Charting the Wild Winds of Change in 2011
Other Selves, Other Lives
Two thousand eleven has already been a remarkable year in which a particular kind of humanity appeared again and again in very different places, and we will see a great deal more of it in Japan before that catastrophe is over. Perhaps its first appearance was at the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson on January 8, where the lone gunman was countered by several citizens who took remarkable action, none more so than Giffords’s new intern, 20-year-old Daniel Martinez, who later said, “It was probably not the best idea to run toward the gunshots. But people needed help.”
Martinez reached the congresswoman’s side and probably saved her life by administering first aid, while 61-year-old Patricia Maisch grabbed the magazine so the shooter couldn’t reload, and 74-year-old Bill Badger helped wrestle him to the ground, though he’d been grazed by a bullet. One elderly man died because he shielded his wife rather than protect himself.
Everything suddenly changed and those people rose to the occasion heroically not in the hours, days or weeks a revolution gives, but within seconds. More sustained acts of bravery and solidarity would make the revolutions to come. People would risk their lives and die for their beliefs and for each other. And in killing them, regimes would lose their last shreds of legitimacy.
Violence always seems to me the worst form of tyranny. It deprives people of their rights, including the right to live. The rest of the year so far has been dominated by battles against the tyrannies that have sometimes cost lives and sometimes just ground down those lives into poverty and indignity, from Bahrain to Madison, Wisconsin.
Yes, to Madison. I have often wondered if the United States could catch fire the way other countries sometimes do. The public space and spirit of Argentina or Egypt often seem missing here, for what changes in revolution is largely spirit, emotion, belief—intangible things, as delicate as butterfly wings, but our world is made of such things. They matter. The governors govern by the consent of the governed. When they lose that consent, they resort to violence, which can stop some people directly, but aims to stop most of us through the power of fear.
And then sometimes a young man becomes fearless enough to post a song attacking the dictator who has ruled all his young life. Or people sign a declaration like Charter 77, the 1977 Czech document that was a milestone on the way to the revolutions of 1989, as well as a denunciation of the harassment of an underground rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe. Or a group of them found a labor union on the waterfront in Gdansk, Poland, in 1980, and the first cracks appear in the Soviet Empire.
Those who are not afraid are ungovernable, at least by fear, that favorite tool of the bygone era of George W. Bush. Jonathan Schell, with his usual beautiful insight, saw this when he wrote of the uprising in Tahrir Square:
The murder of the 300 people, it may be, was the event that sealed Mubarak’s doom. When people are afraid, murders make them take flight. But when they have thrown off fear, murders have the opposite effect and make them bold. Instead of fear, they feel solidarity. Then they “stay”—and advance. And there is no solidarity like solidarity with the dead. That is the stuff of which revolution is made.
When a revolution is made, people suddenly find themselves in a changed state—of mind and of nation. The ordinary rules are suspended, and people become engaged with each other in new ways, and develop a new sense of power and possibility. People behave with generosity and altruism; they find they can govern themselves; and, in many ways, the government simply ceases to exist. A few days into the Egyptian revolution, Ben Wedeman, CNN’s senior correspondent in Cairo, was asked why things had calmed down in the Egyptian capital. He responded: “Things have calmed down because there is no government here,” pointing out that security forces had simply disappeared from the streets.
This state often arises in disasters as well, when the government is overwhelmed, shut down or irrelevant for people intent on survival and then on putting society back together. If it rarely lasts, in the process it does change individuals and societies, leaving a legacy. To my mind, the best government is one that most resembles this moment when civil society reigns in a spirit of hope, inclusiveness and improvisational genius.
In Egypt, there were moments of violence when people pushed back against the government’s goons, and for a week it seemed like the news was filled with little but pictures of bloody heads. Still, no armies marched, no superior weaponry decided the fate of the country, nobody was pushed from power by armed might. People gathered in public and discovered themselves as the public, as civil society. They found that the repression and exploitation they had long tolerated was intolerable and that they could do something about it, even if that something was only gathering, standing together, insisting on their rights as the public, as the true nation that the government can never be.
It is remarkable how, in other countries, people will one day simply stop believing in the regime that had, until then, ruled them, as African-Americans did in the South here fifty years ago. Stopping believing means no longer regarding those who rule you as legitimate, and so no longer fearing them. Or respecting them. And then, miraculously, they begin to crumble.
In the Philippines in 1986, millions of people gathered in response to a call from Catholic-run Radio Veritas, the only station the dictatorship didn’t control or shut down.
Then the army defected and dictator Fernando Marcos was ousted from power after twenty-one years.
