February 14th, 2011 // 12:31 pm @ Oliver DeMille
*Note: If you like this article, you’ll love Oliver’s latest book, FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
I look at the young protesters who gathered in downtown Amman today, and the thousands who gathered in Egypt and Tunis, and my heart aches for them. So much human potential, but they have no idea how far behind they are—or maybe they do and that’s why they’re revolting.
“Egypt’s government has wasted the last 30 years—i.e., their whole lives—plying them with the soft bigotry of low expectations: ‘Be patient. Egypt moves at its own pace, like the Nile.’ Well, great. Singapore also moves at its own pace, like the Internet.” —Thomas L. Freidman
A World of Demonstrations
In the fall of 2010 I listened to a famous French author speaking as a guest on a television talk show. He expressed concern with the Tea Party in the United States and wondered how democracy could survive “such a thing.”
A few weeks later his own nation was shut down by rioting protestors—middle class managers and professionals burning cars in the streets and throwing homemade pop bottle firebombs.
I wondered if he had revised his worries about what he called Tea Party “extremism.” In the U.S. the peaceful demonstrations were much more civil and positive (and, as it turns out, effective) than their French counterparts.
In the last year we’ve witnessed demonstrations, protests, and even a few violent riots across the globe—from Greece to Ireland, Paris to Washington, Iran to Cairo, and beyond. It is interesting to see how the left and right in the U.S. have responded.
The left welcomed demonstrations against governments that were run by the privileged class in Iran, Greece, Ireland, Egypt, China and even France. Instead of feeling threatened by such uprisings, they tended to see them as the noble voice of humanity yearning for freedom from oppression.
In contrast, they saw marches and demonstrations from the American right as somehow dangerous to democracy. In such a view, protests are owned by the left and those on the right aren’t allowed to use such techniques—they are supposed to better behaved.
In contrast, the right tended to view recent right-leaning town meetings and D.C. demonstrations in the United States as progressive, while viewing the French, Irish, Greek and Middle East protests with critical eyes.
The old meaning of “conservative” was to simply want things to stay the same, and in world affairs many American conservatives seem to prove this definition.
An uprising in Iran or Egypt, as much as one might identify with the people’s desire for freedom, feels threatening and disturbing to many on the right.
The demonstrations and the diverse ways of viewing them is a natural result of a major shift we are experiencing in the world. Strauss and Howe called it “The Fourth Turning,” a great cyclical shift from an age of long-term peace and prosperity to a time of challenge and on-going crises.
We have experienced many such shifts in history (e.g. the American revolutionary era, the Civil War period, the era of Great Depression and World War II), but that doesn’t soften the blow of experiencing it firsthand in our generation.
Following the cycles of history, we have lived through the great catalyst (9/11) which brought on the new era of challenge, just like earlier generations faced their catalytic events (e.g. the Boston Tea Party, the election of Abraham Lincoln, or the Stock Market crash of 1929).
We are now living in a period of high stress and high conflict, just as our forefathers did in the tense periods of the 1770s, 1850s and 1930s. If the cycles hold true in our time, we can next expect some truly major crisis—the last three being the attack on Pearl Harbor, the first shots of the Civil War, and the fighting at Lexington and Concord.
These realities are part of our genetic and psychic history, even if we haven’t personally researched the trends and history books. We seem to “know” that challenges are ahead, and so we worry about the latest world and national news event.
“Will this ignite the fire?” “Will this change everything?” “Is this it—the start of major crisis?” Conservatives, liberals, independents—we nearly all ask these questions, if only subconsciously.
Conservatives tend to believe that major crisis will come from the “mismanagement of the left,” while liberals are inclined to think the problems will be caused by the extremism of the right.
Independents have a tendency to feel that our challenges will come from both Republicans and Democrats—either working together in the wrong ways or getting distracted from critical issues while fighting each other at precisely the wrong time.
Add to this strain the fact that we are simultaneously shifting from the industrial to the information age, and it becomes understandable that the pressure is building in many places in today’s world.
The shift from the agricultural age to the industrial age brought the Civil War, Bismarck’s Wars (known to many in Europe as the first great war—a generation before World War I), and the Asian upheaval as it shifted from the age of warlords to modern empires.
Today we have mostly forgotten how drastic such a change was, and how traumatically it impacted the world.
The Egypt Crisis
The bad news is: if the cycles and trends of history hold, we will likely relive such world-changing events in the decades ahead. As for Egypt, our reactions are telling us more about ourselves than about the Arab world.
