Saturday, February 12, 2011

Digital Digest.

Well, another Arab dictator has been sent packing, which means it’s time to get back to baseball. And not a moment too soon, what with Pitchers And Catchers Reporting on Monday (I capitalize the event out of respect).

I’m pretty sure I’m the last Royals blogger to chime in on the Royals’ promotional idea of conducting a contest which allowed bloggers to be credentialed, and hold their own press conference with Royals’ officials, for the Royals Fanfest on January 21st and 22nd.

I thought it was a good idea, if not a ground-breaking one – I think the Pirates and Giants held similar events for their bloggers. It’s a sign that the Royals – along with a lot of sports franchises – are slowly catching on to the idea that sports coverage in this century is a lot different than in the last. Every year, more and more fans are getting news and analysis of their favorite teams from what we might call “non-professional” sources: sources that have no insider access but are informed, opinionated, and well-written. And more and more fans are using the opportunity to engage with other passionate fans online.

In the long run, having a more involved fan base can only be a good thing for a sports franchise. In the short run, teams have to figure out how to encourage that involvement while still keeping some sort of barrier that prevents any Joe Fan from starting a blog that’s profane, uninformed, and unread, then crashing the press box at Kauffman Stadium.

I was worried that this might be a window dressing event, where the Royals randomly pick fans with no blogging experience, or where they hand-select the five people in the blogosphere who praised Dayton Moore for the Jason Kendall signing. Fortunately, judging from the winners, the contest was legitimate. The guys (and one gal) who were picked are, for the most part, well-known members of the Royals’ online community, and they don’t just blow rainbows and sunshine when they write.

I have to give the Royals extra credit, as well, for the truly inspired lineup they trotted out there. As expected, Dayton Moore was the first to take questions, and then Ned Yost held court. But the Royals finished with a pair of players – Billy Butler, an obvious choice…and Jeff Francoeur.

My initial reaction was to Frenchy’s inclusion, I must admit, kind of juvenile – I reveled in the train-wreck image of bloggers asking Francoeur to his face variations of the question, “why do you suck so bad?” But after some reflection, I realized how diabolically brilliant a move this was. Knowing how the blogosphere felt towards Francoeur, the Royals (specifically VP of Communications Mike Swanson and Director of Media Relations Dave Holtzman) decided to unleash the full force of Francoeur’s intangibles on his biggest critics.

Friendliness? Articulate, well-thought-out answers? A willingness to admit his weaknesses as a player and recognize the criticisms leveled against him? The confidence that he is addressing those weaknesses and will prove his doubters wrong this season? It was all there – a tour de force of an interview. By the time he finished speaking – and you can download the entire press conference here, courtesy of Nick Scott from Broken Bat Single – you couldn’t help but root for Francoeur to prove his doubters wrong. Not even if you were one of those doubters, and not even if – judging from what the Braves’ and Mets’ contingent of bloggers have written – you knew he’s played this act before.

Like I said: diabolical. Well-played, guys. Well-played.

I don’t know if this will become a regular event, but I hope it will. I think the Royals understand that independent bloggers are an inexorable part of the future of sports coverage, and they might as well embrace it. When Swanson and I met and buried the hatchet at the Winter Meetings in December 2009 – over a year ago – he told me even then that he was hoping to plan blogger-specific media events in the future. This was clearly a premeditated event, so I’m hopeful that it won’t be an isolated one.

And from my vantage point here in Chicago, it seemed like it went well – with the exception of one borderline-creepy question asked of Billy Butler, the bloggers acquitted themselves well in asking pointed but respectful questions, and the Royals acquitted themselves well by answering those questions with the same seriousness that they would answer questions from the mainstream media. That doesn’t necessarily mean answering the questions head-on – as Scott put it, Moore did a terrific job of “filibustering” to answer the question he wanted to answer. But then, Moore does that when he’s answering questions from Soren Petro or Sam Mellinger as well. Being a part of the media means accepting that sometimes the answers you get aren’t the answers you’re looking for – but even those answers are revealing in their own way.

Judging from what those bloggers felt about the event afterwards, it seems like it accomplished what the Royals wanted it to: they gave bloggers credibility, earned goodwill from a community of their most devoted fans, presented the Royals as a transparent organization unafraid of a little criticism, and did so without compromising anyone’s integrity. There are precious few win-win situations in sports, so even though this wasn’t a momentous event, it’s worth tipping your cap to the Royals for thinking outside the box a little and coming up with one.

