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The Dignity Revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia -- and America?

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EGYPT PROTESTERS
AP

Dignity.

This is the bedrock theme, the master chord echoing in the revolutions unfolding in Egypt and Tunisia in these historic weeks, as stated eloquently and pridefully -- and with earthquake force -- by their people out in the streets.

While other revolutions of late might be color-coded (Ukraine's "orange revolution," for one), these rolling out now in the Arab world, riveting our attention and sympathy, can properly be called "the dignity revolutions."

Over and over and over, protesters who gather in Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square -- representing the spectrum: young, middle-aged, and old; working class and professionals; women as well as men -- keep sounding the dignity theme. You see it in their hand-painted signs and in interviews; it is laced in journalists' on-the-ground reporting (here and here and here): The protesters are united in their revulsion at decades---in the case of the young people spearheading the protests, their whole lives---of official corruption, oppression, police brutality, torture, fraudulent elections, few jobs, and no future. To quote the protesters: "Enough!" (See Al Jazeera English homepage here.)

No wonder this protest is so powerful. Dignity is not a mere want, but a need -- the most profound, elemental, human need. Not to be humiliated, but to be respected for one's humanity, to have one's voice heard. As a motivator, it confers the magical properties of an elixir, powerful enough to banish fear, even powerful enough, after enduring two days of brutalization from pro-Mubarak thugs, to propel the protesters in even greater numbers back into Tahrir Square on the "Friday of Departure" (Feb. 4) to face down the fear of death and up the ante for the dictator's exit. Breathtaking! (As of this posting, the crowds are reported even larger still.) Moreover, this general demand for dignity seemingly even trumps women's inequality, to judge by the participation and prowess of the women on view.

No doubt these dignity revolutions will have a game-changing, paradigm-shifting effect on the politics of the Middle East, where autocratic rule is the rule (here and here). The big, fraught question is: Can these revolutions make the full transit from top-down autocracy to bottom-up democracy? Pro-regime loyalists won't yield power voluntarily; and ad hoc people's revolutions can be hijacked by organized Islamists. But to ride out what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls "a perfect storm of powerful trends," dignity may prove the sturdiest craft. Likewise the impact on U.S. foreign policy, which has long been bifurcated (some say hypocritical): advocating democratic values while propping up dictators to maintain stability. Will we finally align our walk with our talk? Were the Obama administration to back Egypt's transit to dignity, it would herald a New Day in foreign affairs. (As of this posting, the administration is equivocating.)

But a thought keeps recurring. As an American, marveling at the monumental scope and moral rightness of these dignity revolutions, I cannot but wonder at the resonance of the notion here and wish for a greater measure of dignity in my own culture. To stand on one's dignity here is not to be cheered, but mocked. Without tracing our cultural history, I can say, without much fear of rebuttal: Dignity hasn't been seen or heard on these shores for a long, long time.

Examples abound: TV "reality" shows are extravaganzas of humiliation. Reasoned debate is shouted down by shock-jocks. "Mean girls" rule on TV and in too many schools. Newsweek gleefully reports the apotheosis of the "crazy chick" in film. In a new low, MTV's Skins, a series nominally about teenagers, is cited for child pornography. Pornography: It's degrading and everywhere. Giving it all a pass are critics who hail things "bent" and "twisted." The catalog goes on and on. The nadir in our loss of a sense of human dignity was reached in the previous administration, when, in the Afghan and Iraq wars, America descended to torture (and sent some detainees to Egypt where the job was finished).

But then, dignity is one of a family of virtues -- virtue: another risible word -- that's simply not "cool" anymore. This family also includes the high-minded qualities (high-minded: not good either) of probity, prudence, honor, responsibility, virtue itself. Yet: These are exactly the qualities needed to repair our broken American enterprise.

Restoring dignity---respect for every citizen's humanity -- would detoxify our degraded politics. Probity -- truthfullness -- needs to replace "truthiness." Prudence -- care: Would that Wall Street had applied masses more care in their risk-taking that's causing so much damage to Main Street. (Maybe if Main Street hit the streets to demand some dignity....) As for the other qualities -- honor, responsibility, virtue -- it's more catalog of loss.

All this loss stems from a benighted pursuit of "edge" -- "pushing the envelope," probing every pathology, defining downward what it means to be "human." For a while after 9/11, the day "everything changed" supposedly, we did stand on our dignity and virtue -- then quickly sacked it for the previous "edgy" ethos. Meanwhile, the Arab street is now going, not for "edge," but in the opposite direction, for core: for the bedrock human values of dignity, self-respect. Doing so, it has hit on both a brilliant political strategy (who can be against dignity?) and a moral truth that elevates to the heights.

This is not to deny the presence of a conscientious public in America at present. But it is to say this public does not control our cultural narrative. Maybe it'll take a revolution?

But, enough; I don't mean for this meditation to pull focus, something we Americans do too often. I'm just saying: It is cognitive dissonance in the extreme to cheer the demand for dignity of peoples abroad when we deprived ourselves of this vital human quality some time ago -- and did so voluntarily.

We Americans might, for a switch, take a cue from the Arab street. The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, reporting from Tahrir Square on the "lion-hearted Egyptians," wishes the same. In fact the whole world would benefit incalculably by embracing what those lion-hearted protesters are demanding. Dignity: As moral and policy, it's sufficient to reset History.

[See 25-min. film, "Egypt Burning," at Al Jazeera English, here.]

Carla Seaquist is author of "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," a collection of commentary. Also a playwright, she is author of "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and is working on a play titled "Prodigal" (www.carlaseaquist.com).