Jewish World Review April 28, 2010 / 14 Iyar 5770
The medium isn't the message
By Jeff Jacoby
Activists confronting repressive regimes in the 21st century often have all the communication tools of the digital age at their disposal Facebook, YouTube, cell phones, e-mail. Yet none of them has achieved anything like the renown of Andrei Sakharov, Vaclav Havel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, or the other indomitable souls who challenged communist tyranny in the decades before the Internet existed.
That paradox was posed last week by David Keyes, the co-founder and director of CyberDissidents.org an organization dedicated, in the words of its website, "to bringing the world's attention to online democracy advocates and their plight." Speaking at a conference on the Internet and contemporary dissent organized by the Bush Institute and hosted by Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Keyes framed his agenda candidly: He wants to make pro-democracy internet activists in the Arab world and Iran famous and beloved in the West. Keyes was an aide to Natan Sharansky, the celebrated Soviet-dissident-turned-Israeli-statesman, and it was Sharansky who taught him that when it comes to anti-totalitarian dissidents, "the more famous you are, the more protected you are."
The best example of that phenomenon is Sharansky himself. The Ukrainian-born mathematician and human-rights champion was falsely convicted of treason and spent nine years in the Soviet gulag before finally being released by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. Years later, Gorbachev recalled visiting Canada as a Politburo member on an agricultural mission in 1983, and being repeatedly peppered with questions about Sharansky, whom at that point he had never heard of. To Gorbachev personally, the refusenik's fate was a matter of indifference. But Sharansky's high profile in the West convinced the future Soviet ruler that Moscow gained nothing by keeping him imprisoned.
For a more recent illustration of the significance of fame to democratic dissidents, consider the Iranian activist Ahmad Batebi. During a protest against government repression in 1999, Batebi was photographed waving a shirt stained with the blood of a student who had been gunned down by the police. After that photograph appeared on the cover of The Economist, Batebi was arrested, tortured, and condemned to die. "With this picture," the judge told him, "you have signed your own death sentence." But that picture had made Batebi famous, and his threatened hanging triggered a global uproar. His death sentence was commuted to 15 years and in 2008, he escaped to the West.
But Batebi was an exception; it was only by chance that he landed on the cover of The Economist. How does a dissident living in a dictatorship attain the kind of fame that ultimately saved Sharansky? At CyberDissidents.org, Keyes spotlights many of the Middle East's pro-democracy bloggers and online organizers, with links to their writings, descriptions of their work, and photographs. But compared with the 20th century's great Soviet and Eastern European dissidents, they might as well be anonymous.
"The Internet enables them to reach the world," Keyes says. "They push the 'send' button and thousands of people can instantly read their words. Yet not a single American in a million knows their names." Dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Havel, by contrast, communicated through samizdat laboriously produced underground writings, printed in secret and circulated from hand to hand and still managed to reach an international audience.
Perhaps the explanation for that puzzle lies in the very immediacy of the Internet itself.
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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