What links the Arab Spring rebellions with political agitation in China and at least another five dozen simmering or emerging crises?
If your answer is "the Internet," you have identified one of the key information technologies that spread the flames. However, the common human fire in these disparate struggles is intense disgust with embedded corruption.
Tyrants maintain control by isolating and intimidating their subjects. However, since the advent of the printing press and increasing public literacy, preserving tyrannical isolation has become a bit more difficult.
Over time, subjects become aware of social, cultural, economic and political alternatives to the despot's rule, despite the despot's propaganda. Just how deeply West German television influenced East German resistance to communism is debatable, but the Iron Curtain could not hide the overwhelming evidence of Western affluence and the West's ability to occasionally remove corrupt leaders.
Communist elite corruption amidst systemic economic failure certainly influenced resistance throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The special stores and vacation homes enjoyed by Communist Party favorites infuriated workers denied similar access. East European workers knew that they were industrialized serfs in handcuffed societies falling further and further behind Western European nations. In 1989, when the Russians concluded the Eastern European security forces could not -- or would not -- shoot everyone, the Berlin Wall cracked.
Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution (January 2011) had echoes of 1989. Tunisian security forces were reluctant to fire on demonstrators complaining about lack of jobs and an oligarchy of wealthy families and government officials who had rigged the system for their mutual benefit -- in other words, systemic corruption benefiting favored constituencies to the persistent detriment of everyone else.
Tunisia's comparatively well-educated (though underemployed) population, thanks to the Internet as well as travel, knew there were alternatives. They understood how the corrupt system stunted their own ability to create wealth.
Twenty-first century tyrants and their loyalists can still intimidate. Iran's Khomeinists, Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi have crack troops and vicious secret police, and make savvy use of proxy thugs, gangsters and terrorists. However, they no longer enjoy the advantage of deep, permanent silence. The Internet and cell phones put the power of the printing press, telegraph, radio, and television literally in the hands of individuals.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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