It’s too soon to say about Tunisia, of course: will its revolution succeed? Will a democratic coalition endure, establishing a new order of government by consent? Will that spirit spread through the region?
But it is not too soon to suggest some possibilities and implications emerging from the chain-reaction of liberation that has enabled the former French colony to throw off the oppressive 23-year rule of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s corrupt police state. And who better to exemplify these possibilities than Slim Amamou, the 33 year-old blogger, Tweeter, and software developer who has been named Secretary of State for Youth and Sport?
Even though the Tunisian government attempted to quash social media opposition by embedding secret code designed to capture passwords from Tunisian versions of Facebook, Gmail, and Yahoo, what the French have called the “Jasmine Revolution” spread like the wind via social networks, especially Facebook and Twitter, offering an unusually intimate (and epigrammatic) glimpse of history in real time.
In the narrow frame of branded news, this is a story about high-speed, multi-user information technologies: how they were able to circulate words and images of dissent, creating something like an electronic circuit rider. Photographs of the December suicide of Mohamed Bouaziz, the unemployed vegetable-seller who set himself on fire outside a Tunisian government office, ignited protests; and images of each protest inspired the residents of another town to take to the streets. As far as it goes, this framework is true, of course: without ultra-quick and easily accessible ways for ordinary people to communicate rapidly at a distance, the government would have been able to control information flow and quash protest.
It’s just not the whole truth. In reality, this is a story about culture, about the centrality of culture to identity and self-determination, and about the unbounded world slowly being created by people who recognize this, and who can no longer allow themselves to be contained by those who don’t see it.
For example, a recent New York Times piece about Amamou’s tweets describes the difficulty of being a dissident suddenly in power. Many of his erstwhile comrades have accused him of selling out, since the interim government includes former allies of Ben Ali. When he tweeted this retort, Amamou drew on the vocabulary and experience of a new world in which the exchange of cultural information, the collective creation of meaning through art, is the lingua franca: “It is similar to an underground artist who signs with a major label and is criticized by the purists and the masses.” And so it is. And his recourse to analogies from the world of music, which now crosses all national boundaries, marks the emergence of a different world, of a politics grounded in culture.
Amamou has characterized his aims as observing, acquiring, and sharing information, helping to lay the foundation for an elected government. He is clearly more interested in justice than ideology, sensibly pointing out that “It is about governing a nation. I won’t be comfortable with a government of noobs [i.e., newbies, novices] like me. Compromise. No choice. Till elections.”
I don’t know Slim Amamou, of course, only his tweets, the open air he brought to his TEDX Carthage talk, which (given that I am sadly monolingual except for a word or two of French and Hebrew, I am mostly unable to comprehend), the Website for his little software company, like a million others.
So I don’t know him at all, really, but still I have a hunch he won’t mind being characterized in the following way: Slim Amamou, ambassador from the present, avatar of a possible future, a harbinger of what my friend Paul Schafer has dubbed “a cultural age.” (Paul wrote Revolution or Renaissance: Making the Transition from an Economic Age to a Cultural Age).
Modernity is by no stretch an unmixed blessing, especially the extent to which it has converted cultural meaning to commercial exploitation, uprooting individuals and communities disadvantaged by globalization and casting them adrift in history. But the alternative proposed by fundamentalists of all stripes is cultural suicide.
Ultimately, fundamentalists (by which I mean those who substitute for open-eyed curiosity an unyielding attachment to a particular explanation for everything) can never prevail, because they steer the ship of state (or church) while navigating through the rearview mirror. They have chosen the single destination that can never be attained: the past. And the only certainty I am willing to hazard is that sooner or later, they will reach a head-on collision with the present.
Amamou is a member of the Pirate Party of Tunisia, which subscribes to principles grounded in free and transparent communication (this highly imperfect but functional translation is by Google and me):
We are simple citizens around the world, treated as “pirates” because we advocate the sharing of culture and information. Technology permits this free and equal access for all; all that separates us from it today are some private commercial or political interests. Also:
• to reaffirm the core democratic values of citizenship,
• to promote access and diffusion of culture and knowledge,
• to develop fair and transparent cultural, social, economic, and modern institutional models,
• to reorganize on a global scale equitable and sustainable solidarity and development
We chose to build this new kind of movement that brings together dozens of countries and already has two members of the European Parliament. Together, we are reappropriating political life! Rouse the public debate that our society deserves! Share the Future!
There are Pirate Parties around the globe. It’s a movement at once highly organized and highly fluid, its Website a wiki, its principles perpetually in draft. I’m not saying it’s the new world order (although mightn’t that be interesting?). But I am saying that it offers us a glimpse of a transnational politics in which the attraction to beauty and meaning, an entrepreneurial spirit, a sense of play—even the sacred play of art and politics—infuse our words and actions, and a new world is created, joyously, from the broken pieces of the old certainties.
In the midst of Tunisia’s transformation, Amamou tweeted his assessment: “The most rapid revolution in history. Because we are connected. Synchronized.”
Yesterday, French president Nicolas Sarkozy called only the third press conference of his administration to apologize for failing to take the movement for change in Tunisia, a former French colony, seriously enough. “France did not take the full measure of the despair of the Tunisian people. We in France probably underestimated the aspirations of the Tunisian people for freedom.”
A wave of demonstrations has spilled over from Tunisia to Algeria, also formerly a French colony. Think about that as you listen to Algerian jazz singer Keyko Nimsay’s scat “Marseillaise” recorded in New York in 2009.