The event also resurrected the topic of whether bloggers should be treated like full-fledged members of the sports media, which is to say whether they should receive press credentials, be allowed to sit in the press box, etc. How you answer that question depends in large part on whether you feel that press credentials are a perk of the job, or a prerequisite. If you think that press credentials are some kind of an award for hard work, then you can make a solid case that the most passionate bloggers, who spend as many hours a week covering the Royals as most professional sportswriters, deserve credentials as compensation for their services.

But if you think that the press box and clubhouse access are there simply to facilitate the job of people who cover the team from an up-close perspective, then it’s hard to make the case that bloggers need that kind of access. By definition, a blogger doesn’t need that access; the fact that we are capable of blogging in the first place is proof of that.

I don’t think that bloggers need access to do our job, but I do think that we can do our job better with it. I was in the press box for the four-game series against Baltimore at Kauffman Stadium last July. My credentials came courtesy of my work with 810 WHB, and it certainly made that job easier – for one thing, we broadcast our trade deadline show from inside the stadium, from the very room that the press conference was held in. And there’s no better place to write a column while watching a ballgame than in a press box. But truthfully, the most valuable part of being credentialed for me wasn’t the access to the press box or even the clubhouse – it was the access to the writers and broadcasters and other people who cover the team. The ability to network and meet with people who cover the game professionally – that’s the kind of access that a blogger can benefit from.

I could name a half-dozen Royals bloggers (I don’t want to name names and inadvertently leave someone out) who deserve the same opportunities that I’ve had. And I think that the Royals (and all of MLB) should begin re-considering their across-the-board denial of credentials for all bloggers. But I don’t blame them for taking it slow. There are benefits to giving bloggers credentials, but they are modest compared to the potential harm that would come from giving the wrong person access.

And I think as bloggers we need to remember that press credentials are a double-edged sword. Yes, it means you have access to the players and front office types that you write about every day – but it also means the players and front office types have access to you. Would I write the harsh (but fair!) criticisms of people like Jason Kendall and Yuniesky Betancourt and Nick Swartz if I knew I was going to see them every day?

On the one hand, you probably should never write something about a person that you wouldn’t be willing to say to their face. On the other hand, it’s one thing to say something personal about a person’s conduct or character, and quite another to simply point out how ineffective they are at playing a game. Implicit in my criticisms of Betancourt is that he is still 100 times better at playing baseball than I am – criticizing his performance in no way ought to suggest that he is a lousy human being. Whatever I say about the effectiveness of a player or a trainer or a general manager, I try not to comment about their off-field behavior or character – and when I do, it almost invariably is something that has already been reported by a reputable news source.

I think that saying that Player X is a terrible player is completely within my rights as a blogger, because Player X’s ability to play baseball only matters if you accept the fictional construct that baseball actually matters. Professional sports only have as much meaning as its fans give it. If you don't care about how good a player is, you are tearing down the construct that it matters how good any player is. It’s far better for Yuniesky Betancourt that I rail about how bad he is – and by railing about how bad he is, I give relevance to the game of baseball that he is so bad at, which draws fans to the ballpark and keeps television sets on and pays his salary – than for me to ignore his performance and spend my summer evenings at the movie theater or playing golf instead.

But I’m human, and it would be hard for me to write unflattering things about a person who I run into regularly, even if they are unflattering things about his ability to play an ultimately meaningless game. Being a blogger is liberating because we can be brutally honest without repercussions, but sometimes being brutally honest means being, well, brutal. I enjoy having press credentials every now and then, but I wouldn’t want to have them all the time. When you’re in the press box, you’re a journalist first and a fan second. But I’m a fan first and a journalist second, and I want to stay that way. I suspect most bloggers feel the same.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Roots of a Revolution.

(It’s been over six months since I went off-topic on my blog, so in light of current events, I hope you’ll forgive me if I grab hold of the third rail once again. You’ve been warned.)

