A crowd. A cloud. A mob. What is really happening on the streets of Egypt, and why do we naturally feel optimistic about this attempt at revolution, even as we worry about the many ways it could go wrong?
Like most of my fellow Americans, I feel conflicted about the current uprisings in Egypt, because the military dictatorship these protestors want to be rid of is our own close ally. We have been its primary enabler. Still, we instinctively trust the judgement of a crowd, and we can only feel buoyed to see such a strong spontaneous expression of peaceful rebellion against an oppressive regime. But why do we instinctively trust a crowd, and how do know if this trust will or will not mislead us?
We trust a crowd because we can feel it thinking. Somehow, the mob welcomes us in, even if we’re only glancing idly at it on television. Even with a quick look, we can tune into the frequencies of this hive mind, and we can see that this crowd, like most crowds, has unspoken principles. It respects human dignity, it relies on trust. It believes itself to be innocent and perfect. We suspect that this crowd will not maintain its innocence for long if it ever manages to attain some power. But that possibility is far away, and for now this crowd moves with confidence and a sure sense of grace.
What is a crowd, a cloud, a mob? It is a single thing, and it has its own logic, its own goals. It’s a collective self. It’s more than just a reflection of every person alive in the world — rather, it is every person alive in the world. In its innocent optimism, it calls all of us out to join.
Every culture cherishes some past crowd memories as part of its collective history. In the USA, we remember the Boston Tea Party, Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, the twin pop-culture symbols of Woodstock (a good crowd) and Altamont (a bad crowd). Russia and France nurture their dramatic legends of urban revolution. China memorializes its saga of the Long March (this was a crowd that survived by learning to move together), and the Jewish people memorialize their saga of the trek across the Sinai desert (this was also a crowd that survived by learning to move together).
We create crowds when there aren’t any. The appeal of Islam’s communal spirit is clear to anyone who sees photos of its beautiful annual gathering in Mecca. Religious Jews will lure bystanders off the street to join a minyan, because they cannot carry out their required prayers without at least a crowd of ten. Our courts require a jury of twelve to ensure the fairness of a trial. Every sporting event is a simulation of a naturally occurring crowd; we attend not only to cheer our teams on, but to cheer ourselves on.
Of course, our shared history includes many horrifying crowd stories along with the edifying ones. In Ukraine and Poland and Lithuania during World War II, angry mobs tortured and killed Jewish citizens on city streets. In the USA’s southern states, a crowd would gather to cheer a lynching from a tree. The hopeful mob that dismantled the Bastille prison in Paris in 1789 would find itself cheering the guillotining of rich French people just a few years later in the same streets.
Other crowds manage to truly create change through non-violence: Germany when the wall fell, Gandhi’s massive 1930 protest against salt tax, Corazon Aquino’s 1986 “People Power Revolution” in the Phillipines. Other mobs simply melt away, failing to achieve anything at all, but are still fondly remembered, like the 1968 Prague uprising Milan Kundera wrote about in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or the Parisian Soixante-Huitards in the same year.
Because we naturally trust a hive mind, we understand that access to truth, facts, communication and information is essential to feed this mind. The Mubarak regime did great harm to its case for legitimacy this week when it shut down Internet access in an attempt to quiet the streets. In any conflict, the side that’s afraid of information and communication is probably not the side you want to support.
It’s not clear what role Internet culture is playing in Egypt, nor is it clear that there will ever be a “twitter revolution” anywhere in the world (instead, future generations may someday laugh at us for ever imagining such a thing). Still, it’s easy to spot a spectrum of political culpability in the world by looking at attitudes towards the Internet. On one side you’ve got Mubarak’s government shutting down servers and routers. On the other side you’ve got Wikileaks. Which do you trust more? I think it’s an easy call.
Like any existential being in the world, the crowd in Egypt has filled itself with hope, and we are right to hope along with it. The crowd is innocent because it believes itself to be so. We are part of the crowd because we believe in our innocence too. If this crowd ever loses its innocence, we will lose some of ours, yet again, along with it.