book cover and Gal Beckerman headshot

The Quiet Before: the unexpected origins of radical ideas by Gal Beckerman

Long before the change happens, people start by talking.

That’s how community organizing really happens. Before intersectionality or the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Civil Rights movement, or even before the recent explosion of the alt-right, somewhere people quietly come together to form a movement. What do those moments have in common?

That’s the focus of The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas, a new book by Gal Beckerman, a books editor for the Atlantic and formerly The New York Times. (Find a review in the Washington Post)

Below, find notes for my future review — and watch an interview Beckerman did with Sewall Chan, who spoke at the 2020 edition of an annual journalism conference I host.

My notes:

  • Community organizer Saul Alinsky: Revolution is a three act play but too often we rush the the third act.
  • Zeynep Tufecki’s 2017 book title Twitter and Tear Gas brings a full blown moment of attention “to activists before the hard work of organizing happens.” (Like rushing to the third act)
  • In contrast the alt-right was forced to organize in quieter places that allows them to grow stronger collectively
  • Samizdat, or banned literature and covertly copied and distributed newsletters. (Beckerman essay here)
  • Marshall McLuhan: The medium is the message. Neil Postman tweaked it as The medium is the metaphor.
  • Robert Darnton’s research on the origins of the French Revolution: why was it so revolutionary?
  • Peirsec, longitudinal project and the Republic of Letters: how knowledge and quiet organizing developed ideas. Peirsec learned to be incrementalist from Galileo’a humbling experience with Catholic Church , they and Descartes were among the letter writers
  • Piersec the incrementalist pleaded Galileo’s case to have it reduced
  • Feargus OConnor and William Lovett on Peoples Charter in 1830s: 1842, another petition, 3.3 million or a third of the population
  • Florentine Futurists who cajoled Florence into action (throw an idea not a potato you idiot” said Carlo Carrà)
  • Manifestos are written in the future imperative (we will do this) à la communit
  • Marinetti futurist inspired by the technology of the day and Nietzche’s Superman “ brave, unconcerned, mocking, violent” and Georges Sorel anarchism rooted in disdain of the incrementalism and compromise of liberal democracies
  • Offering some advice about “the art of making manifestoes “ Marinetti said that they required “violence and precision”
  • Mina and her feminist manifesto
  • 1934 British imperial memo: “On general principle, legislation interfering with the liberty of the press is highly undesirable and provides an effective target for public criticism of the administration.”
  • Times of West Africa, in Accra Gold’s Coast was the first African owned daily newspaper in 1931, owned by JB Danquah
  • Sir Shenton Thomas was critical of the relatively free Ghanaian press “it is the illiterates who are affected most, and young semi educated men. They have the paper read to them and lap up all they hear.”
  • The Times of West Africa closed and then Nnamdi Azikiwe left Lincoln University to start the African Morning Post in Accra to combat imperialism. He also studied at Penn and Columbia. He wrote for the Philadelphia Tribune, which gave him journalism credentials to transfer back into Gold Coast, even as over educated as he was
  • African papers were small at this time and only used submitted letters (aside from some Reuters wire copy): “we shall be happy to place as much space in this journal as we possibly can at the disposal of the contributors.” Zik said. Or as another newspaper of the time the Gold Coast Leader wrote “be yourself, imitate no one, say what you wish to say in your own way and leave it there: you need not ransacked homes of dictionary for words to suffocate your readers with.” (87) often anonymous in “The Grumbler’s Row” section with names like A. Native or Lobster.
  • Public Sphere” concept from Juergen Habermas, where ideas percolate
  • “indefinitely stretchable nets of kinship” Benedict Anderson
  • Kwame Nkrumah followed the African Morning Post, after escaping a seditious libel court case Zik left for Lagos where he started a new newspaper the West African Pilot, before becoming Nigeria’s first president (102)
  • Samizdat post Natalya Gorbanevskaya started Human Rights Year in Soviet Union to chronicle abuses, but chose to limit opinion and stick to hard facts to gain credibility with western journalists (109)
  • Chronicle of Current Events with “wooden impersonal style”
  • Lenin used Iskra underground paper to raise a revolutionary army against Tsarist Russia
  • Natalya Gorbanevskaya took accuracy seriously with samizdat. She welcomed corrections as early as issue 2, wanting to convey her attention to detail. But samizdat were literally copies of copies so she would find sixth or seventh copies that had typos (they used 4-ply carbon paper so with 8 typings you could do a run of 32)
  • Glasnost came from a response to Samizdat like Chronicle
  • Jigsaw and the zine movement of girls (used the term “girl” to push back against fusty feminist use of women /womyn) from DC and Oregon punk scenes. (Fugazi, etc)
  • Led to Riot Grrl
  • “Zines are profoundly personal expressions, as a medium of participatory communication they depend upon and help create community” wrote Stephen Duncombe professor