Every few years I travel to Damascus, Syria, where my parents were born and grew up, and where I still have my maternal grandmother and dozens of relatives on both sides of my family. These trips are an obligation more than a vacation; I never learned to speak Arabic as a child, and it’s hard not to feel like a fish out of water in a country where you don’t speak the language. But I go, because I have family to see. My parents left their entire life behind to move to America 40 years ago; the least I can do is to repay the favor for a fortnight every couple of summers.

My last trip to Damascus was in the summer of 2006, when public opinion in the Middle East towards America was at its absolute nadir. To be clear, the frustration and anger towards America has almost always been directed at our government, and almost never directed at its citizens. The only reactions I’ve ever received as an American in the Arab world are respect and occasionally a little jealousy. But there’s no question that there was an unpleasant vibe in the air the last time I visited. America’s nation-building adventure in Iraq was, at the time, a fiasco wrapped in a disaster stuffed into a catastrophe.

It will be decades before any kind of final judgment can be written about the invasion of Iraq, but in 2006, anarchy reigned, innocent civilians were being slaughtered by the hundreds each day, terrorist groups had seized the upper hand, and the face of America in the Arab world was the pictures of the tortures at Abu Ghraib. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees had swarmed into Syria seeking asylum. The week after I returned home from Damascus, war erupted between Israel and Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon, and soon thousands of Lebanese refugees were crossing into Syria from the other side. It was a bad time.

On the last day of my trip, my parents had invited the entire extended family over for dinner. Sitting outside in the backyard on a peaceful night, it was easy to forget the chaos that was hemming the country in from all sides. I struck up a conversation with my uncle, Mohammad Ali. (Yes, Mohammad Ali. There’s a reason Cassius Clay chose that name – they are the two most common names in the Muslim world.) Mohammad Ali has always been the uncle I’ve been closest with; the youngest of my mom’s seven siblings, he came to America for college when I was a young child, learned English fluently, graduated from Ohio State – I’ve learned to forgive him – and then moved to Wichita to work as an aeronautical engineer. After almost 15 years in America, he returned to Syria to raise his family and serve his country, and started a successful software company.

Eventually the conversation turned – as all conversations in the Arab world do – towards politics. I asked Mohammad Ali what he thought of the United States’ decision to invade Iraq. By way of background, I will admit to being deeply, deeply ambivalent about the run-up to war in 2003, which is to say I was much less anti-war than most of my friends. I had no illusions that the stated reasons for war – the weapons of mass destruction, to say nothing of the fictional but oft-repeated links between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 – were anything but convenient excuses. I had no doubts that the Bush administration was motivated by realpolitik – pure national self-interest, the desire to gain a base of power in the region, secure oil reserves, and eliminate a man who had been a thorn in the side of U.S. foreign policy for fifteen years.

And still, in the end, I reluctantly supported the invasion. I supported it because I saw no internal solution for the fundamental problem of the Arab world: the political oppression of its people.

There was a time, in the 1950s, when Syria was a democracy. It wasn’t a particularly stable democracy, with presidents that changed with the seasons, but it was a democracy. Elections were held, checks and balances were in place, and a judge’s ruling could not be overturned on the whim of a politician. And then a coup brought to power a cadre of men who wanted power for power’s sake and had the military force needed to keep it. Not only in Syria; a coup established dictators in Iraq (Saddam Hussein) and Libya (Muammar Qaddafi) and Algeria and Tunisia and Yemen and elsewhere. In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser was a national hero for helping to push the British out of the country in 1952, but soon he established a lineage of rulers with absolute power. When Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1982, his successor Hosni Mubarak took advantage of the security crisis by claiming vast, unchecked “emergency” powers for himself. Those “emergency” laws have been in effect for nearly three decades.

In 2003, the only country in the Arab world with anything that remotely resembled a democracy was Lebanon, where instead a civil war was fought for 15 years from 1975 to 1990. Every other country was either a monarchy de facto, where a leader only left office in a coffin and was succeeded by his son, or by a monarchy de jure, as in the Kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Jordan and the smaller states in the Persian Gulf.

It had been this way my entire life. Hafez al-Assad was the President of Syria since before I was born. He continued to rule Syria with an iron fist until he died in 2000. At the time of his death, his son Bashar was only 34, and Syria’s constitution required the President to be at least 40. The day after Hafez died, an emergency council convened and voted to change the constitution to lower the age requirement to – surprise! – 34. Bashar has been President ever since.

