Belated reflections on 2011

The Revolution has, in fact, been televised.

Since last September, I have been transfixed by the activity of the Occupy movements taking shape around America and elsewhere. Since last January, the Arab Spring and characteristic upheaval throughout the Mid East and North Africa have stunned me into silence. I’ve spent a long time sitting back and contemplating the events of the past year. I wanted to take my time, take it all in and craft and intelligent and humble response that was worthy of the dramatic and unprecedented events of 2011. I also was inclined to write an opus that covered the fall of governments, the power of media and outright revolution. And although it would be easy to write a soaring, emotional commendation of the Arab Spring and Occupy movements, tying them together in a glowing review of the power of the people to affect change, that approach seems slightly cheap to me. The thing is, especially for anyone even remotely liberally minded – its easy to laude these gains with unthinking applause. I thought something more reflective and nuanced was required. There are a lot of things I want to say about the events of 2011, and its difficult to tie them together into a single, coherent response.

So I’ll start with a bunch of disparate thoughts and see if that goes anywhere.

First, the events of the Arab Spring, as they seemed to kick everything off in the first place. The protests that initiated the fall of long-serving dictators throughout the Arab world began with personal acts of defiance that tumbled into a series of regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Syria, Morocco, Bahrain and Algeria also experienced civil unrest, although this upheaval hasn’t yielded the same quick and sweeping results. In Tunisia, the self-immolation of a fruit-seller protesting against his country’s bureaucracy, corruption, and indifference to his struggle ignited the movement. Who could have guessed that one kid’s rejection of the status quo could turn into something so profound and incredible as the resignation of Ben-Ali (served 24 years), and the fall of Hosni Mubarak (30 years), and Muammar al-Gaddafi (42 years)? These mythical bad guys were so entrenched in power their absence was almost inconceivable. I personally thought Gaddafi would forever be a part of the global psyche; a cartoon-like villain — parading, tirading, all the while accompanied by his army of AK-wielding hot chicks.

What this implies is that the world must have been ripe for it. Tunisians responded to the boy’s suicide by a string of outspoken protests and demonstrations, demanding Ben-Ali resign. Eventually he did. The success of the Tunisian demonstrators inspired awe-struck responses throughout the Arab world, who countered by starting revolutions of their own. Egypt came next. Whole cross-sections of society hit the streets and demanded that the  administration of Hosni Mubarak step down. Next came Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria.

I feel like I’m living in a narrative authored by starry-eyed democracy advocates. Not only was the Arab world gripped by protests, but lethargic and indifferent Americans were suddenly overcome with zeal and filled the streets. The Occupy movements effectively attempted to initiate a revolution of their own. Clearly inspired by the events of the Arab Spring, they filled various parks and squares and proceeded to vaguely describe their discontent. Although the movements were ill-defined and co-opted by almost every transient, leftist and outcast group in America, their presence was thought-provoking nevertheless.

Kim Jong-il dies. People in Russia finally start resisting Putin’s control.

Its almost too much.

There are a few notable things that these global events share. Firstly, the contribution of media to the various causes of protesters worldwide. Egyptians were armed with camera phones, recording violence and offering in up to the world in exchange for support for their causes. These revolutions were brought to you by Facebook and Twitter. Social media was integral in coordinating efforts and articulating aims, logistics and ideals. The media has become the new-game changer on the stage of global events. Second, but equally noteworthy, was the willingness of the masses to get out into the streets and publicly reject the status-quo. In some cases, they presented a unified body with clear demands, and in others, a disparate band with no clear mandate. Another common thread in the global protests is the element of being prompted by youth discontent, poverty and unemployment. Although the Occupy protesters surely suffered to a lesser degree from these ills than their protesting counterparts elsewhere, they were still motivated by perceived marginalisation by the wealthy and powerful. Most importantly, people worldwide were suddenly moved to take a look at the big picture and respond. This level of upheaval hasn’t occurred seen since the 60s and it is beyond remarkable. I still don’t know quite what to make of it.


Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

Or say ‘Lukashenko’.

Recent days have seen citizens of Minsk, Belarus, taking to the streets in popular protests against reckless government spending and a stolen election. The protests are reminiscent of the unrest that swept North Africa and the Middle East in January of this year, and have been largely organized through social networking sites. Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s bereft and irritated president, has responded by authorizing hundreds of arrests and detentions.

Protesters have been undeterred, and in an irreverent and stylish retort, have resorted to hand-clapping instead of shouting the slogans which lead to arrest. When Vitaly, an accountant who joined the protests, asked why he was clapping, he said ‘to annoy the president.’

The Economist reported that protesters who were being filmed by security forces pulled out camera phones and filmed right back.

The popular revolutions which characterized the first half of the year of Our Lady of Blessed Reforms, 2011, have been nothing short of astounding. Fueled by technology that is easy, cheap, and available, popular movements spurned by discontent and powerlessness, suddenly find themselves empowered, and delivered a platform that acts like fifty million megaphones and blasts their message of frustration across the seas, to expectant and ill-informed ears everywhere. Morocco, Spain, Greece, Bahrain, Belarus, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, like dominoes are inspired by each other’s refusal to acquiesce to the abhorrent status-quo. When previous acts of defiance would have been met by indefinite detention in some concrete hell, cell phone cameras act like impartial third party observers, documenting injustice and spreading it around for independent critique.

The critical point now, is what all these people will do with their dismantled governments and sudden liberty. Historically, the American government has shortsightedly insisted that stability is an acceptable consequence of repression. The shaking off of the fetters of dictatorships will, and have, inevitably melted into varying degrees of chaos on all fronts. With the tremendous upheaval, many countries have found themselves with energy and momentum, but no clear and simple new direction. The African revolutions of the 60’s remind us that the work just begins once the villain is deposed; and the real task lies in the evolution, not the revolution. The solidarity that comes with rallying against a joint oppressor often dissolves once the newly liberated begin to clamor for power, and differences of opinion as to the methods of successful nation-building cause disharmony among groups once united against a clear and common enemy.

I find myself warmed by the glow of technology’s recent good samaritanism. Admittedly, I’ve been known, in earlier years, for rants and resistance regarding the over-teching of our lives; I assumed that the sterility of the systems, the impersonal communication, and the cheap and easy information would make us less human, less connected, less awake. The splendid upheavals across the world right now indicate otherwise. It suggests that technology, like everything else, is what we make of it.

Clap your hands say yeah, indeed.