Knee-jerk liberalism thrills at another people rising up against authoritarianism but worries that the extreme religious nature of some of the militants will bring the wrong outcomes.
Knee-jerk conservatism reinforces its view that the middle east is the world’s problem area, that we should just get out of that region (or get a lot more involved), and that stability is more important than things like freedom and opportunity for the Egyptian people.
Deep thinkers from all political views see that we now live in the age of demonstrations. The worldwide shift from decades of relative peace and prosperity to a time of recurring crises is putting pressure on people everywhere.
Some protest the reduction of government pensions and programs as nations try to figure out how to get their financial houses in order. Others demonstrate against governments that respond to major economic crises with increased spending, stimulus and government programs.
Still others riot against authoritarian governments that haven’t allowed the people a true democratic voice in the direction of their nation or society.
When we shift from an industrial era of peace and prosperity to an information-age epoch of crisis and challenge, people in all walks of life feel the pressure and anxiety of change. This manifests itself in relationship, organizational, financial and family stress, as well as cultural, class, religious, political and societal tensions. We are witnessing all of these in this generation.
Egypt may spark a major world crisis, and indeed many feel that the Egyptian challenge is the biggest foreign policy crisis of Obama’s presidency. As Thomas L. Friedman put it, on a more global scale:
“There is a huge storm coming, Israel. Get out of the way.”
President Bush’s supporters are using Egypt to bolster the view that Bush’s attempts to establish democracy in the Arab world was wise foresight, and Obama supporters hope that a re-democratized Egypt can stand as “beacon to the region.”
If the Egyptian uprising becomes the start of pan-Arabism led by the Muslim Brotherhood (or something like it), this will certainly bring significant changes to the Middle East and to international relations across the board.
On the other hand, a similar outcome could result from a totalitarian crackdown that extinguishes the will of the Egyptian people to fight for legitimate reform. The most likely result may be what has happened more often recently: the replacement of authoritarian government with a powerful oligarchy ruling the nation.
The American Crisis
How the United States responds to any of these scenarios, or whatever else may happen, will have a significant impact on world policy.
Add to this at least two concerns: Serious inflation is already a growing reality and increasing danger, and many are watching to see the impact on the price of oil on our economy.
If the cost of gasoline goes above $5 or $6 or, say, $9 per gallon in the U.S., what will happen to 9.6% unemployment, state and local governments that are already close to bankruptcy, and a reeling economy just barely emerging from the Great Recession?
If the Egypt Crisis doesn’t ignite a major world or American crisis, something else will. That’s the reality of our place in the cycles of history. Challenges are ahead for our nation.
This is true in any generation, but it is even more pronounced in the generations where we shift from an era of peace and prosperity to an epoch of crisis and challenge. As we also move into the information age, we have our work cut out for us.
Futurist Alvin Toffler wrote:
“A new civilization is emerging in our lives. This new civilization brings with it new family styles; changed ways of working, loving and living; a new economy; new political conflicts. Millions are already attuning their lives to the rhythms of tomorrow. Others, terrified of the future, are engaged in a desperate, futile flight into the past and are trying to restore the dying world that gave them birth. The dawn of this new civilization is the single most explosive fact of our lifetimes. It is the central event—the key to understanding the years immediately ahead.”
The good news is that in such times of challenge we have the opportunity to significantly improve the world in important ways.
The Revolutionary era brought us the Constitution and the implementation of free enterprise and a classless society, the Civil War ended slavery, and the World War II era brought us into the industrial age with increasing opportunity for social equity and individual prosperity.
Freedom, free enterprise, increased caring and more widespread economic opportunities are likely ahead if we as a society refocus on the principles that work. Liberals, conservatives and independents have a lot to teach each other in this process, and we all have a lot to learn.
The biggest danger is that the age of demonstrations will lead to an age of dominance by elites—in Egypt, in Europe, in Asia, and in North America. Unfortunately, popular demonstrations are most often followed by the increased power of one elite group or another.
Though this is the worst-case scenario, it is also a leading trend in our times. In contrast, only a society led by the people can truly be free, and only such a future can turn our challenging era into a truly better world.
Each of us must take responsibility for the future, rather than leaving the details to experts. Many citizens in Egypt are trying to do this—for good or ill.
In America, we need more regular citizens to be leaders so we can meet this generational challenge as our forefathers did theirs—leaving posterity with greater freedom and opportunity.
He is the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.