  • Kathleen Riot Grrrl: ”We are turning cursive letters into knives”
  • Eventually split around race and white feminism, this late stage second wave feminism fed into intersectionality
  • Amanda La Vita said of too much mainstream press coverage : “They take something that has no actual definition, and they attempt to define it “ (143)
  • GIrl power marked the apex and then movement fall; the Spice Girls pop group marked the end, then the internet made zines dead (though live journal and tumblr have the feel right?)
  • Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and Larry Brilliant form WELL with early commune perspective from people like John “TEX” Coate (151)
  • WELL organized with “hosts” a subscription model: $8 monthly and $2 an hour to log on (154) each time you logged on you were given the prompt “You own your own words” to protect liability; no anonymity (you could have a playful ID but your name listed too), and if you deleted a message with a “scribble” command, it showed that a message was deleted
  • Picospan originally called “host” a “fair witness” but Brand used “host” like a French salon
  • Mark Ethan-Smith, who was gender fluid without preferred pronouns , was an early troll that TEX had to remove for attacking language (causing lots of “thrash” in their language of the day. As the author writes. “Back then to the realization came Quick: cyberspace needed bouncers” 157
  • By 1986, there were in person Bay Area meetups spun out of the WELL group
  • WELL had a women only “conference” (online channel ) and “ by the late 1980s while women made up only 10% of people going online, they constituted 40% of the population of the WELL”
  • Stacy Horn: Echo: “Cyberspace does not have the power to make us anything other than what we already are… It is a revealing not a transforming medium.”
  • Marshall Mcluhan: “We march backwards into the future” with rear view mirror thinking of looking at recent past to understand the future
  • John Perry Barlow first used “cyberspace” on a WELL forum borrowing from William Gibson. Barlow’s later Declaration was perhaps too idealistic, ignoring the warnings of the challenges that Tex and others confronted
  • Steve Case was on WELL before America Online
  • Wael Ghonim in Egypt scheduled on January 15 “January 25: revolution against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment” . A revolution scheduled on Facebook
  • The Facebook revolution was too quick, no time to form what Antonio Gransci calls “a historic block. Social media requires a maximalism, if you share any compromising stance you are “perceived as weak or neutral or irrelevant”  said Wael  (176)
  • Neo-Nazi Jason Kessler has called himself a journalist:
  • Charlottesville 2.0 discord server as an alt right alternative to its social media (not Reddit or 4chan) 191
  • Anglin was kept out of Kesslers Unite the Right stuff as too extreme, though he was the alt right godfather. He was influenced by the Rules for Radicals — Saul Alinsky’s celebrated 1970 book popular among progressive activists
  • Feb 29, 2020: Covid 19 genome sequencing first appeared on Twitter (225)
  • Red Dawn group never felt government came ; Public health folks used Twitter DM for private space
  • In 2016 analysis by the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University reviewed the Black Lives Matter tweets and showed that he had power and downside for focusing on police brutality over say income inequality. Police brutality is “concrete, discrete in its manifestations, and above all, visual”
  • Rachel of Dream Defenders: it is easy “to mistake popularity for power”
  • On social media. They did a blackout, DeRay Mckesson became a poster child for stepping into the vacuum. Rachel: “you just can’t shortcut organizing.” (Black communities didn’t support police abolition)
  • Leaderlessness on the left can be traced to response to 1930s authoritarianism of communist groups.
  • They learned Twitter is not a good place to develop ideas. Must do that in private (251)
  • Joseph Nye: soft power (like social media) translated to hard power (elected officials). Egypt had no legacy of democracy and organizing but Americans do
  • The armed conflict location and event data project tract that 93% of Black Lives Matter protest are free from any violence
  • Black Visions transitioning from “abolition” to community led safety (258)
  • March 2019: Zuckerberg: from town square to living room
  • Hannah Arendt’s table metaphor in her 1957 book The Human Condition for how we organize
  • Ethan Zuckerman 2020 Knight First Amendment research on social media; Inventor of the pop-up advertisement
  • Zuckerman: define social networks by governance (what’s acceptable), ideology (ie Facebook’s is to connect everyone and maximize shareholder value) and “affordances” or what a user can do (upvote or display followers)
  • How Front Porch Forum is different than Nextdoor
  • Gab is a ‘mastadon node’
  • Taiwan Sunflower Movement worked with g0v (govZero)to produce vTaiwan based on, rethinking engagement
  • is a long of social media but also a more social surveying tool
  • Other private-message platforms like Discord and Slack and WhatsApp and Telegram are defined by “privacy, ephemerality, and community governance” 266
  • Rachel Gilmer and Miski Noor the “vanguard” of this work

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