There is something truly wonderful about the fact than an obscure, 83-year-old American disciple of Gandhi helped inspire and facilitate the Egyptian revolution. When one sentence, buried well down in a New York Times story on Monday quoted a protester recounting that Egyptian activists had studied the work of an American, Gene Sharp, editors everywhere drew blanks and turned to Google. Even most progressives didn't recognize the name.
Sharp turns out to be an Oxford Ph.D, who has spent his life working on the theory and practical strategy of nonviolent resistance. You might think of him as a cross between Gandhi, pacifist A.J. Muste, and the legendary organizer Saul Alinsky.
Though most Americans have never heard of him, opponents of dictatorship the world over know him well. Sharp's works, including "198 Methods of Nonviolent Action," have been translated into 24 languages, have been the subject of organizing workshops, and have inspired activists from Albania to Zimbabwe. His master work, "From Dictatorship to Democracies," is familiar to democracy organizers the world over.
Sharp's small institute, which he runs out of his modest home in East Boston, is named for that pacifist, Albert Einstein, who actually wrote the introduction to Sharp's first book. His latest book, "Sharp's Dictionary of Power and Struggle," is to be published this fall by Oxford Press.
Several things are inspiring about this story. First is the fact that Sharp is an American. He epitomizes soft power in the best sense -- the worldwide prestige of ennobling, practical, radical ideas that have always reflected the best about America.
There is an American chain that links Sharp to Martin Luther King, to the Wobblies, to Susan B. Anthony, Fredrick Douglass, and right back to Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson. If the modern America that props up despots like Mubarak retains any credibility at all in a world suffering repression but trying to declare independence, it is due to this authentically American lineage.
Second, in an age of celebrity intellectuals, branding, and tweeting, Sharp proves that most such forms of notoriety and dissemination are crap. Pop idea mongers, even relatively serious ones such as Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Levitt, are more about clever packaging and branding than deep thought. In an era when the signature of pop intellectuals is attention deficit disorder, Sharp is a lifer.
If a celebrity is defined as someone who is famous for being famous, Sharp shunned celebrity and self-promotion, but the people who needed to know about his ideas found their way to him. It gives you hope that ideas, not just packaging and contrived narrative, really can make a difference.
Most charming of all is Sharp's paradoxical relationship to the Internet. The revolution, in the Egyptian case, was tweeted. And you can get Sharp's writings in a couple of dozen languages, free on the Web. But Sharp himself needs help from an assistant to send e-mails, much less using Facebook or Tweeter. The Web dissemination of his ideas is the work of his followers. He is a radical intellectual of the old school.
And as a lifelong activist, Sharp walked the talk. He did nine months of prison time at Danbury as a conscientious objector during the Korean War and participated in the early civil-rights sit-ins. He was a collaborator of America's most celebrated pacifist of the Cold War era, A.J. Muste, a distinction that he shares with The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg.
The mainstream media did not know quite how to handle the surprise discovery of Sharp. American hero? Dangerous Radical?
The New York Times sent Sheryl Gay Stolberg to track down Sharp at his very modest East Boston home that doubles as his Albert Einstein Institute. But in an otherwise informative page-one profile, Stolberg (or her editors) composed this appalling paragraph, which could be used in journalism classes as an epic example of both missing the point and botching an attempt to cover your ass:
Some people suspect Mr. Sharp of being a closet peacenik and a lefty -- in the 1950s, he wrote for a publication called "Peace News" and he once worked as personal secretary to A.J. Muste, a noted labor union activist and pacifist -- but he insists that he outgrew his own earlier pacifism and describes himself as "trans-partisan."
Here is the translation: Uh-oh, this profile is turning out to be rather affectionate, but the guy seems to be some kind of radical. So we need a disclaimer lest I, the objective Times reporter, seem sympathetic to radicals. So let's see. First, let's create a straw man, followed by a disclaimer: "Some people suspect Mr. Sharp of being a closet peacenik and a lefty."
Jesus wept! Who are some people? Peacenik is a gratuitous pejorative, an insulting '50s era synonym for pacifist -- but of course Gene Sharp is a pacifist. Nonviolent, passive resistance has been the whole point of his life's work. You might as well write that some people suspect Gandhi of being a pacifist.
But then Stolberg compounds the crime by leading the witness, so she can quote him as confirming that he "outgrew" his earlier pacifism. Really? You could have fooled me.
The mainstream press is scared of its shadow when it comes to celebrating necessary radicalism. The parts of the world that we Americans most admire know this obscure American, Gene Sharp. If we are ignorant of him, or even worse, don't know what to make of him, shame on us.