By Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman
Simon Wiesenthal Center
In his recent acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio said this before the Swedish Academy: “Who knows, if the Internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler’s criminal plot would not have succeeded-ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day.” So do the dramatic protests in Iran, dubbed by some “The Twitter Revolution,” make Le Clezio a prophet in his own time?
There’s no doubt that cyberfreedom’s promise is limitless, its palpable impact truly global. Evidence: Blogger Xeni Jardin, who visited a remote Guatemalan village with no television or even telephone landlines but with a few inexpensive cellphones, and a nearby Internet café. Village elder Don Victoriano absorbed news of Barak Obama’s victory over his Hotmail account: “If a black man can enter the Casa Blanca, maybe a Mayan person one day can become president of Guatemala.”
In the 1960s, technological guru Marshall McLuhan trumpeted the emerging “global village” in which “the medium is the message.” Today, it still is for those who see the Internet as the herald of a new interactive politics of citizen activism via social networking, e-mail petitions, virtual town meetings, and online organizing. Those who view Obama’s campaign as the coming of age of “the Net Generation” also point to other global manifestations–from Ukraine’s cellphone-driven “Orange Revolution” to South Korea’s “mad cow” protests against tainted meat imports orchestrated by text messaging teenagers.
In terms of historical hypotheticals, it’s possible to imagine digital technologies — from web sites to cellphones and text messaging — making a real difference. Just think if these options were available to Soviet dissidents and refuseniks who, back in the 1970s, were limited to communicate by secretly hand-written Samizdats. Maybe Glasnost and Perestroika would have come a decade earlier. Or just possibly there would have been a different outcome in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had Chinese protesters had been able to communicate — and organize — instantaneously.
Or maybe not. It remains to be seen if real tanks or thuggish shock troops like Ahmadinejad’s Basij militia can be ultimately trumped by virtual protests. Would YouTube posts from inside the Munich Beer Hall where Hitler launched his abortive 1923 putsch made the Nazis look ridiculous — or, more likely, create a cult following among young people in search of a strong leader? Would smuggled cellphone videos from Auschwitz have horrified and mobilized the German public or world public opinion to stop the factory of death? Not likely, given that images of mass murder actually sent back home by Germany’s “willing executioners” failed to change anything. There is little reason to believe that the Internet could have stopped genocide in 20th century Europe any more than it has in 21st-Century Africa in Darfur. (more)
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian, is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.