The stunning live images out of Egypt last week had millions of Americans glued to their TVs and computer screens. Once again, cable TV news brought real-life, real-time history into our homes and offices. The narrative was irresistible, the suspense palpable and the stakes high. The Egyptian revolution was real reality TV at its best.
But the allure wasn't just news value, or even human drama. For Americans, who were far more engaged in the events than were Europeans — at least based on a quick survey of newspaper coverage — there was also a mixture of self-congratulation and envy.
In his blog for Commentary magazine, Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an L.A. Times opinion page contributing editor, wrote that he imagined most Americans were "rooting wholeheartedly for the protestors against the thugs." The New York Times' David Brooks gushed that it was "truly a great time to be alive" because "every few years we turn on the TV and we see the main square of some foreign capital filled with people and before long, a dictator falls."
Revolution is our provenance. We tend to view ourselves, with pride, as the founders of the modern democratic rebellion. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the wake of the stirring (and admittedly problematic) French Revolution: "This ball of liberty … is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe, at least the enlightened part of it. For light & liberty go together. It is our glory that we first put it into motion."
Last week, as we saw others attempting to throw off the yoke of tyranny, we not only congratulated them but also ourselves, for having shown the world the way. "Egyptians: They're Just Like Us," read a headline on Esquire magazine's blog. While watching events in Cairo, the writer couldn't help but think of our own "messy and imperfect democratic revolution."
Even observers who weren't harking back to the Minutemen and the Declaration of Independence still found a way for the U.S. to take some credit. There were countless news reports full of talk about the role U.S.-invented social media platforms played in fostering the unrest.
"To be clear," declared one Hollywood journalist on the Huffington Post, "the visionary products created by Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Evan Williams at Twitter are foundation stones of what is becoming a regional revolution."
That can no doubt be easily disputed (the Indian-born, New York-based filmmaker Parvez Sharma, for one, lost patience with "self-congratulatory social networking types in the West" when he posted on the website Mondoweiss that not only don't most Egyptians have cellphones (they make calls at kiosks), a "substantial" number have never used the Internet.
But the point isn't whether American history and our innovations are owed credit for global "democracy movements," but that we try to claim that credit, one way or another.
In addition to the self-congratulation, one could also sense what might be called revolution envy. President Obama called the Egyptian demonstrators "an inspiration to the people around the world, including here in the United States." With our politics so mired in division and bitterness, I can't help but think Americans watching the roller-coaster events — especially the brave turnout in Tahrir Square — were on some level yearning for something to unify us, something to remind us of the excitement and joys of democracy.
For decades, critics have accused television of undermining our ties to community and our willingness to participate. It's been said we've turned into a bystander society, and TV is a good part of the problem.
There's something to it; we're revolution voyeurs. But every time we fixate on the images of a revolution somewhere on the globe, we also have the potential to be more than bystanders. We can revalidate and renew our political ideals. As events have unfolded and keep unfolding in Egypt and Tunisia, and so many of us have had a chance to see something of ourselves reflected in the streets of Cairo, we may finally have forged a bond with Arabs — with Muslims — a world away.
In these fractious times, that's not bad for a week spent watching TV. Stay tuned.