And over the past 40 years, the Arab world has hardly progressed economically, educationally, or technologically while the rest of the world passed them by. In 1950, most of the countries in the Arab world had a higher GDP than South Korea. Today South Korea exports cars and computers to America; the main exports from the Arab world are oil, oil, oil, and maybe olives and dates.

It’s no great mystery why the economies of the region have been so stagnant. In Syria, the reward for creating a successful business is that someone connected to the government pays you a visit and says, “What a wonderful business you’ve built. Give me ownership of half of your company, or I’ll shut it down.” (Please don’t try to conflate this with taxation; this was protection money to the mafia that ran the country.) More than the political oppression, the crushing corruption that seeped down from the top of the government to the lowest levels, such that you can’t cross the border from Syria to Lebanon and back without paying a bribe to the customs officials, castrated a nation.

A well-armed and loyal military was able to castrate any opposition to the regime. Most notoriously, in 1982 there was an armed uprising in Syria, in the city of Hama, which was led by members of the Muslim Brotherhood – you’ve probably heard that group in the news. Hafez al-Assad sent the army to the outskirts of the city, and the order was given to open fire. The city was bombarded by air and by artillery for three weeks before the army moved in; the military didn’t distinguish between militants in the street and people hiding in the homes. Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people, mostly innocent bystanders, were killed. One of my best friends' mother is from Hama; she lost several of her brothers in the attack. It has been described as “the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East”. In America, news of the massacre was buried in the back pages, in small font.

The people’s ultimate weapons against a tyrant are time and mortality, but even those weapons are ineffective against familial succession. Hosni Mubarak has long been planning to transfer power to his son Gamal upon his death. The only two men more frightening to the Iraqi people than Saddam Hussein were his sons Uday and Qusay. The Syrian people thought things might be different when Bashar took over for his father. Bashar was, in fact, not originally meant to be the successor; his older brother Bassel had long been groomed for that role. Bashar went to medical school in Syria, and was finishing his ophthalmology residency in England when Bassel died in a one-vehicle car accident.

So the expectation is that Bashar, having seen the virtues of democracy up close, having been thrust into absolute power unexpectedly, would be uncommonly willing to make reforms that might the people a greater voice. Ten years later, Syria has opened up economically from the Soviet-inspired ways of the 1980s, when my dad had to pay a smuggler to bring his mother a new refrigerator from Lebanon. (When I was a kid in the early 1980s, the currency exchange rate was 8 Syrian pounds to one dollar. By the time Hafez Al-Assad died, the exchange rate was close to 50 to 1.) But it’s as corrupt as ever, and speaking out against the government is as dangerous as ever.

Which is why, in 2003, I came to the conclusion that an invasion of Iraq might, in the long term, lead to a better outcome than the status quo. No Arab leader had been more brutal to his people than Saddam Hussein. Sanctions to Iraq had only led to crippling poverty and a devastating public health crisis that had killed thousands, without weakening Hussein’s grip on the country. Without external pressure, Hussein was going to terrorize his country until the day he died, at which point he would be succeeded by one of his sons, who inherited their father’s brutality but missed out on his intelligence. So I decided that a war, even a bloody war and the unrest that would likely follow, was a better outcome than another 40 years like the 40 years that had just passed. I thought that this was the right war, even though it was fought for all the wrong reasons.

I would soon come to regret my position. I learned that there is no such thing as the right war fought for the wrong reasons. I learned that there is one form of government that is worse than totalitarianism, and that’s unbridled anarchy. I was astonished by our government’s plan for what to do with Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, a plan which apparently involved unicorns and rainbows and a mass singing of Kumbaya. I was dumbfounded by the atrocities that American soldiers were capable of, and were permitted to do by their superiors, in Abu Ghraib and other places.

And still, in the summer of 2006, I wasn’t convinced that the Iraq War was a bad idea. I still saw no other alternative for the people of Iraq and the entire Arab world other than continued dictatorship, continued political oppression, and the continued squandering of an entire region’s human potential.

I shared this opinion with my uncle, before asking him for his. He had lived in America long enough to understand the complexities and contradictions of our nation. I figured he might understand.

He sighed deeply. “Rany, I want democracy to come to the Middle East as much as you. But this –” he gestured theatrically – “this is not the way to bring democracy to the Arabs. I don’t understand why America didn’t just give them time to work.”

