Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Lessons of the Past for Activists of the Present and Future

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Lessons of the Past for Activists of the Present and Future

Article excerpt

Lessons of the Past for Activists of the Present and Future

When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood. Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. New York: The Dial Press, 2009. Clothbound. 287 pages. $27.00. ISBN 978-0-385-34068- 7.

The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Evgeny Morozov. New York: PublicAffairs, 2011. Clothbound. 408 pages. $27.95. ISBN 978-1-58648-874-1.

In 2011, Time magazine named "The Protester" as its Person of the Year, primarily invoking the demonstrators in various Middle Eastern countries that coalesced under the rubric of the Arab Spring and the activists in North America and Western Europe who took as their inspiration the Occupy Wall Street movement. No matter their geographic locations, it was clear that the protesters yearned for a fairer, more equal society, one in which the non- elite-the 99 percent of citizens whose fates are determined by implacable economic forces that benefit a handful of the rich and well- connected-are treated in the same way as the fortunate 1 percent.

There have always been protests against inequalities. Some are evanescent, but succeed in the long term: a barely noticed glimmer that nonetheless provides the impetus for incremental structural changes. Some succeed almost immediately in a way that defies belief, but whose magical success is often the product of years of herculean organizational efforts typically carried out far from the glare of the media spotlight. Some fizzle when the initial heady enthusiasm of the protesters, often romanticized by media outlets fond of triumphalist rhetoric, wanes because the protracted struggle on behalf of substantive reform proves to be too onerous or insufficiently compelling. On the other hand, some protests never attain critical mass, their purposes forever stigmatized as the preserve of what is disdainfully labeled as a fringe element. Or they leave a mixed legacy, consisting of one part grudging respect for their socio- historical aims and two parts condescension for their quixoticism.

And so it behooves us to think about why some protests succeed while others do not. Two recent books touch upon this important issue. Saïd Sayrafie - zadeh's When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood focuses on the ambiguities of lives lived under the guiding philosophy of the United States incarnation of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), as seen through the eyes of a young man whose parents were staunch supporters of this minuscule political group. If it is known at all today, the SWP is perhaps best remembered for its presidential nominee of 1964, Clifton DeBerry, the first African American to contest a presidential election under a party banner, who received some 32,000 votes, finishing well behind Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate, and Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic incumbent.

Skateboards describes a bleak existence in a series of dodgy neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh where Saïd resides with his mother, Martha Harris, after his father and two siblings leave. His father, an Iranian- born mathematics professor educated at the University of Minnesota, would go on to assume an increasingly prominent role in the party, a much- beloved and charismatic author, speaker, and organizer who owed at least some of his stature to his temporary return to Iran in 1979, where he founded an Iranian SWP that soon split into three factions; ran for president; and underwent a brief period of imprisonment for his persistent political agitation in the early 1980s as the regime of the Ayatollahs consolidated power. Yet for all his frenetic activity, his knowledge about anything-whether the economic plight of seamstresses in the Garment District; the French Revolution; or the Cold War-was, in Saïd's eyes, abysmally "hollow," resting on little more than the hearsay of others. Because his father considered himself to be "a socialist missionary among proletariat savages," it really didn't matter "if he himself knows the intimate details of the topics on which he expounds. …

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