Review of ‘The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas’ by Gal Beckerman


Beckerman prefers “slow thinking” – the steady accumulation and dissemination of knowledge that begins with “the friction of two people exchanging ideas” – and worries that modern social causes, driven by hyperactive social media channels, are evolving too much. fast to last. Activists using Facebook propelled the Arab Spring protests that toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, for example, but the medium ‘proved useless when it came to organizing into real opposition’ . The notion is not new – the outstanding book by Zeynep Tufekci in 2017, “Twitter and tear gas” which Beckerman cites, developed similar arguments – but Beckerman’s historically extensive case studies and engaging storytelling make “The Quiet Before” distinct and interesting. Of course, the calm is not always so muted, the before and after life of an idea are not always clearly marked, and the reflection rarely seems calm to those who engage in it.

Beckerman, editor of Atlantic magazine, identifies slow thinking in the missives of 17th-century French astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peirsec, whose library of 100,000 letters attests to his secondary activity as a “connector of the most great minds of Europe”. He communicated with inventors, clergy and thinkers across the continent, collaborating on scientific projects (including a logistically insane initiative to calculate the length and width of the Mediterranean Sea by viewing an eclipse at from multiple locations), instilling a sensitivity for scientific research and rigor among correspondents. The letters were not simply one-on-one exchanges, Beckerman points out. They were “oil in the wheels of idea production” or “messages carried along a stream with many tributaries”. Yes, Beckerman has a thing for metaphors, but he shows how Peirsec’s writings have traveled far beyond their original audiences, multiplying the power of his ideas.

Such letters are therefore not so different from the chains of email that ricochet among infectious disease specialists, emergency physicians and public health officials at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Beckerman explores one chain in particular, dubbed “Red Dawn” by its creators, which provided refuge for experts overwhelmed by their battles with disease, misinformation and uncertainty. It was “a closed network with people they trusted,” Beckerman writes, and it allowed participants to develop recommendations that won favor with local authorities, especially once national guidelines were set. turned out to be confusing. “Four hundred years after Peirsec deployed his letters to further the development of the scientific method,” observes Beckerman, “there was still a need for a private space where this work could occur, where the pursuit of observable truth could take place safely away from the centrifugal force of politicization and demagoguery”.

In the political space, communication has tended to be much more public and volatile. Massive petitions for the expansion of male suffrage by the Chartist movement in mid-19th century Britain led to violent uprisings, while manifestos drafted by futurist activists in pre-fascist Italy relished the idea of a war so brutal that “it would purify the country”. and allow them to start from scratch. (They soon got their wish when the Great War began in 1914, and the Futurists became the advocates of intervention.) Beckerman’s descriptions of the main players are memorable – Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor was “all Irish brogue and mutton chops with ginger,” while futuristic frontman Filippo Marinetti, with his handlebar mustache and bowler hat, looked like “a silent movie villain about to tie a woman to the train tracks.” . But the author always returns to the mechanisms of transmission of ideas. For O’Connor, the interest in obtaining support for a petition lies less in the realization of its specific demands than in the work of bringing together the signatories, “the need to go door to door, to convince others , to mark in ink one’s allegiance to a cause.” And the Futurist manifestos, extravagant as they might be (one was shamelessly dubbed “The Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe”), offered adherents of the movement ” a place to articulate their fantasies” and experience that “swaggering feeling that the world could be dragged, lightning and bloody, into the future.

Beckerman’s most compelling case study took the world to a new place. It dwells on the early years of Nnamdi Azikiwe – who decades later would become the first president of an independent Nigeria – when he was the bold young editor of Accra’s African Morning Post, a fiercely anti-colonial newspaper fueled by the written contributions of its readers. . British colonial authorities arrested Azikiwe in 1935 and tried him for sedition, and his exoneration affirmed “the right of local newspapers to their public space, the small freedom to debate amongst themselves”, writes Beckerman. Within the pages of the paper, readers and writers questioned their colonial status and tribal divisions, sparking what Beckerman calls “those first flickers of a national identity, born of opinions rubbing against each other in ‘a way they never had before’.

Likewise, Beckerman revisits the story of dissident poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya, the force behind the Chronicle, an underground journal detailing Soviet abuses against artists and writers. Pieced together underground, by word of mouth, the publication described conditions in prison camps and psychiatric institutions – the kind in which Gorbanevskaya would be locked up for periods on false mental health diagnoses – and detailed the arbitrariness of the courts. Soviets. In their attempt at radical transparency about Soviet life, the poetess and her collaborators were the precursors of the glasnost that would upend the Soviet system years later. “They were interested,” says Beckerman, “in breaking down the distinctly Soviet sense of having two selves—one who whispered truths in private and the other who was regularly called upon to deny reality out loud.”

Beckerman isn’t the only one obsessed with the process; his characters are too. Tobi Vail thought about it when she used scissors and a glue stick to create Jigsaw, an early version of the zines that exploded into the Riot Grrrl scene of the early 1990s, in which young women explored punk, power and anger over sex and the body. image and aggression. “JIGSAW IS NOT A CONSUMER PRODUCT,” Vail wrote. “It’s not a product at all. It’s more of a process. A method. I’m starting to see that process is key. Pandemic-era health experts have pointed out to Beckerman that the maintaining the scientific method was a priority in their private email exchanges.Even white nationalists organizing the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville were happy with their process, meeting on online gaming platform Discord to debate issues such as the display optics of the swastikas and the security features of the various torches. “I think this is a fantastic sign that we can have these disagreements now and stick together when it matters,” wrote one participant.

This title, “The Quiet Before,” may refer to the thinking preceding the movements explored by Beckerman, or it may suggest that radicalism was more deliberately incubated before the cacophony of the internet and social media. Not surprisingly, Beckerman is pessimistic about the impact of modern technology on social activism. He argues that reliance on platforms like Twitter has left movements such as Black Lives Matter too dependent on outbursts of sadness and rage to sustain interest in police reform. “The performance, the race for followers, even the reflex to always make their actions public” can backfire when they engage in the arduous task of advancing specific policy positions, he writes. This is a problem with many of the movements that this book chronicles. Their immediate impact is not always clear, or their true influence only materializes decades later. Beckerman sometimes seems frustrated by this, and sometimes resigned.

Hey, it’s a process. And it depends not only on the tools in hand, but also on the sensitivity in mind. “Radical change . . . doesn’t start with shouting,” Beckerman concludes. doesn’t exist yet?”


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