The most thrilling part of Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), John Reed’s account of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, is not the storming of the Winter Palace or Leon Trotsky’s impassioned speeches. It is the citizens’ debates—described as “hot,” “endless,” “violent,” and “stormy”—over what course the revolution should take, or even whether it should take any course at all:
Lectures, debates, speeches—in theatres, circuses, school-houses, clubs, Soviet meeting-rooms, Union headquarters, barracks…. Meetings in the trenches at the Front, in village squares, factories…. For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street-cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere….
Conversation, at least in Reed’s exciting and highly partisan telling, was at the heart of the revolutionary process in its very early days. This was democracy in action, democracy in the streets (which we, of course, know would soon be brutally stifled).
Seven decades later, this culture of disputation emerged as a central theme in Timothy Garton Ash’s The Magic Lantern, his eyewitness report on the Eastern European revolutions of 1989. In Prague’s Civic Forum, all the exigent issues—socialism versus a market economy, free elections and a free press, the rule of law, parliamentary democracy—were debated by an extraordinary group of students, actors, workers, economists, philosophers, poets, historians, playwrights. “To watch all this,” Garton Ash wrote, “was to watch politics in a primary, spontaneous, I almost said ‘pure’ form.”
Gal Beckerman, too, is interested in political talk. His new book, The Quiet Before, is essentially a history of conversation, beginning in seventeenth-century France and ending in modern-day Cairo, Charlottesville, Miami, and Minneapolis. Beckerman concentrates not on the revolutionary moment, though—the capture of the Bastille, say, or Fidel Castro’s triumphant arrival in Havana—but on the antecedents of transformative political change. “The incubation of radical new ideas,” he writes, “is a very distinct process with certain conditions: a tight space, lots of heat, passionate whispering, and a degree of freedom to work toward a common, focused aim.”
The conversations that he documents occur not just in person—indeed, rarely in person—but through letters, petitions, newspapers, manifestos, samizdat journals, and feminist zines. And they take place, these days, on social media. Whether this constitutes a continuation of the radical tradition or its negation is a—perhaps the—crucial question that Beckerman explores. We know of the Twitter ranters, Facebook trolls, and Instagram influencers, but where are the passionate whisperers of today?
Beckerman’s first chapter is a profile of the natural philosopher and proto-globalist Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc. The place is Aix-en-Provence; the year is 1635. Peiresc had a dauntingly capacious intellect; among his projects, Beckerman observes, were
an investigation of ancient weights and measures, a study of the Roman calendar of 354…, a catalog of gemstones that he and the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens had been compiling together, the publication of all the Samaritan versions of the Pentateuch in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, and an exhaustive history of Provence.
That’s a partial list.
Beckerman focuses on Peiresc’s “obsession with longitude,” by which he sought to calculate the exact dimensions of the Mediterranean Sea. This challenging task—which would be of invaluable help to sailors, traders, and explorers—required the simultaneous observation, from multiple geographical locations, of a lunar eclipse. Peiresc was working in the early days of the scientific revolution, which demanded an epistemological and ethical transformation—one that was extraordinarily dangerous. (See, for instance, Galileo, who was hauled before the Inquisition for daring to state that the earth circles the sun.) To stage his experiment, Peiresc collected—via letters—a wide-ranging group of collaborators, including a priest in Syria, a former cardinal’s secretary (and former slave) in Tunis, a Jesuit in Quebec, and various interlocutors in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
For the longitude experiment, Peiresc needed to teach his would-be colleagues a new way of thinking, in which the acquisition of knowledge would be based on skepticism, observation, and reason, rather than on religious dogma or fealty to the past. Beckerman explains:
Redrawing a map might sound like a mundane cause upon which to concentrate such intense attention, but the letters tell a different story. Peiresc had to gently pull these potential observers toward a new relationship with nature, one not at all familiar or safe.
