said, I have little patience for trying to reform cable news or political bloggery. I’m here to work on models, frameworks, tools. And since you’ve been a patient audience, I’ll supply it in a bonus section. Democracy in a box. I’ve been calling it the civ, but hey, whatever language, whatever works. Design the right architecture, and the right messengers will come to use it.