“Well in that case, Khalo,” I said, “how do you expect democracy to happen? You’ve been stuck with brutal dictators since before I was born – why should I expect anything different before I die?”

“Have faith, Rany.” My uncle, a devout Muslim, pointed his index finger towards the sky. “Give them time to work.”

“Them? God and His angels?”

He looked at me strangely, and then laughed. “The satellites.”

There are many methods a dictator uses to keep himself in power. Fear is Plan A, of course. It’s not enough for the people to be afraid of standing up to the government; the people must be afraid of saying anything remotely critical of the government. Freedom of speech is truly the most basic of freedoms; without it, the people can not organize to defend every other freedom they hold dear.

In the 1980s, during the darkest era of the Syrian regime, the government didn’t bother to imprison people who spoke out against it. That was far too civilized a response. They went one better: they imprisoned the dissidents’ children instead. They tortured and, all too frequently, eventually killed them. (When Hafez al-Assad lost his own son in a car accident, well, you can guess what the reaction was. Id quot circumiret, circumveniat.)

I have a close friend here in Chicago – it’s probably better that I not identify him by name – whose grandfather back in Syria made the mistake of denouncing the Syrian government in the early 1980s. They came for his son and threw him in prison. His son was 16 at the time.

The son – my friend’s uncle – was one of the lucky ones. He was released after ten years; his sister in America got him a visa to emigrate here. He’s been married almost 15 years, has four kids, and owns a gas station on the south side. Not bad for someone who went from high school sophomore to the gulag overnight. (And you thought your high school years sucked.)

Fear is a powerful weapon, but eventually fear can be overcome. Add ignorance, though, and the synergy between the two is formidable. If the people don’t know there’s a better way to live, they have no reason to fear in the first place. I’m sure “1984” is on the required reading list at Dictator Finishing School.

I’m not an expert on these things, but I suspect that nowhere on Earth has a dictatorship been more successful at keeping its people ignorant than in North Korea. The average North Korean probably thinks that not only is the world flat, but that it ends abruptly at the demilitarized zone. I don’t think most North Koreans have any idea that the rest of the world looks upon their nation as the biggest hellhole on the planet. That level of ignorance is horrifying, and a horrifyingly effective way to maintain power.

The Arab people were never that cut off from the world, but they were close. In the 1980s, your television choices were Syria Channel 1 and Syria Channel 2. Channel 2 might show the occasional inoffensive US drama – “Little House on the Prairie” – with Arabic subtitles. If you were really lucky, you might be able to pick up Lebanese television.

And then the satellites came.

There was no specific moment when the satellite revolution began. But at some point in the early 1990s, as technology made satellite dishes progressively cheaper and smaller, eventually they reached the point where most Arabs could afford one, and could fit one onto their balcony or install it on a perch outside a window. There was no such thing as cable TV; if you wanted TV choices, you needed a dish. By the mid-1990s, an apartment building looked from the outside like a satellite dish farm.

The authorities didn’t like this new development, but they didn’t resist it too much. More TV choices meant more bland entertainment, which meant more ways for the masses to while away their time without resisting the government. There was no danger that the people would take to the streets because they had seen too many episodes of Baywatch. So the Arab governments mostly looked the other way as their people feasted on American action movies and European soccer matches.

And then, in 1996, Al Jazeera arrived.

The Al Jazeera channel has long been misunderstood in America. This wasn’t always the case. In March of 2001, six months before 9/11, 60 Minutes ran a long and flattering piece on how Al Jazeera was helping to open up the Arab world. But then 9/11 happened, and then Osama bin Laden sent his videotapes to Al Jazeera, and soon the network was branded in the United States as Al-Qaeda’s mouthpiece.

The best analogy I’ve seen for why bin Laden would send his tapes to Al Jazeera is the case of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who sent his Manifesto to the New York Times. Granted that Kaczynski’s politics were dosed with a generous amount of crazy pills, his anti-government stance is generally classified as right-wing. The New York Times is generally characterized as a left-of-center newspaper. Kaczynski sent his Manifesto to the New York Times not because they shared his point of view, but because they were the Paper of Record, the most respected news source in America. He figured sending his Manifesto to the Times (and the Washington Post) would grant him the maximum exposure, and he was right; the Times published his rant, his own brother read it and realized who the author was, and now Kaczynski spends his days in an 8-by-8 cell.