Letters were slow, which means that for Peiresc’s purposes they were perfect. “The ruminative aspect of letters, the embedded patience of them,” Beckerman writes, “avoided what might otherwise feel like the locked horn confrontation of one system of truth trying to overtake another.” Indeed, Beckerman calls this chapter “Patience,” though it reads like a thriller. How could Peiresc find his collaborators, and how convince them of his strange project’s worth? Would they all show up at the right time and understand his instructions? Could they take this seemingly small yet monumental step into a new way of seeing, of knowing, of experiencing the world?
In spite of the formidable logistics, the experiment worked. On the night of August 28, 1635, Peiresc’s far-flung correspondents documented their measurements of the lunar eclipse, then (slowly) sent them to him. He and his amateur scientists discovered the Mediterranean’s true shape, which differed significantly from the depictions on contemporary maps. Those who read his findings were, Peiresc wrote, “ravished and almost beside themselves.”
Beckerman’s subsequent subjects are wildly eclectic. They include Feargus O’Connor, a charismatic leader of Britain’s nineteenth-century Chartist movement for universal male suffrage; Mina Loy, a British-born artist, writer, and fellow-traveler of the Italian Futurists; Natalya Gorbanevskaya, a poet and Soviet dissident who documented human rights abuses in an underground publication called the Chronicle and was imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital in the early 1970s1; and the punk-rock Riot Grrrls of the 1990s. The movements they were involved in weren’t necessarily, or at least immediately, successful. Some met with violent opposition; others, like Italian Futurism, veered ignominiously into fascism.
What interests Beckerman in each case is how groups of people emerge into political self-consciousness through discussion and debate, and the particular modes of communication they develop that enable them to do so. The process is both individual and collective: each person who participates is changed, but develops only in concert with others. And only through recognizing others, too; each of these movements addressed a kind of loneliness.
Of the Chartist petition campaign, Beckerman asserts:
The petition had given this newly self-aware working class an aim, had bound them together, turning the particles of anger that hung in the air above factory floors and in the small, dank living spaces of coal miners into something more. The act of signing their names to this document had unified them, taking their inchoate frustration…and sharpen[ing] it into a common purpose.
Gorbanevskaya’s typewritten publication, Beckerman notes, would similarly help Russian dissidents “pick up the scattered pieces and put them together, fixing their attention on the construction of an ongoing argument…. Each saw their plight as unique. Now they would literally be on the same page.” Reading, circulating, and contributing to the Chronicle brought its participants closer to one another and fostered a kind of psychic cohesion, “shattering the distinctly Soviet feeling of having two selves.” It was the precondition for what Václav Havel called living in truth.
Beckerman’s wide range is impressive and makes The Quiet Before the most original book I’ve read in a long time. One particularly fascinating chapter focuses on Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Nigerian editor of The African Morning Post, an anticolonialist newspaper in 1930s Accra, the capital of what was then the Gold Coast (now Ghana).
The Gold Coast, a British colony, had a small but burgeoning middle class. Its members were immersed in local culture and traditions, but they also loved Hollywood films and Shakespeare, and they sought “a fast track to modernity.” But how to get there—and more important, what did this mean? The African Morning Post became the forum through which they could debate the construction of an independent, modern Africa: one that neither supinely mimicked nor resentfully rejected the West. Azikiwe—affectionately known as “Zik” to his colleagues, readers, and countrymen—became the man to guide this dialogue.
Azikiwe was born in 1904 in Nigeria. To further his education, in 1925 he traveled to the US, where he encountered black intellectuals like Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall, and Langston Hughes. He attended several universities and was eventually accepted into a Ph.D. program at Columbia, but his place, he felt, was Africa. “I shall dedicate my life to the emancipation of the continent of Africa from the shackles of imperialism, and to the redemption of my country from the manacles of foreign rule,” he wrote. In 1934 he moved to the Gold Coast and became editor of the Accra paper.
By American standards, The African Morning Post was unsophisticated. But it was also the means by which Accra’s teachers, civil servants, and others could begin to define themselves through questions and answers, controversy and dispute; many of its pages consisted of anonymous contributions from readers. Like Peiresc, Zik sought to instill a new sensibility: one that would lead his readers to “see beyond their fractured state as a collection of tribes.”
