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Dear young man who died on the fourth day of this turbulent 2011, dear Mohammed Bouazizi,
I want to write you about an astonishing year—with three months yet to run. I want to tell you about the power of despair and the margins of hope and the bonds of civil society.
I wish you could see the way that your small life and large death became a catalyst for the fall of so many dictators in what is known as the Arab Spring.
We are now in some sort of an American Fall. Civil society here has suddenly hit the ground running, and we are all headed toward a future no one imagined when you, a young Tunisian vegetable seller capable of giving so much, who instead had so much taken from you, burned yourself to death to protest your impoverished and humiliated state.
You lit yourself on fire on December 17, 2010, exactly nine months before Occupy Wall Street began. Your death two weeks later would be the beginning of so much. You lit yourself on fire because you were voiceless, powerless and evidently without hope. And yet you must have had one small hope left: that your death would have an impact; that you, who had so few powers, even the power to make a decent living or protect your modest possessions or be treated fairly and decently by the police, had the power to protest. As it turned out, you had that power beyond your wildest dreams, and you had it because your hope, however diminished, was the dream of the many, the dream of what we now have started calling the 99 percent.
And so Tunisia erupted and overthrew its government, and Egypt caught fire, as did Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya, where the nonviolent protests elsewhere turned into a civil war the rebels have almost won after several bloody months. Who could have imagined a Middle East without Ben Ali of Tunisia, without Mubarak, without Qaddafi? And yet here we are, in the unimaginable world. Again. And almost everywhere.
Japan was literally shaken loose from its plans and arrangements by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and that country has undergone profound soul-searching about values and priorities. China is turbulent, and no one knows how much longer the discontent of the repressed middle class and the hungry poor there will remain containable. India: who knows? The Saudi government is so frightened it even gave women a few new rights. Syrians wouldn’t go home even when their army began to shoot them down. Crowds of up to a million Italians have been protesting austerity measures in recent months. The Greeks, well, if you’ve been following events, you know about the Greeks. Have I forgotten Israel? Huge demonstrations against the economic status quo there lasted all summer and into this fall.
As you knew at the outset, it’s all about economics. This wild year, Greece boiled over again into crisis with colossal protests, demonstrations, blockades and outright street warfare. Icelanders continued their fight against bailing out the banks that sank their country’s economy in 2008 and continue pelting politicians with eggs. Their former prime minister may become the first head of state to face legal charges in connection with the global financial collapse. Spanish youth began to rise up on May 15.