When you talk about the Arab Spring or a white revolution in Russia you can see that something unprecedented is happening in way too many places at once and way too close together. Why now? Is a conspiracy involved? After all, people have always had grievances, often worse than today, without reacting like this. Thus, one thing we can say is that ordinary, run-of-the-mill grievances cannot account for it. My goal here is to look for other explanations.
THE CIA AS THE PRIME SOURCE OF DISCONTENT
The oft-blamed CIA is hardly omnipotent. It has a record of bungling (see Bay of Pigs for example), a llmited budget, only so many agents (deduct desktop analysists and newspaper clippers) and even less with the requisite language skills. It has never demonstrated so much ability at fomenting revolutions in the past, so how did it become so near perfect now? And if it had to choose a starting point, did westernized Tunisia make sense?
Since we are talking about police states with eyes and ears everywhere in countries where local populations are often nationalistic to the point of xenophobia, so how would so many CIA agents operate so freely, and how would they change so many people’s minds 180 degress without being noticed or reported? How would it accomplish so much in Putin’s Russia, with a huge population and endless terrain, where we are hearing the same old song about “whose behind it?” The CIA was just as surprised as everyone else, especially in Tunisia, Syria and Putin’s Russia.
WHY NOT BLAME NGOs?
They have more resources that the CIA. However, people don’t go to an NGO to become discontented. They go because they already have grievances or because of some other problem. When protests start, they have a vested interest in staying out of trouble, knowing their vulnerability to scapegoating.
THE BEST THEORY IS ONE THAT EASILY ACCOUNTS FOR ALL KNOWN FACTS
Status quo forces get it partly right–these problems did originate in the West, especialy the USA, a cauldron of social fads and catchy ideas. However, no conspiracy would work so well. The charge of “cultural imperialism” is a cute invention with great nationalistic appeal but it clearly suggests conscious intent. What really spread troublesome western social and political ideas were two supposedly “neutral” western exports: the Communications Revolution and economic globalism.
If the theory is right, social and political turmoil should be greatest where western technology was last to arrive and where it spread quickly (impossible if not for huge drops in the price of technology). These were the most conservative, xenophobic and isolated societies. Almost overnight people who had little idea of how others lived or what rights they enjoyed acquired full knowledge, like Adam after eating the apple. If that didn’t cause an explosion, it would be miraculous.
Conservative societies fearful of change found western technology a “neutral,” useful and crowd-pleaser. Alas, introducing major technology always produces social and political changes one can’t foresee.
THE SOCIAL IMPACT
In America, the autombile changed where people lived, where they shopped, how much contact they had with the outside world and (surprise!) led to the first sexual revolution. In a world of large families and little privacy, it became a “portable bedroom.” TV and movies had equally amazing impact. Don’t underestimate the impact of smuggled magazines, videos and music in Brezhnev’s Russia. Now we see rappers, rockers and heavy metal bands are everywhere in Saudi Arabia of all places. What happens when women see female presidents, foreign ministers or hot-shot lawyers on TV or when Saudi boys and girls, unable to meet easily in public, find it easy to converse on Facebook? Does it matter how many pornographic magazines Saudi custom agents confiscate when Persian Gulf countries lead the world in porn site visits. What is forbidden always attracts.
HOW DO YOU COPE WITH A “GRIEVANCE MULTIPLIER?”
Long-time grievances still exist but they can’t explain so many protests in so many places almost simultaneously. Think about what happens to people’s mindsets in conservative societies when they suddenly learn how differently others live–their social and political freedoms, their fads, their ways of dress, their music, etc. Young folks are especially impressed. Now add the effect of foreign travel (once unsual) for reasons of education, trade or leisure and you get a “grievance multiplier.” The effect is to create an influx of new grievances alongside old ones. How can things go on as usual? The internet and satellite TV also guarantee that when their counterparts rise up for change in one country, it inspires others to do the same.
Having inspired those grievances, the internet simultanous makes it hard for regimes to cope with them in the old ways. Censorship, force or rigged elections of are no longer effective or easily tolerated. Any regime that needs a modern economy can’t put up an iron curtain, limit travel abroad, and restrict ownership of phones, maps, copying machines, computers, etc. Creating an “internet for one country” would squander all the advantages of the internet. Stealing all cell phones and TV satellites is impossible. Meanwhile it adds one more grievance among ticked-off victims.
When every major newspaper in the world and journal is available online, along with blogs, YouTube, tweets, etc, no dictatorship today cannot hide their crimes, thievery and failures as in the past. As these are inevitaly exposed, trust and support vanishes for good. People believe the regime capable of any outrage. The old “they do it do” propaganda ploy is far less effecive when people are well aware of the virtues and downsides of life elsewhere. They know when things stink far worse at home. Finally it’s far easier for thousands of people to share grievances online and make plans for changing things.