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Murdoch's Arab Summer; We Always Knew, Now We Know

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Carl Bernstein describes the current uprising against Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation in terms he's intimately familiar with: Watergate. Give a child a hammer and every target looks like Nixon.

I think a more apt analogy would be the dazzling cycle of sea-change events that started in Tunisia and Egypt, and are now rolling forward to still uncertain conclusions in Libya and Syria.

In both cases, a long-standing acceptance of unchallengeable domination, of the remorseless wielding of power and intimidation, of dangerous coziness, of acknowledged but resigned and shrugged-off corruption, are suddenly and shockingly overturned.

In both cases, something very real and potent in the cultural and social climate, in the shared oxygen, in the inchoate frustrations and will of the public, have smacked together into a coalescing moment.

In both cases, it was the crossing of some primal line of decency that was the trigger. In Tunisia, the suicide of the fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was the locus of the cascade. In Murdoch's case, it was the phone hacking of Milly Dowler, and the heartless deletion of her voice-mail messages.

The sheer ruthlessness of the hacking, and the waves of disgust it ignited, gave what were heretofore gutless and complicit politicians the cover they needed. Compared to the courage of their peers in the Arab countries oppressed by security apparatuses, kleptocracies and dictators, the sanctimonious bleating of Cameron and Miliband, so late in the day, come across as vapid grandstanding gestures -- the forced conversions by the might of the public will that they truly are.

And by the way, just as these politicians flattered, overlooked, and cosseted Murdoch in desperate pursuit (and defense) of their own self-interest -- the way schoolyard victims are obsequiously and tail-waggingly respectful to schoolyard bullies -- so too did both the Labor and Conservative parties coddle the indigenous Murdochs of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria. Oil was their version of favorable coverage.

It's always remarkable to witness these massive shifts in our emotional meteorology; these perfect emotional storms that accomplish immediately what probably could never be done gradually. They don't happen that often; an example that comes to mind was the American turn against McCarthyism, provoked in large part by Joseph Welch's famous statement directed to the Senator. It was the most dramatic moment of live television America had ever experienced:

"Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency? Have you no decency?"

But let's not be misled. As much as we may be enamored of the cathartic nature of these public purgations, they are essentially outbreaks of mob dynamics. So all the characteristics that are behind the dangers of the massing mob, all the risks of crowd psychology and group behavior -- as Elias Canetti described in the seminal "Crowds and Power" -- are at work here.

It's easy to pile on Murdoch now. It's more than easy, it's fun -- something that is in short supply in the U.K. these days given the rigors of austerity and Euro-angst. Investigations will continue, revelations will appear with such frequency that they are no longer revelatory, regulations and restraints on the press will be bruited about (most of them will be reactive, over-reaching, and probably more dangerous that the Murdochian infractions.)

But a better -- and sadly unlikely -- outcome would be to examine other unhealthily cozy and distorted relationships, for example, the one between investment banks and central governments, with the same long-overdue urgency for fundamental change that we're seeing in Parliament -- and Congress, in fact -- today.

Let's be honest. A lot more people have been permanently damaged by the relationship between the U.S. Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, and the SEC and Goldman Sachs and their cronies, than were injured by anything News Corporation did.

In a blazingly short time, Murdoch has gone from a monumental wielder of power who could be taken on only with profound trepidation, to someone who is vilified with glee. Gordon Brown felt just fine using the a taxonomy that involved "gutter," "sewer" and "rats" to describe News Corporation's practices. It strikes me as too much, too late. I'd rather see him take on the rich and still powerful.