So it goes with bin Laden, who sends his tapes to Al Jazeera not because they sympathize with his Islamic nihilism, but because by 2001, they were the most respected news source in the Arab world. And just as the Times’ publication of Kaczynski’s Manifesto gave him what he wanted – publicity – but also gave the world clues to his identity, Al Jazeera’s airing of those tapes serves a double purpose. The US government condemns those tapes – but you can’t tell me they’re not also watching them frame-by-frame, looking for clues as to bin Laden’s whereabouts and intentions.

Labeling Al Jazeera as simply a tool of Al-Qaeda misses the entire point. Al Jazeera was, from its first day on the air, something the Arab world had never seen before: a television channel in Arabic, available to almost everyone in the Arab world, that provided a frank and reasonably unbiased source of news. It provided the unvarnished truth, and that made it extremely dangerous. If there was corruption going on in Jordan, it was reported. If there was a government crackdown in Egypt, it was reported. If a Saudi dissident living in exile in England had some scandalous information about the Saudi royal family, it was reported. All you need to know about Al Jazeera is that its greatest critics are the Arab governments, who have applied all kinds of pressure on Qatar – where Al Jazeera is based – to tone down the rhetoric.

It was not and is not a perfect news source. Al Jazeera has its own biases, and has been criticized for having a staunch pro-Arab stance in its reporting, particularly when it comes to Israel and Palestine. It’s been described, not inaccurately, as the Arab version of Fox News. And that’s not a bad thing. Whatever your feelings are about Fox News, I think we can all agree that in a world where the government had banned from the airwaves any news reports other than what’s shown on PBS, Fox News would be a breath of fresh air. In a world where Lyndon LaRouche had deposed the federal government and established autocratic rule, Fox News would be the voice of the resistance. That’s what Al Jazeera is to the Arab world, and the demonization of the network in America has been both profoundly sad and counterproductive – counterproductive in the sense that ignoring Al Jazeera’s positive impact on the region is part of the reason why our government has been caught so off-guard by the events of the last six weeks.

(Full disclosure: when Al Jazeera launched its English channel in 2006, my sister Rana briefly worked out of Washington DC in their department of public relations for North America. Yes, I know – she worked in PR for Al Jazeera. The punchlines write themselves.)

For the last 15 years, then, the Arab world has had the access that was denied them for so long. They’ve seen the truth about how oppressive and hypocritical their own governments are, and they’ve seen the truth about how messy and imperfect and yet ultimately how ennobling and empowering Western democracies are. (In the words of Winston Churchill, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.”) And having already opened the barn door to letting the masses own satellite dishes, the governments of the region were mostly helpless to do anything about it. Baywatch, it turns out, was a Trojan horse.

The seeds that were planted 15 years ago took a long time to bear fruit, but they’re blooming now, and the fruit is sweet. Six weeks ago, the Arab world was an unbroken chain of dictatorships. On December 17th, protests a Tunisian man named Muhammad Bouazizi, a college graduate who had been reduced to working as a fruit vendor – illegally – set himself on fire to protest the hopelessness of his plight. Bouazizi, who died of his burns a few weeks later, is the Archduke Ferdinand of the Arab revolution – for a region that was fuel-soaked kindling, he was the spark.

Al Jazeera – and other satellite channels which have followed in its wake – supplied the fuel, broadcasting the protests in Tunisia to an enraptured Arab world – nowhere more enraptured than Tunisia itself. Protests which began in the small town of Sidi Bouzid soon spread to the capital of Tunis; on January 6th most of the nation’s lawyers went on strike, followed by teachers the next day. The protests were also fueled by, speaking of maligned news sources, a Wikileaks cable that described rampant corruption by the Tunisian government, mostly by the family of “President” Ben Ali. On January 14th, Ben Ali and his family – along with a rumored 1.5 tons of gold – were on a plane out of the country. I’m 35 years old, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen an Arab dictator deposed by the will of the people.

Eleven days later, a revolution began in Egypt which might – emphasize might – depose another one. And while Tunisia is the pinky finger of the Arab world, Egypt is its heart. The population of Egypt is approximately 80 million, four times that of Syria and nearly eight times larger than Tunisia’s. I presume I don’t have to go into details about the Egyptian revolution; whereas the Tunisian revolution was almost completely ignored by Western media until the final days, they’ve been a little bit quicker to catch on to the fact that what’s going on in Egypt is potentially momentous.

