And while we’re bursting bubbles here, let’s remember that while the abstract idea of “saying enough is enough” and “taking to the streets” feels inspiring from a distance, it doesn’t completely account for the reality of tear gas, riot police, and the possibility of violent retribution from a self-protective government. A man (several men, now) lit himself on fire, for a start. Read Anne Applebaum’s excellent and nuanced essay on Slate, which begins:
Violent street demonstrations, followed by the toppling of a dictator, are an exhilarating way to bring democracy to an authoritarian society. They are not, however, the best way to bring democracy to an authoritarian society.
While watching Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” unfold, remember this: Street demonstrations can unexpectedly bring extremists into power, as they did in Iran in 1979. They can create unrealistic expectations and then unravel, as did the Orange Revolution that began in Ukraine in 2004. And they can end badly, with reactionary violence, like the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square.
The questions surrounding the moral imperative of—and various methods of—
protest against an oppressive dictatorship are, of course, the subject of a much wider discussion, as is the role of the Internet in affecting political change. Those are subjects of perpetual study and debate. Every country is different, every generation is different, and every political revolution will have different, long-lasting effects on the people who participate in it. Likewise, the implications of Ben Ali’s ouster and the rippling effects of these protests in other equally oppressive environments in the region will not be known for some time.
In the meantime, it’s worth remembering that the euphoria of the Twitterati watching from the West and cheering on their brothers-in-cellphones overseas isn’t the whole story. It’s just the easiest story to tell. Because it’s the easiest story to tell, it’s bound to be the first one that gets told.
As the story continues to unfold in Tunisia, ideally we will move beyond oversimplification and provide the historical and cultural contexts necessary to understand what happened there and what will happen as a result of it. But those first, simple stories deserve scrutiny, too—especially stories like this one, where many readers don’t have much background knowledge about the region. These stories don’t always have legs; Tunisia will soon drop from the front page, and likewise drop from readers’ minds. That’s why we must stay vigilant against the double dangers of oversimplification and easy narratives. When something happens that kicks a slowly-developing international story into the mainstream, as we saw late last week, the first frames are the ones that stick.