Political power, a poignant past and the powder keg present collided magnificently at the Paley Center for Media in New York City on the evening of February 9. Former President Bill Clinton was on hand to give opening remarks for an intimate, yet pivotal conversation taking place on the cusp of a dramatic moment in history.
Before an audience of intellectuals, business leaders and media heavyweights, civil rights luminary Andrew Young and Young's godson and co-author, Kabir Sehgal, discussed their new book, Walk in My Shoes. This courageous memoir includes an eloquent foreword by Clinton and a message for the ages. Rest assured, this was not your typical book party.
That night, Clinton's words opened the door to a discussion that touched on the future of our youth, race relations, economic empowerment of the poor at home and abroad, and democracy in Egypt. These heady topics were challenging even for a crowd including the likes of iconic newsman Dan Rather, CNN's TJ Holmes and Hearst Corporation CEO, Frank Bennack.
Despite this meeting of the minds, no one in the room predicted the week would end with monumental change in the Middle East. Mubarak's rule still hung in the balance. Egypt's destiny was still uncertain. Questions remained. Bill Clinton though, connected the dots. He was the bright line that linked our nation's humbling history with racial inequity to understanding the needs of the disenfranchised in our current technocratic world order.
With his characteristic, uplifting tone, Clinton stated, "The real purpose of this book is to inspire all the rest of us to ask what we can do, having achieved a certain position in our lives, to help other people take the first steps toward living their own dreams."
Now being dubbed President of the World by MSNBC, Clinton was honored later that night at the star-studded amfAR New York Gala for his long-standing commitment to AIDS research. Though before any awards were received, Andrew Young's important book, grounded in the ideals of the civil rights movement, was Clinton's touching stone. The Paley Center, an incubator for thought at the cutting edge of modern media, was Clinton's conduit for discourse.
Walk in My Shoes is an inspiring and passionate dialogue between men of two different generations, races and vantage points. Imparting a mentor's knowledge to his mentee, the history-making Andrew Young draws from his rich experience serving as a top aide to Martin Luther King, a pastor, congressman, mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations. Kabir Sehgal, an educated and multitalented young gentleman is the yin to Young's yang, productively taking his hero to task with honesty and humor. Where Young and Sehgal ultimately meet is through their deep intellectual curiosity, mutual respect of divergent perspectives and most importantly, their optimistic outlook on the future of the human condition.
With his refreshing, no-holds-barred worldview, Andrew Young's meditations serve as timeless precepts for unraveling the complexities of our modern times. Having a front row seat to the watershed historic moments of the 20th and 21st centuries, Young has earned his cred. Through his book and in the thoughts he shared at the Paley Center, it is clear that Andrew Young genuinely believes in the ability of youth to lead and engender broad institutional change.
The underlying goal of achieving drastic social, political and economic reform that drew legions of followers to Young and Dr. King in the sixties is shared by the primarily youth driven movements seen in Iran, and now more successfully in Egypt. Yet, the key variant distinguishing these revolutions of different eras has been their medium for creation and expression.
Why was Wael Ghonim, a Google executive, targeted and kidnapped by pro-Mubarak forces? Why did he then become the face of a revolution that triumphantly overturned Egypt's authoritarian government? Are the principles that sparked our nation's struggle against racial and economic injustice now being co-opted through New Media to spur democracy movements across the world?
Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of the Paley Center, commented on the role of New Media in shaping Egypt's revolution by stating, "I think the role of New Media, social media and the technology of Facebook and Twitter are having an enormous role in the same way that we first saw it in Iran...it is probably one of the biggest sources of the organization of the rebellion or revolt, or however it may be characterized, that is going on."
A broad and loosely defined term, "New Media" encompasses, in one respect, the dizzying array of digitized platforms and social networks through which anyone with an internet connection, even those located in the most remote corners of the world, can receive and communicate information. In addition to Facebook and Twitter, YouTube, online periodicals, twenty-four hour web-based news networks, blogs covering every subject known to man, and mega content sites such as the merging AOL and Huffington Post, are just a few creations resulting from the cross-pollination of traditional and social media. Undoubtedly, more mutations are to come with resounding impact on how we think, communicate and ultimately, how our governments govern.
The channels through which repression comes to be understood by a people and its dialectic formulated and then communicated revolve now, more than ever, around the powerful language of New Media. Effectively, New Media can be used as a tool for empowerment by those who seek equality and to establish sound rule of law. Dangerously, New Media can also be used as a weapon of suppression, being manipulated in message or entirely cut off by those who understand its regime changing force. There is a clear reason why the internet was shut down in Egypt as protest forces emerged and celebrity Western journalists Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Cooper were attacked in the streets of Cairo. New Media's power to precipitate explosive societal change was feared in the soul of those whose grip was rapidly loosening.
Kabir Sehgal made an astute observation about the positive and negative implications of the use of New Media in a the context of reform movements. He noted, "I think the most important thing that we are seeing out of Egypt is the power to organize. Imagine if we had social media back in the sixties and seventies when people were just calling each other up. This way it is just a Twitter message or a Facebook message. But the problem is we need to figure out ways when it is shut down because most of the people who are providing the services are working with the government."
At its core, New Media offers immediate access to a world of aspiration where almost anyone can see and learn of what others have, don't have and what they want. Simultaneously, New Media has handed a global megaphone over to even the least powerful. It is now their mechanism for generating ideas and discussing with brethren across national boundaries how to permanently change their societies, economies, governments and most profoundly, their lives.
When asked about the role of New Media in promoting civil rights and democracy now and in the future, Dan Rather responded, "Part of it is to give voice... I can see it coming but the faster it comes, the better it will be."
At the end of this thought provoking evening, Bill Clinton had left the room, the crowd was thinning and there was a quiet moment with Andrew Young, the man who helped start it all decades ago. The inevitable question arose. How would the civil rights movement have been different if you and Dr. King had the internet, Facebook and Twitter?
He answered resoundingly, "Oh my God, we would have changed the world!"
I think they did.