In Argentina in 2001, in the wake of a brutal economic collapse, such a sudden shift in consciousness toppled the neoliberal regime of Fernando de la Rúa and ushered in a revolutionary era of economic desperation, but also of brilliant, generous innovation. A shift in consciousness brought an outpouring of citizens into the streets of Buenos Aires, suddenly no longer afraid after the long nightmare of a military regime and its aftermath. In Iceland in early 2009, in the wake of a global economic meltdown of special fierceness on that small island nation, a once-docile population almost literally drummed out of power the ruling party that had managed the country into bankruptcy.
Can’t Happen Here?
In the United States, the communion between the governed and the governors and the public spaces in which to be reborn as a civil society resurgent often seem missing. This is a big country whose national capital is not much of a center and whose majority seems to live in places that are themselves decentered.
At its best, revolution is an urban phenomenon. Suburbia is counterrevolutionary by design. For revolution, you need to converge, to live in public, to become the public, and that’s a geographical as well as a political phenomenon. The history of revolution is the history of great public spaces: the Place de la Concorde during the French Revolution; the Ramblas in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War; Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 (a splendid rebellion that was crushed); the great surge that turned the divide of the Berlin Wall into a gathering place in that same year; the insurrectionary occupation of the Zocalo of Mexico City after corrupt presidential elections and of the space in Buenos Aires that gave the Dirty War’s most open opposition its name: Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the Mothers of the Plaza of May.
It’s all very well to organize on Facebook and update on Twitter, but these are only preludes. You also need to rise up, to pour out into the streets. You need to be together in body, for only then are you truly the public with the full power that a public can possess. And then it needs to matter. The United States is good at trivializing and ignoring insurrections at home.
The authorities were shaken by the uprising in Seattle that shut down the World Trade Organization meeting on November 30, 1999, but the actual nonviolent resistance there was quickly fictionalized into a tale of a violent rabble. Novelist and then–New Yorker correspondent Mavis Gallant wrote in 1968:
The difference between rebellion at Columbia [University] and rebellion at the Sorbonne is that life in Manhattan went on as before, while in Paris every section of society was set on fire, in the space of a few days. The collective hallucination was that life can change, quite suddenly and for the better. It still strikes me as a noble desire…
Revolution is also the action of people pushed to the brink. Rather than fall over, they push back. When he decided to push public employees hard and strip them of their collective bargaining rights, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took a gamble. In response, union members, public employees and then the public of Wisconsin began to gather on February 11. By February 15, they had taken over the state’s Capitol building as the revolution in Egypt was still at full boil. They are still gathering. Last weekend, the biggest demonstration in Madison’s history was held, led by a “tractorcade” of farmers. The Wisconsin firefighters have revolted too. And the librarians. And the broad response has given encouragement to citizens in other states fighting similar cutbacks on essential services and rights.
Republicans like to charge the rest of us with “class war” when we talk about economic injustice, and that’s supposed to be a smear one should try to wriggle out of. But what’s going on in Wisconsin is a class war, in which billionaire-backed Walker is serving the interests of corporations and the super-rich, and this time no one seems afraid of the epithet. Jokes and newspaper political cartoons, as well as essays and talks, remark on the reality of our anti–trickle-down economy, where wealth is being pumped uphill to the palaces at a frantic rate, and on the reality that we’re not poor or broke, just crazy in how we distribute our resources.
What’s scary about the situation is that it is a test case for whether the party best serving big corporations can strip the rest of us of our rights and return us to a state of poverty and powerlessness. If the people who gathered in Madison don’t win, the war will continue and we’ll all lose.
Oppression often works—for a while. And then it backfires. Sometimes immediately, sometimes after several decades. Walker has been nicknamed the Mubarak of the Midwest. Much of the insurrection and the rage in the Middle East isn’t just about tyranny; it’s about economic injustice, about young people who can’t find work, can’t afford to get married or leave their parents’ homes, can’t start their lives. This is increasingly the story for young Americans as well, and here it’s clearly a response to the misallocation of resources, not absolute scarcity. It could just be tragic, or it could get interesting when the young realize they are being shafted, and that life could be different. Even that it could change, quite suddenly, and for the better.
There was a splendid surliness in the wake of the economic collapse of 2008: rage at the executives who had managed the economy into the ground and went home with outsized bonuses, rage at the system, rage at the sheer gratuitousness of the suffering of those who were being foreclosed upon and laid off. In this country, economic inequality has reached a level not seen since before the stock market crash of 1929.
Hard times are in store for most people on Earth, and those may be times of boldness. Or not. The butterflies are out there, but when their flight stirs the winds of insurrection no one knows beforehand.
So remember to expect the unexpected, but not just to wait for it. Sometimes you have to become the unexpected, as the young heroes and heroines of 2011 have. I am sure they themselves are as surprised as anyone. Since she very nearly had the first word, let Asmaa Mahfouz have the last word: “As long as you say there is no hope, then there will be no hope, but if you go down and take a stance, then there will be hope.”