The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s the right process for changing the world?

A study of social movements across centuries and continents finds power in the simple acts of talking and thinking.

FILE - In this June 4, 2020, file photo, demonstrators protest near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. The federal government deliberately targeted Black Lives Matter protesters via heavy-handed criminal prosecutions in an attempt to disrupt and discourage the global movement that swept the nation last summer in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, according to a new report released Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, by The Movement for Black Lives. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
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THE QUIET BEFORE: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas

By Gal Beckerman. Crown. 331 pp. $28.99

Gal Beckerman has written a book about process as if process were an end in itself. Because it usually is.

“The Quiet Before” is a quirky, delightful mix of a book that explores the intellectual impulses behind a series of cultural shifts and political revolts occurring across continents and centuries. Beckerman scours scientific correspondence from Europe’s Republic of Letters, parses Twitter debates by Black Lives Matter Twitter activists, tracks Soviet-era samizdat writings and revels in 1990s Riot Grrrl zines, to name just a few of the movements and moments he considers, delving into the principles and grievances behind them all. However, his focus is on how these movements communicated — the ways that writers and intellectuals shared, argued and refined ideas before inflicting them on the world. “If we rewind to the instant when a solid block of shared reality is first cracked,” Beckerman writes, “it’s usually a group of people talking.” Talking does not just reflect thinking, but shapes it, too, or — to use a favorite Beckerman word — incubates it. He is like a guy who pokes his head out of the car window not to feel the breeze through his hair, but to look down and examine the traffic lines.

Beckerman prefers “slow thinking” — the steady accumulation and dissemination of knowledge that begins with “the friction of two people trading ideas” — and worries that modern social causes, driven by hyperactive social-media channels, move too fast to last. Activists using Facebook propelled the Arab Spring protests that toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, for instance, but the medium “proved useless when it came to organizing themselves into a true opposition.” The notion is not novel — Zeynep Tufekci’s outstanding 2017 book, “Twitter and Tear Gas,” which Beckerman cites, developed similar arguments — but Beckerman’s historically expansive case studies and engaging storytelling make “The Quiet Before” distinct and worthwhile. Of course, the quiet isn’t always so hushed, the before and after life of an idea are not always clearly marked, and the thinking rarely seems leisurely to those engaged in it.

Beckerman, a senior editor at the 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 side hustle as a “connector of Europe’s greatest minds.” 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 from multiple locations), instilling a sensibility of scientific inquiry and rigor among the correspondents. Letters did not simply constitute one-on-one exchanges, Beckerman emphasizes. They were “oil in the gears of idea production” or “messages carried along a stream with many tributaries.” Yes, Beckerman has a weakness for metaphors, but he shows how Peirsec’s writings circulated well beyond their original audiences, multiplying the power of his ideas.

Such letters are not that different, then, from the email chains ricocheting among infectious disease specialists, emergency doctors and public health officials in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Beckerman explores one chain in particular, dubbed “Red Dawn” by its creators, that offered sanctuary for experts overwhelmed by their battles with illness, misinformation and uncertainty. It was “a closed network with people they trusted,” Beckerman writes, and it allowed the participants to develop recommendations that gained favor with local officials, especially once the national guidance proved confusing. “Four hundred years after Peirsec had deployed his letters to nurture the development of the scientific method,” Beckerman observes, “there was still a need for a private space where this work could happen, where the pursuit of observable truth could proceed safely away from the centrifugal force of politicization and demagoguery.”

In the political space, communication has tended to be far more public and volatile. The massive petitions for expanded male suffrage by the Chartist movement in mid-19th-century Britain led to violent uprisings, while the manifestos authored by Futurist activists in pre-Fascist Italy relished the notion of a war so brutal that “it would purify the country and allow them to start from zero.” (They soon got their wish when the Great War began in 1914, and the Futurists became advocates for intervention.) Beckerman’s descriptions of the major players are memorable — Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor was “all Irish brogue and ginger muttonchops,” while Futurist ringleader Filippo Marinetti, with his handlebar mustache and bowler hat, resembled “a silent movie villain about to tie a woman to the railroad tracks.” But the author always returns to the mechanisms for transmitting ideas. For O’Connor, the value of garnering support for a petition was less about achieving its specific demands than about the work of gathering 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, as outlandish as they could be (one was immodestly dubbed “The Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe”), offered the movement’s adherents “a place to articulate their fantasies” and to experience that “swaggering feeling that the world could be dragged, kicking and bloody, into the future.”

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The most compelling of Beckerman’s case studies did drag the world to a new place. He lingers on the early years of Nnamdi Azikiwe — who decades later would become the first president of an independent Nigeria — when he was the daring young editor of Accra’s African Morning Post, a stridently anti-colonial newspaper powered by the written contributions of its readers. British colonial authorities arrested Azikiwe in 1935 and tried him for sedition, and his exoneration affirmed local newspapers’ “right to their public space, the small freedom to debate among themselves,” Beckerman writes. In the paper’s pages, readers and writers questioned their colonial status and their tribal divisions, igniting what Beckerman calls “those first flickers of a national identity, born of opinions rubbing against each other in ways they never had before.”

Similarly, 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 in hiding, by word of mouth, the publication described conditions in prison camps and psychiatric institutions — of the kind in which Gorbanevskaya would be confined for periods on bogus mental-health diagnoses — and detailed the arbitrariness of Soviet courts. In their attempt at radical transparency about Soviet life, the poet and her collaborators were forerunners of the glasnost that would upend the Soviet system years later. “They were interested,” Beckerman explains, “in shattering the distinctly Soviet feeling of having two selves — one that whispered truths in private and another that was regularly called on to deny reality out loud.”

Beckerman is not the only one obsessed with process; his characters are, too. Tobi Vail was thinking 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 and power and anger over sex and body image and assault. “JIGSAW IS NOT A CONSUMER PRODUCT,” Vail wrote. “It is not a product at all. It is more of a process. A method. I’m starting to see that process is the key.” Pandemic-era health experts stressed to Beckerman that upholding the scientific method was a priority in their private email exchanges. Even the white nationalists organizing the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville were pleased with their process, meeting on the online gaming platform Discord to debate matters such as the optics of displaying swastikas and the safety features of different torches. “I think it’s a fantastic sign that we can have these disagreements now, and still stand together when it counts,” one participant wrote.

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

Hey, it’s a process. And it’s driven not just by the tools in hand but by the sensibility in mind. “Radical change. . . doesn’t start with yelling,” Beckerman concludes. “It starts with deliberation, a tempo that increases, a volume set first at a whisper. How else can you begin to picture what doesn’t yet exist?”

Carlos Lozada is The Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his recent book reviews, including:

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