Secret History: a collection of Soviet-era samizdat, illegal documents circulated by dissidents in opposition to the state.
Secret History: a collection of Soviet-era samizdat, illegal documents circulated by dissidents in opposition to the state.

The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas

New book by Gal Beckerman '98 explores the conditions required for revolutionary ideas to foment—or fester.

Nora Hickey | October 20, 2022

The year was 1968, and a Russian poet moved between empty apartments to clandestinely type up censored pamphlets, known as samizdat, to document abuses by Soviet leaders.

In 2017, members of the alt-right chatted endlessly on Discord, mapping out plans for an organized, aggressive gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In 2020, as a novel virus surfaced, scientists, doctors, public health experts, and others conversed anxiously on a long email chain named “Red Dawn” about what to do.

Such radical and revolutionary movements seem to take root in intimate spaces and media, a new book by reporter Gal Beckerman ’98 tells us—and the media in which these extraordinary, sometimes treacherous seeds are sown have evolved. In his expansive, well-researched second book The Quiet Before, Beckerman deconstructs how various media worked in the past as incubators for new ideas, and asks if, and how, they do so now.

Exploring stories of new thought, from pre- and post-internet movements, he argues that in order for new ideas to fully flower—or fester—they need secluded space and time in which to do so. Beckerman builds his argument by first looking at historical figures and movements and the various platforms where they nursed ideas—some effective, others not. He chooses lesser-known examples to explore, which provides for a fresh and intriguing history lesson. A particular standout is a chapter on anticolonialist ideas circulating in the “Grumblers’ Row” section of a Ghanian newspaper from the 1930s. The newspaper at the time was helmed by Nnamdi Azikiwe, the future president of Nigeria, who welcomed discussion in his paper. Beckerman says, “The debates in the pages of the Post were sometimes serious—one forum straightforwardly asked the readers, ‘Is the Gold Coast a nation?’—and sometimes trivial, but they were the only way to move an anti-imperialist movement forward.” With evocative narrative, a chapter on the 1990s-era zines (self-produced mini books that could be easily xeroxed and distributed) of the Riot Grrrls (an organically grown third-wave feminist group that rose out of punk culture) also stirs nostalgia for these more tangible forms of thinking and communication.

 When the book turns its attention to the internet era, there’s no audible buzz of dial-up or flashing computer screens, but the distinctly different atmosphere of the cyberspace is palpable. Suddenly, we are in the moment where “an uprising . . . now scheduled on Facebook” doesn’t sound ludicrous. Money is inextricable from contemporary platforms that host radical ideas, where platform developers have to deal with “constant pressure to figure out how to make this work as a business.” This umbrella of capitalism makes the social and political movements of the internet age appear less authentic, as if they can be bought by the highest bidder.

Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music