The paper’s subjects were cultural as much as political—as if the two could be disentangled. Which Dickens novel was best? What were the benefits of life insurance? Which was better: polygamy or “the European form” of marriage? In short, Beckerman writes:
How much of traditional culture and practice would have to be thrown off to seize upon a modern national identity? These questions snaked through every column and reader response.
It may seem strange to us—exhausted as we are by the rancorous chatter on cable television and Twitter—that in Accra, unfettered debate was seen as the enabler, not the enemy, of unity. “It was the arguing that allowed them to peek over the dividers of tribe or social status and establish new allegiances,” Beckerman observes. Conflict, disagreement, altercation, intellectual friction—call it what you will: these were the building blocks of solidarity, political awareness, and a shared sense of citizenship and nation.
Like most courageous editors, Zik ran into trouble. In 1936 he printed an article titled “Has the African a God?” The British authorities, already eager to shut down the troublesome paper, indicted Zik for sedition. But he was eventually acquitted, and the affair was regarded as a great victory by anticolonial intellectuals. Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of Ghana’s independence movement, described the trial and acquittal as “the first warning puff of smoke that a fire had been lit, a fire that would prove impossible to extinguish.”
This is where Beckerman ends his story, though he notes that, decades later, Azikiwe became the first president of independent Nigeria. The postscript to the postscript is less happy: in 1966 he was ousted by a military coup and barely escaped assassination, and Nigeria has been racked by exactly the kind of tribal and ethnic violence that Azikiwe fought against so valiantly.
It’s a long way from there to here: from the “healthy friction” fostered, at least sometimes, by predigital forms of communication to the decidedly unhealthy friction of today’s social media world, with its energetic invective, character assassinations, fog of lies, and attention-challenged TikTok junkies. This is the subject of Beckerman’s final chapters—and, as he notes in his introduction, the troubled inspiration for his book. He recalls how, while marching with his wife and daughters to protest Donald Trump’s election, he noticed, “in a moment of cynicism or clarity, that everyone around me was incessantly posing for their camera phones…. For all the power social media has lent to movements…it has also stunted them.” The last section of The Quiet Before brings us close to the present. Beckerman discusses the alt-right organizers of the 2017 Charlottesville demonstration, the democracy activists of Cairo’s Arab Spring, and the racial-justice movements that gained momentum after George Floyd’s murder.
In a chapter called “The Torches,” Beckerman describes how, in the months before the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, leaders of various alt-right groups created a small, invitation-only chat room—a safe space!—to discuss organizational strategies. (Andrew Anglin, a particularly notorious neo-Nazi, cited the community organizer Saul Alinsky as his inspiration.) They were preoccupied with how to reach, rather than alarm, potential supporters. Thus, swastikas and hoods were to be strictly avoided; after much debate, a uniform of white shirts and khakis was approved. “This seems trivial, but it also represented the first of several small victories enabled by the platform,” Beckerman comments. “What everyone agreed upon is that they should look like nice young men.” Burning flags—even a “fag flag”—was debated and rejected. (“A terrible idea,” one participant wrote, arguing instead for “intelligent and level reasoning, and civilized manner.”) Ditto book-burning, which “will accomplish nothing other than making us look like we’re scared of literature.”
Of course, we know that the Charlottesville rally was anything but intelligent, reasonable, or civilized, and this was not just a case of bad optics. Anti-Semitic and other racist slogans were chanted by demonstrators carrying lit torches, Nazi and Confederate flags abounded, dozens of counterprotesters were injured, and one of them, Heather Heyer, was killed. The presumed calmness of the movement’s cyber-debates was overwhelmed by the fury of its actual politics. In my view, this chapter is therefore a warning about the limits and illusions of cyberspace rather than an example of its success.
What interests Beckerman, though—what, frankly, impresses him—is what happens when “a self-selecting group retreats to a quieter, slower, more private, and less performative sphere” to work out its politics. This is something, he shows, that proved difficult for the democratic movements in Cairo and Minneapolis.
