I’ve been hanging back for the last week and watching the exciting developments in North Africa (Tunisia and Egypt) and the Middle East (Yemen, and now I hear that in Jordan King Abdullah had to dismiss his Prime Minister and cabinet.) I haven’t written anything here before about these current events because I am completely out of my depth outside of North American history and am just trying to read and learn what I can. I ran into a colleague today and we reminisced about how like 1989 it all feels–we hope it’s the Eastern European 1989, not the Tiananmen Square 1989, of course.)
Although everyone is more excited about the uses of new technologies in the twentieth- and twenty-first-century revolutions, I’m struck more by the similarities in them than the differences. Back in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, everyone was excited by the role of the fax machine. Last year in Iran’s failed revolution, it was Facebook and Twitter, and these social media tools are prominent in driving world-wide interest in what’s going on in today’s revolutions. I’m teaching Eighteenth Century America, which is my retooled American Revolution class, and what strikes me is the role of cities in just about every revolution I can think of: the American and French Revolutions, the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the Russian Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, and all of the Revolution of 1989. (I know so little about the Chinese Revolution–and my grasp of other world revolutions is pretty weak, so correct me please if any of this looks wrong to you.) Most of the histories of these revolutions are essentially urban histories. To the barricades, citoyennes!
Cities are centers for both economic and intellectual commerce, as well as political centers or capitol cities. Cities remain the place where people meet and share ideas, and it still seems like it’s important that this happen face-to-face in order to bring on a revolution. In spite of the widespread use of social media in the revolutions of 2010 and 2011, it still seems like the revolution happens where you have a concentration of mobilized human beings, as opposed to Facebook “friends” all “liking” something. In this respect, then, Tweeting, IM’ing, blogging, and the like are more like television than we might have thought: they’re more useful for broadcasting the revolution once it’s underway, and are apparently insufficient to bring about the revolution on their own.