The Unknown Rebel

With a single act of defiance, a lone Chinese hero revived the world's image of courage

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More than a third of a century ago, before anyone had ever heard of videotapes or the World Wide Web or 24-hour TV news stations, Daniel Boorstin, in his uncannily prescient book The Image, described how, as we move deeper into what he called the Graphic Revolution, technology would threaten to diminish us. Ideas, even ideals, would be reduced to the level of images, he argued, and faith itself might be simplified into credulity. "Two centuries ago, when a great man appeared," the historian wrote, "people looked for God's purpose in him; today we look for his press agent."

The hero--so ran Boorstin's prophecy--was being replaced by the celebrity, and where once our leaders seemed grander versions of ourselves, now they just looked like us on a giant screen. Nowadays, as we read about the purported telephone messages of a sitting President and listen to the future King of England whisper to his mistress, the power of technology not just to dehumanize but to demystify seems 30 times stronger than even Boorstin predicted.

But the man with the tank showed us another face, so to speak, of the camera and gave us an instance in which the image did not cut humanity down to size but elevated and affirmed it, serving as an instrument for democracy and justice. Instead of making the lofty trivial, as it so often seems to do, the image made the passing eternal and assisted in the resistance of an airbrushed history written by the winners. Technology, which can so often implement violence or oppression, can also give a nobody a voice and play havoc with power's vertical divisions by making a gesture speak a thousand words. The entire Tiananmen uprising, in fact, was a subversion underwritten by machines, which obey no government and observe no borders: the protesters got around official restrictions by communicating with friends abroad via fax; they followed their own progress--unrecorded on Chinese TV--by watching themselves on foreigners' satellite sets in the Beijing Hotel; and in subsequent years they have used the Internet--and their Western training--to claim and disseminate an economic freedom they could not get politically.

The second half of the century now ending has been shadowed by one overwhelming, ungovernable thought: that the moods, even the whims, of a single individual, post-Oppenheimer, could destroy much of the globe in a moment. Yet the image of the man before the tank stands for the other side of that dark truth: that in a world ever more connected, the actions of a regular individual can light up the whole globe in an instant. And for centuries the walls of the grand palaces and castles of the Old World have been filled with ceremonial and often highly flattering pictures of noblemen and bewigged women looking out toward the posterity they hope to shape.

But nowadays, in the video archives of the memory, playing in eternal rerun, are many new faces, unknown, that remind us how much history is made at the service entrance by people lopped out of the official photographs or working in obscurity to fashion our latest instruments and cures. In a century in which so many tried to impress their monogram on history, often in blood red, the man with the tank--Wang Weilin, or whoever--stands for the forces of the unnamed: the Unknown Soldier of a new Republic of the Image.

Pico Iyer is an essayist and novelist, author most recently of Tropical Classical

The Unknown Rebel

YOUNG REBELS
They heard the restless murmurs, the sounds of a generation finding its voice. And while some of their movements fizzled, others became full-throated cries of rebellion.

ABBIE HOFFMAN
The court jester of 1960s radicalism, Hoffman founded the Youth International Party and was devoted to protesting the Vietnam War. In 1968 Hoffman and six others were charged with inciting violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. He was ultimately cleared.

DANIEL COHN-BENDIT
Known as "Danny the Red" for his matched ideology and hair, Cohn-Bendit led French university students in a 1968 revolt against "the System." More than 10,000 students battled police in Paris' Latin Quarter, 8 million French workers went on strike, and Cohn-Bendit was expelled to Germany.

THE CAPTORS OF TEHRAN
To Americans, they were an archetype of terror: nameless militant students who stormed the U.S. embassy in Iran in November 1979 and took 52 hostages. The students, some as young as 16, helped doom a U.S. President--and heralded a new age of fundamentalism.

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