Aladdin

Aladdin (originally Ala ad-Din, often mistransaletd as “Allah’s duke’, but actually meaning ‘the nobility of faith’) first appeared with his magic lamp over a millennium ago in the stories of A Thousand and One Nights, where Sheherazade, a girl from the harim slated for beheading after one night with the king, supposedly forestalled her execution by intriguing him each night with a different story until he finally gave up and let her live.

Aladdin rubs his hands together while trapped in a cold cave, rubbing a magic ring, and inadvertently setting free a djinni.  His mother, again without knowing, rubs a magic lamp to clean it, and sets free an even more powerful djinni.  Although the djinni does his bidding, Aladdin is not the first to discover that it is easier to let the djinni out of the lamp than to get him back in.

Nor is he the last, as the modern mullah Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will find out for himself in Iran.  No matter what the outcome of this particular election or uprising, the Iranian government is about to find out – as the Chinese did in Tiananmen Square, and as the British did in Boston some 240 years ago – that you can repress an incident easily with the powers of the state, but that the spirit energizing the incident is not so easy to dispel.  The spirit of freedom, once awakened from the lamp, finds ways of slipping out that are beyond the power of the state to cork.

There is a conspiracy theory that says the Iranian government is allowing texts and messages to get out through their network only so that they can identify and persecute the senders after this initial fracas has calmed down.  Even if they do manage some prosecutions and intimidation, the damage they have done to themselves in showing the world these beatings, roving motorcycle thugs, and the tragic shooting of Neda is far, far more dangerous to their autocratic rule than anything they will gain.

In Russia, Brezhnev at first suppressed computers, but then succumbed because of the disadvantage in engineering education that would result.  Once the computers were in, information was hard to confine, and Andropov, Gorbachev, and the fall of the wall all followed as the night the day.

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” said Churchill, and modern math is proving him right.  It is the wiki method of government. We have all seen the problems with American democracy – right and left created he them – but some sort of representative parliament with a leadership accountable to the masses every few years seems to provide the opportunities for an unlikely runner like Barack Obama, whereas the best laid plans of even benevolent dictators so often end up like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

The key to the downfall of the modern Middle East caliphates will not be democracy per se, but the unrestricted flow of information.  A democracy without the fifth column of a free and critical press is not viably a democracy.  It will be as much of a shame if Barack does shut down right-wing radio (as blissful as the silence would be after their cheap and small-minded blaring) as when Pinochet shut down the press in Chile.  But ‘the press’ is a more diffuse and dispersed than it ever used to be in the Wiki whacky world of Twitter and videophones.  The ubiquity of information may be the most powerful force for democracy the world has ever seen.  It is playing out right now in Iran, but all tyrannies – in Myanmar, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia – having learned the value of ‘controlling the narrative’ should shake in their upturned shoes, as they are going to find that the air is filled with wild electrons, dancing across borders, current slipping from person to person.  There will be no hiding in the new information world.

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