The speed and finality of the Tunisian revolution caught everyone – thankfully, the Tunisian government included – off-guard. When the protesters hit the streets of Cairo on January 25th, the Egyptian government was more prepared. It took aim at what it deemed to be the root source of the protests: technology. They tried to shut down Al Jazeera (threatening the journalists who work at the station, briefly imprisoning some of them, forcing the network off the air for a time, even burning down their station), Twitter and Facebook (turning off the nation’s entire internet), and cell phone communication (shutting down all cell phone networks).

It almost worked. But it’s hard to put out a fire once it’s lit. It’s especially hard to put down a revolution when the army, as it did in Tunisia, refuses to open fire on peaceful protesters. Meanwhile, in the last two weeks, there have been staged protests in Yemen, and in Jordan, and in Algeria. (In Syria, for a variety of reasons that are too complicated to get into here, attempts to form protests fizzled badly.) I feel like I’ve stepped into an alternate universe, one in which the Arab people are not doomed to living their lives without political expression, without recourse for their grievances, without due process when their rights are infringed upon. It’s a heady experience.

And suddenly Al Jazeera is being appreciated in a new light. Americans are even starting to ask why Al Jazeera English, which was just launched in 2006 and is one of the most-watched TV networks in the world, is almost completely unavailable in America. Over the past 10 days, the web traffic to Al Jazeera English, which streams online, has increased over 2000% – and over half of that traffic comes from America.

Where does it go from here? If only I knew. Mubarak has proven far more difficult to dislodge than Ben Ali, leading to an impasse that shows no signs of being broken. The American response to the Egyptian revolution has been predictably pathetic. I say “pathetic” because, presented with an opportunity to support a populist uprising against a dictator, a genuinely grassroots movement to establish a democracy in the Arab world, the greatest democracy on Earth has dithered and hemmed and hawed, trying to find a way to support the protesters without pissing off Mubarak too much. I say “predictably” because the reason the United States is trying to play both sides is because while Mubarak is a dictator, he’s our dictator. Egypt has been a reliable ally to the United States, for the past 30 years, and in return our government has looked the other way while he’s ruled over his people with impunity.

It’s telling that there has been very little criticism of the President by the Republican leadership regarding his Egyptian policies – there seems to be a consensus across the political spectrum that the path Obama is following is not only the right path, it’s the only path. That this path involves the USA telling the Egyptian people to be patient about their pesky grievances like liberty and freedom and democracy is simply a manifestation of how morally bankrupt our foreign policy towards the Arab world has been for the last half-century.

You know all those Arab dictatorships? With a few exceptions (Libya, Syria), they’re all allies of America. While we fought two wars against Saddam Hussein, we originally supported him when he launched a pointless and bloody war against Iran for eight years. They keep the oil flowing and keep the Israel/Palestine conflict from escalating, and for them we suspend the bedrock principle of western democracy, the one that says that rulers require the consent of the governed. Hell, we might even suspend reality long enough to claim that they have the consent of the governed.

Barely a week ago, Vice President Joe Biden said of Hosni Mubarak, “I would not refer to him as a dictator.” (Personally, I thought Biden really went beyond the pale when he continued, “And I would not refer to Yuniesky Betancourt as a defensive liability.”) On the other side of the aisle, Dick Cheney went one further, saying of Mubarak, “He’s been a good man, he’s been a good friend and ally of the United States.” With allies like these…well, as an Egyptian tweeted on Thursday: “Dear US government: We don’t hate you because we hate your freedom; we hate you because you hate our freedom.”

The refusal by the US to force Mubarak out of office is partly out of recognition for his allegiance these past three decades, and partly out of fear for what the alternative might be. Specifically, the Western world is freaked out about the possibility that if the Egyptian people are free to choose their rulers, they might choose to give power to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not a benevolent organization, but neither is it Al-Qaeda. Despite what you may have read, it is not a nihilistic movement that seeks to subjugate the world under the banner of Islamic fundamentalism. It is a political Islamic movement, in a country where all political dissent is suppressed, and where many of its adherents are or have been imprisoned for their beliefs. Oppression radicalizes dissenters, so it is not surprising that extremist branches have splintered off of the main movement.

