On the Development of Radical Ideas in the Age of Twitter and Facebook

From a Wall Street Journal review by Barton Swaim of the book by Gal Beckerman titled “The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas”:

The conviction animating Gal Beckerman’s “The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas” holds that social media, and online communications generally, are not optimal venues for the development of “radical” ideas. What radical ideas need in order to flourish, he contends, is sustained, patient debate among committed people with a shared, well-defined ideology. In the past these ideas percolated for a long time in pubs and coffeehouses, pamphlets and small-circulation dissident newspapers, before they burst into public life in the fullness of time.

Now, Mr. Beckerman laments, they come and go with regularity on a dizzying array of electronic platforms. “Radical change—change that strips off the stucco and gets to the girders, that offers a chance to see ourselves and our relationship to nature or to others in new ways—doesn’t start with yelling,” he writes. “It starts with deliberation, a tempo that increases, a volume set first at a whisper.”

Mr. Beckerman, a senior book-review editor at the Atlantic, quotes the leftist activist Saul Alinsky’s famous comparison of a revolution to a three-act play: The first act introduces the characters, and the second develops the plot. In the third, “good and evil have their dramatic confrontation and resolution.” Mr. Beckerman’s aim in “The Quiet Before” is to “seek out the media that set up that first act.”

The book’s preliminary pages and dust jacket are replete with zealous endorsements from literary VIPs—Steven Pinker, Timothy Snyder, Thomas Chatterton Williams, among others. “In this brilliant book,” writes Walter Isaacson, “Beckerman shows that new ideas need to incubate through thoughtful discussions in order to create sustained movements.” That this accurate synopsis is almost a truism would seem to indicate a problem. Who needed to be told that new ideas need thoughtful discussion?

The book’s first half relates six stories of how painstaking, relentless work produced “radical” social or political change. Some of these early chapters support their claims better than others. I am not sure what to make of the chapter on Mina Loy, the British-born modernist poet who bounced between lovers in the Italian Futurist movement in the 1910s….

Mr. Beckerman’s discussion of 17th-century French astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc makes more sense. Peiresc helped to solve the mystery of longitude by writing innumerable letters to correspondents all over Europe and soliciting information from them about the relative positions of the sun, moon and stars on certain dates. An impressive feat—although the lesson Mr. Beckerman draws from it, that collaboration moves scientific inquiry forward, is less than astonishing. Another chapter treats Chartism, a working-class movement in 1840s England that gathered signatures in a plea for universal male suffrage. Did the Chartists, led by the Irishman Feargus O’Connor, achieve their aim? In a way, yes—although Chartism had long since died out by the time Parliament passed the Reform Act of 1867, granting some working-class men the franchise.

A chapter on Natalya Gorbanevskaya, the dissident Russian poet and co-founder of the samizdat Chronicle of Current Events, which ran from 1968 to 1982, is well done. But the following chapter considers “zines” (homemade magazines) created by the fans of all-girl punk bands of the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. High marks for eccentricity, but the idea that these photocopied serials contributed to “radical change,” rather than simply being evidence of it, strikes me as far-fetched.

I wonder if the reason for these oddball choices is that the more obvious historical models of “first act” idea-making turned out badly. The French Revolution began with conversations about universal rights in the coffeehouses and salons of Paris, but the “third act” brought the Terror and, ultimately, military dictatorship. The Russian intelligentsia of the late 19th century endlessly debated the nature of man and the future of class relations, but their colloquies led to Bolshevism and the deaths of millions by purges, war and famine. The Scottish Enlightenment would have made an excellent subject for “The Quiet Before”: It began in the conversational clubs and literary societies of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but its chief bequest to the world was laissez-faire economics—hardly the sort of radicalism Mr. Beckerman was looking for.

The book’s second half—four chapters prefaced by an interlude on cyberspace—makes the case that today’s radical actors, energized by the distraction-prone self-indulgence of online media, can’t sustain radical change. Mr. Beckerman illustrates the problem, as he sees it, with a remarkable admission in the book’s introduction. After the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017, he writes, he found himself at protests in Manhattan “nearly every weekend.” At one of these events he noticed that everyone was taking selfies and posting them on social-media accounts, and he was doing the same. He and his fellow protesters, he realized, were trying to skip to Alinsky’s third act without doing the work of the first two. “For all the power social media has lent to movements . . . it has also stunted them,” he writes. “The hard work of hammering out ideology and organizational structure, the building of a strong identity and the setting of goals, all of it can be leaped over, creating movements with all the depth and solidity of a raised-fist emoji.”

This criticism of social media will mean more to readers on the political left than it does to this reviewer, but Mr. Beckerman’s own analysis upends it. The activist-driven uprisings he describes—the Egyptian revolution of 2011, the BLM protests of 2020—are too recent to judge their long-term consequences. If we are prepared to credit the Chartists of the 1840s with preparing the way for universal suffrage, which wouldn’t come about fully until 1928, surely it’s reasonable to think the protests we followed on Twitter may yield societal changes in the decades ahead.

But—and this is where the book becomes unintentionally hilarious—there is one kind of protest movement, according to Mr. Beckerman, that goes from strength to strength in the era of the internet: white supremacy. A group of “leftist hackers” has given Mr. Beckerman access to the servers used by the 2017 “Unite the Right” protesters in Charlottesville, Va. This lengthy chapter makes for dreary reading, not least owing to the author’s meandering attempt to make a march consisting of a few hundred nutjobs and doofuses sound like a long-term threat to the American experiment….

Compare that to Mr. Beckerman’s interpretation of the 2011 Tahrir Square protests in Egypt. That revolution was generated in part by a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said,” begun to memorialize a young man brutalized and killed by police and to call for accountability. It led to the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the resignations of multiple high-level officials, and the dissolution of the country’s domestic security agency.

Not bad, as protest movements go, even if it didn’t lead to the sunlit uplands of liberal democracy. But because Tahrir was a good protest and not a bad one—and because it was generated in some measure by Facebook and not a “more private” and “less performative space” like the one used by the bigots in Charlottesville—Mr. Beckerman feels the need to play down the 2011 revolution. Many of the Egyptian demonstrators relied on Facebook posts that consisted of “shorter bursts of information and feeling” than blog posts or magazine articles. “Less care was taken with the craft of writing them and the cultivation of a voice or unique perspective that might draw readers back.” The Egyptian revolution, he continues in a vein that reads like parody, “happened too fast. There was no chance to form what the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci called a ‘historic bloc,’ the negotiated web of alliances and relationships rooted in a shared ideology.”

“The Quiet Before” is a confused and confusing book. Part of the confusion, I suspect, arises from the simple fact that the American left no longer has much to resist. It’s hard to envision a “radical” insurgency when radicals are calling the shots. The election of Donald Trump gave the left a reason to plot and agitate, as all Republican presidents seem to do nowadays, but the vast preponderance of cultural notables and media personalities already hated him. You didn’t need a more private and less performative space to criticize that guy. The problem with the development of radical ideas in the 21st century isn’t, as Mr. Beckerman thinks, that Facebook and Twitter bypass the incubation stage. The problem is that the radicals have already come to power, and they have no more ideas to incubate.

Barton Swaim has written for the Wall Street Journal as a regular book reviewer since 2012 and he began a column on political books in 2017. He came to the Journal as an editorial-page writer in 2018. Before that he was opinion editor at the Weekly Standard. He is the author of “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.”

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