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The American People’s Forgetfulness of Historical Memory

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The cascade of protests crossing the Arabic world starting in Tunisia and rampaging across the continent to Yemen and Egypt paints a pretty narrative of democracy for all. In a Disney-esque style, the scene is set; a struggling group of people try to push out the harsh autocrat who rules with an iron fist.

After days of anguishing defeats and cries from the crowd of oppressed people, the dictator rides off into the sunset to any western nation that will take him. The after party starts with celebrations in the streets and the destruction of old regime relics, such as statues, saying goodbye to the days of evil excesses. All is well and the people form a new government of western standards.

If one believes such a naïve story, then your memory does not serve you well. The media gets caught up in the moment of democratic euphoria they forget those periods of power vacuums. The breakup of colonial empires, such as the British and French, created various new countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Many of these nations tried western style democracy, either in a British or American tradition, oftentimes ending in disaster. Vietnam had a democratically elected government led by Ngo Dinh Diem, before the American war broke out, which was seen by the people as a corrupt regime backed as an American puppet regime. In Africa, similar scenarios of bloodshed occurred in Nigeria, where the military would overthrow the government multiple times after elections seen as illegitimate.

Even the fall of communist Eastern Europe in 1989 did not produce happy regimes. Alexander Lukashenko is the current authoritarian leader in Belarus, who just lost an election, but is holding onto power for dear life. The country of Hungary just past draconian censorship laws on its press. Hardly any of these actions speak to true democratic change.

My point is that democratic revolution does mean democratic revolution. If the Egyptian revolution succeeds a definition of who will be the leading party to carry the country through crisis must be resolved. Also, what about the leaders who were part of Mubarak’s administration, are they banned from politics? Will the Muslim Brotherhood be united between its moderate and extreme factions? Will Egypt still be partners with Israel? All of these questions are not easy to answer, but they do point to a broader lesson.

Our minds might conceive of a time when grass was green after the wave of democracy struck Eastern Europe or the colonial empires fell, but our minds also usually never look beyond what happens after the streets are clear from protesters and the champagne is poured from the celebration. The post period is the most important, yet somehow that gets removed from the lexicon of political memory.

Reasons for this forgetfulness, or parts blocked out of our happy memories of democratic revolutions are bountiful. The media loss of interest is probably the main reason.

In a world where news happens in a split second, the focus turns to that particular event. Even news that we were once gaga over a month ago has become a blur the next month. In its place is another Charlie Sheen rehab storie or a Snookie filled surprise. More partisan bickering in congress does a sufficient job at filling this void. as well.

This probably explains our different interpretations of history. For example, pride for the U.S. in the Cold War because of the rippping of the iron curtain becomes the historical narrative here, but for countries like the Ukraine or Belarus regimes changed several times since the fall of communism, not always for the better. Yet due to the U.S. presenting a “winning narrative” we think history stopped in 1989.

Twitter and Facebook might be a good tool to organize social protests, but it also contributes to destruction of the mind. I root for the Egyptian people to succeed in their revolutionary endeavors. Nevertheless, I fear most of the revolution will be lost in the history books to a “winning” narrative for democracy if the Egyptian people pull off losing the rest of the story one that explains the rest of history and helps provide lessons for future movements about what to do. Sadly, that is the part we always forget.

To read more opinions by John Stang check out his blog called the “Independent Internationalist.”  Also listen to his radio show on WRKE 100.3 FM, also online at wrke.org, about U.S. foreign policy and politics on Tuesdays from 1-3 pm est.