It’s one thing to be wary of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s quite another to be so afraid of them that you would prefer to put the Egyptian people’s chance for democratic representation on hold – indefinitely. One of the reasons the Muslim Brotherhood has so much popularity is because, having never been given the opportunity to govern, they can offer a utopian vision of the future to their supporters without ever having to deliver. Whatever power they might gain in democratic elections comes attached with the responsibility to deliver on their promises. If they don’t create jobs and make the trains run on time, they’ll be thrown out of office in the next election just like every other political party. And it becomes impossible for Islamists to lash out at the government when they’re part of the government.

On the other side of this, let’s say you were a oppressive dictator – let’s call you “Hosni Mubarak” – who enjoys good relations with America, and the American government tried to gently nudge you towards relinquishing some of your power. Let’s say that the American government considers Muslim terrorism to be its greatest existential threat. Let’s say that there was a small but vocal minority of Muslim activists in your country. Wouldn’t you do everything in your power to convince your American friends that you were the only person keeping those Muslim activists from becoming Muslim terrorists, facts be damned? Machiavelli would approve, and I’m pretty sure that “The Prince” is the first book on that dictator reading list.

Fortunately, after buying Mubarak’s act for so long, our government (and many journalists) are coming to the realization that the Muslim Brotherhood has a place in a future democratic Egypt. The comparisons of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt with the Iranian revolution are incredibly facile. Aside from the fact that the Brotherhood does not have nearly as much popular support as the Ayatollah Khomeini did, Iran is a Shi’ite country, while the Muslims of Egypt are mostly Sunni. It’s like saying that Baptists are going to take their cue from the Vatican.

As for the notion that a new government might refuse to honor the peace agreements that Egypt has signed with Israel, and might threaten Israeli security, I can only say this: a true and lasting peace can only occur by the consent of the people on both sides. A peace treaty signed with a dictator is, by its very definition, an unstable one. Unless you plan to consign the Egyptian people to being ruled by dictators in perpetuity, at some point you have to let democracy flourish and take your chances. The Egyptian people are dealing with raging unemployment, a moribund economy, food shortages – but they have had, for over three decades, peace with Israel. I think it unlikely that they want to add a new war with a more-powerful neighbor to their list of miseries.

Last weekend, a group of friends of mine had a spirited argument over a single question: Did George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq help to accelerate the move towards democracy in the Arab world, by trying to implant a democracy where once an odious tyrant ruled? Or did it hinder the democratic impulse in the region, because Iraq descended into such chaos that it made dictatorships look stable by comparison? I can tell you that we didn’t reach any kind of consensus.

But I can also tell you that, after thinking about it some more, I think the question is kind of a red herring. I think that our intervention in Iraq has little bearing on the events in Tunisia and Egypt that have every leader in the Arab world soiling his pants. What has happened these last six weeks would have happened whether or not we invested a trillion dollars and thousands of American lives in Iraq.

I think that my uncle was right. A satellite can do what an army can’t. An army can overthrow a government, but a satellite can empower the people to do it themselves. An army can only coerce; a satellite can convince. It’s too early to know whether this really is the Berlin Wall moment for the Arab world, or just their Tiananmen Square. It’s too early to know whether our government will support the green shoots of democracy in the Middle East, or sell out its principles and the Arab people in favor of “stability” once again. But if the Arab people are now convinced that they control their own destiny; that they’re entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and refuse to settle for anything less than a government of the people, by the people, and for the people: well, I’d say 2011 is shaping up to be a pretty good year.

I can only pray that our own government remembers that the principles worth fighting for in 1776 are still worth defending – or at least not worth compromising – today.

UPDATE: If you're still unsure of the power of satellite TV and instant communication to the people, consider this. Over the past few days, it seemed that the power of the protests was flagging a little, after the Obama administration (foolishly, in my opinion) decided to throw its support to a very slow transition led by Vice President (and Army general) Omar Suleiman. Then yesterday, Wael Ghonim, one of the bloggers who helped to spark the protests with his Facebook page, (and who is a high-ranking executive for Google in the region,) went on satellite TV hours after he was released from custody, where he had been detained for the past 12 days. Today, this is the response in Tahrir square.