It is in Beckerman’s chapter on the 2011 protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that his harshest, most direct criticisms of social media emerge. He narrates the events: how the gruesome photograph of Khaled Said, a young computer programmer tortured to death by the Egyptian police in 2010, inspired a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said,” which rapidly gained hundreds of thousands of followers; how a giant demonstration that seemed to bridge Egypt’s religious, cultural, and political divides was organized online; how the jubilant days in the square led to the previously unimaginable: President Hosni Mubarak’s exit.
Quickly, though, problems emerged: sharp differences among the initial protesters became clear; elections were hastily called, which the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood won; the new president, Mohamed Morsi, rapidly though predictably established an authoritarian Islamist regime. This led to an enormous recall movement, the army’s intervention, and the 2013 Rabaa massacre, in which, on a single day, security forces killed at least nine hundred Morsi supporters during a sit-in.2 Today, under the rule of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt is a police state; the repression is worse than ever; many of the young activists are in exile or jail.
Beckerman views this as a cautionary tale about the limits of organizing via social media, which thrives on conflict, immediacy, sensationalism, superficiality, drama, and anonymity. These are not democracy’s building blocks. Thus, by their very nature, Facebook and similar platforms “proved extremely ineffective at allowing people to focus, to organize their thoughts, to become ideologically coherent, to strategize, to pick leaders,” Beckerman argues. “In short, the revolutionaries were denied everything they needed if they were going to win the day—a tall order in any circumstance.”
The Tahrir movement’s experience of a fast rise and precipitous fall was preceded by Iran’s Green Movement of 2009, though Beckerman does not discuss this. There, too, young, educated opponents of the repressive regime organized via social media and thronged, peacefully but with elation, into the capital’s streets; there they met violence and defeat at the hands of the army, the police, and the Revolutionary Guards. At the time, the Green Movement was lauded—glibly and obnoxiously—as the “Twitter Revolution” by some in the Western press. The revolutionaries in Tehran knew better, and criticized themselves for their reliance on social media technologies.
The activist Afsaneh Moqadam expressed this self-critique in his pseudonymous book Death to the Dictator! (2010):
Iranians discover that they have an ambivalent attitude toward technology. Cell phone cameras, Facebook, Twitter, the satellite stations: the media are supposed to reflect what is going on, but they seem, in fact, to be making everything happen much faster. There’s no time to argue what it all means—what the protesters want, if they’re ready to die. The movement rolls forward, gathering speed, and no one really knows where it’s going.
Cairenes were soon to learn this bitter lesson. Beckerman quotes Alaa Abd el-Fattah, one of Egypt’s most persistent and most persecuted democracy activists, who spoke to an interviewer in 2019 while briefly released from prison. (As of this writing, he’s back in jail for a new five-year term.) El-Fattah rued the “regression” of Egyptian politics since Tahrir: “It’s not the fault of Egyptians; it’s the medium they are using. You’re just swallowed up by Facebook…. This is a trap.”3
Beckerman’s analysis of the Tahrir events is right as far as it goes, but it is also disappointingly limited. An enormous amount has been written about the so-called Arab Spring by Western observers, Arab journalists, and participants; Beckerman adds little that is new. And though he briefly mentions Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement, formed in 2008 to support striking workers, he ignores years of political organizing by farmers, civil servants, students, and neighborhood activists. The Quiet Before is a study of radical movements’ antecedents; here the author gives them short shrift.
There are more substantial problems with the Tahrir Square chapter. Beckerman has been strongly influenced by the media theorist Marshall McLuhan and his oft-quoted motto that “the medium is the message”; indeed, The Quiet Before is essentially an exploration of that idea. Beckerman concentrates on Tahrir’s secular, educated, tech-savvy, anti-authoritarian youth, whom he greatly admires. (So do I.) But Tahrir showed—as did Charlottesville—that, ultimately, the message is the message, and that it will subsume the medium. Egypt is a culturally rich but extremely poor, socially conservative, religiously observant country with a far too low literacy rate. There is little indication that most Egyptians yearn for the secular democracy of which the young organizers dreamed. That is why the “Arab Spring” moniker, with its echoes of 1848 and Prague 1968, was itself a misnomer.4
Beckerman’s penultimate chapter focuses on two racial-justice organizations: Dream Defenders, which was founded in Miami after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, and Black Visions, founded in Minneapolis in 2017. Some striking parallels with the Tahrir movement emerge. There was the same suspicion of leadership; Beckerman rather gently calls this “horizontalism,” though he allows that this can become “a fetish.” There was the same use of brutal visuals, especially the gruesome phone video documenting George Floyd’s agonized last minutes. And there was the same growing recognition that the movement’s reliance on memes, hashtags, and tweets—all fostering an addiction to the sugar high of immediate, short-lived attention—was less a reflection of real power than a dead end. Beckerman quotes Rachel Gilmer, a Dream Defenders organizer: “Social media is constantly fueling and draining our egos—making us feel hyper belittled and narcissistic at the same time,” she wrote to her followers in 2015. In response, the Dream Defenders retreated from social media and began organizing the old-fashioned way: speaking one-on-one to people in the black community.
