Whatever one feels about the sharia-enforcing, Jew-hating, genital-mutilating enthusiasts of the Muslim Brotherhood, they do accurately reflect a significant slice — and perhaps a majority — of the Egyptian people. The problem with the old-school dictators was that in the end Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Qaddafi didn’t represent anything other than their Swiss bank accounts. The question for the wider world is what do “social media” represent? If they supposedly embody the forces of progress and modernity, then they’ve just taken an electoral pounding from guys who haven’t had a new idea since the seventh century.
No one should begrudge Mark Zuckerberg his billions, and decent people should revile in the strongest terms thug-senator Chuck Schumer’s attempts to punish Zuckerberg’s partner Eduardo Saverin for wishing to enjoy his profits under the less confiscatory tax arrangements of Singapore: It is a sign of terminal desperation when regimes that can’t compete for talent focus their energies on ever more elaborate procedures to prevent freeborn individuals voting with their feet.
But it is also a sign of desperation to talk up amiable diversions for pampered solipsistic Westerners as an irresistible force of modernity. One of the basic defects of the Bush administration’s designation of a “war on terror” was that it emphasized symptoms (bombs and bombers) over causes (the underlying ideology). In the war of ideas, the West has chosen not to compete, under the erroneous assumption that the ever more refined delivery systems for its sensual distractions are a Big Idea in and of themselves. They’re not. If you know your Tocqueville, they sound awfully like his prediction of a world in which “an innumerable crowd of like and equal men . . . revolve on themselves without repose,” a phrase which nicely distills the unending busy-ness of our gaudy novelties.
Don’t get me wrong; I like goofy pet photos. But can these gizmos do anything else? Yes, in theory. But in practice is a culture that “revolves on itself without repose” likely to be that effective at communicating real ideas to the wider world? Ideas on liberty, free speech, property rights, women’s rights, and all the other things conspicuous by their absence in the philosophies of Egypt’s new political class. In the end, a revolution cannot be tweeted. Whatever their defects, the unlovely forces running the new Egypt understand the difference between actually mutilating a young girl’s genitals to deny her the possibility of sexual pleasure, and merely “following” your local clitoridectomist on his Twitter feed.
A century ago, the West exported its values. So, in Farouk’s Egypt, at the start of a new legislative session, the King was driven to his toytown parliament to deliver the speech from the throne in an explicit if ramshackle simulacrum of Westminster’s rituals of constitutional monarchy. Today, we decline to export values, and complacently assume, as the very term “Facebook Revolution” suggests, that technology marches in support of modernity. It doesn’t. Facebook’s flat IPO and Egypt’s presidential election are in that sense part of the same story, of a developed world whose definitions of innovation and achievement have become too shrunken and undernourished. The vote in Egypt tells us a lot about them, but it also tells us something about us.
— Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is the author of After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. © 2012 Mark Steyn