In Minneapolis, an exhausted Black Lives Matter organizer named Miski Noor, a Somali immigrant, had come to a similar conclusion about the political limits of social media. In response, Noor and six others founded a new group called Black Visions, “a Black-led Queer and Trans centering organization,” which concentrated on what might be called slow organizing. “If Black Lives Matter found itself contorted by social media’s impulses,” Beckerman writes, “Black Visions set its own rhythm.”
But the problem, as with Tahrir, was to be found not only in these groups’ use or misuse of technologies. Something was amiss with the vision. Black Visions and Dream Defenders are dedicated to defunding—indeed abolishing—police and prisons, which they view as a kind of ur-evil. (Black Visions defines crime as “a colonial concept used to control oppressed people” that is “usually embedded in white-supremacist, capitalist, ableist, patriarchal logics.”) As the organizers emerged from their social-media cocoons, their fellow citizens told them some unwelcome things.
“People were basically, like, we need more police,” Gilmer told Beckerman. “And it was really jarring for me…. Social media definitely obfuscated how we were thinking about those things.” In Minneapolis, Noor, too, discovered the “uncomfortable reality” that “most people did not understand or like the notion of abolishing the police.” Nevertheless, Black Visions raised $30 million in donations and pushed hard for Question 2—abolition of the Minneapolis police, which Noor described as part of “a people’s agenda”—to appear on the ballot last November. Beckerman concludes this chapter with the optimistic observation that these organizers were now “drawing on a different metabolism and, even if slow, it was working.” But in Minneapolis, the abolition referendum was defeated by twelve points—with the margin of rejection far higher in the three districts that are majority- or plurality-black. Once again, it was the message, not the medium, that prevailed.
Ours is hardly the first era to be dazzled, excited, bewildered, and frightened by rapid technological changes. The 1950s may seem, in retrospect, to be an age of technological innocence, but things felt different at the time. In a 1957 essay ominously titled “The Enemies of the Novel,” the critic Granville Hicks lamented:
Technology has opened the whole world to us, and has laid the problem of every part of it on our doorstep. Inattention becomes indispensable to survival…. The danger is that we shall lose, or perhaps never acquire, the ability to pay attention to anything, to listen fully, with all our being.
He probably would have appreciated Johann Hari’s new book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again.5
Yet our situation, and our anxieties, are qualitatively different, not simply a reiteration of the past; as Beckerman writes, “In the same way that a car was never really just a faster horse, talking online was not just a virtual café.” Digital technologies have changed our love lives and our politics, not to mention the ways in which we talk, think, imagine, study, read, write, cook, eat, shop, dress, photograph, draw, invent, teach, work, play, have sex, and raise our children. (No doubt I’ve left out a lot.) Beckerman contends that the Internet “is where we live our lives in the twenty-first century. It has almost completely annihilated”—a startling word—“all those other modes of communication.”
Some of us fear that an untamable monster has been unleashed. Perhaps that is, as my students would say, a generational thing—social media, they tell me, is essential to their personal and intellectual lives. But the experiences of the young activists in Tehran, Cairo, Miami, and Minneapolis suggest that they too share that fear.
Beckerman’s first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), was a study of Jewish refuseniks in the USSR. ↩
Crown, 2022. ↩