Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Age of Protests

What do the tea party rallies of 2009-10, massive demonstrations in  France last fall, revolutionary protest movements now spreading across the Arab world, and an ongoing sit-in in Wisconsin's capital all have in common?  They seem to signal the arrival of a new wave of popular protest movements around the globe.  I don't know if a tally of worldwide demonstrations over the last few decades would bear this theory out, but it certainly seems (with the exception of the revolutions that swept Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980's) that we have been seeing people take to the streets the last couple of years in a way that has not been this common since the 1960's and 1970's, when the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, student strikes, the feminist movement, and the environmental movement all manifested themselves in gigantic public rallies.  There is a legitimacy and universality to today's demonstrations that seems different from those earlier days.  Both left and right have felt the need to march in the streets, and neither seems all that alarmed or outraged at the other side's methods. (their messages, yes, but not so much their methods) That was definitely not the case in the 1960's, when anti-war and civil rights protesters created fear that the social order was coming unraveled, and sparked a counter-movement for law and order. Today, people seem just as passionate and polarized as they were in the 1960's, but they seem more accepting of their opponents' right to march.

I would not have predicted that the Obama era would turn into such a gigantic rally-fest. (Nor would I claim that one man was solely responsible for fomenting new protest movements; more likely he rode to power on top of one such protest wave.)  Perhaps Obama's background as a community organizer suggests, however, that he would encourage popular uprisings. We also know that the president is sympathetic to the rights of people everywhere to assemble and peacefully express their grievances. But his personal history also demonstrated a movement away from organizing community protests, to serving in the more traditional role as a politician where he thought he could get more accomplished. I also understood the main theme of his presidential campaign as an effort to usher in an era of cooperation, not confrontation; of striving to find common ground rather than pulling in opposite directions; of unity rather than divisiveness. To me, it would have represented a real revolution to get people to sit around the table with their adversaries and work out solutions that benefit as many points of view as possible. To a large extent, the Obama administration tried that approach, and arguably was quite successful at it, but it didn't make anybody terribly happy. People seem happier engaging in a struggle for power, chanting slogans, trying to prevail over their opponents, and refusing to give ground in their principles.

There are times for marching in the streets, and maybe this is one of those times.  Protest movements are tools of those out of power, and when they succeed in drawing attention to their cause and gaining adherents, or in exposing the corruption and injustice of those in power, they can be amazingly effective.  The tea party movement succeeded in electing a whole slew of radical Republicans to Congress and state legislatures.  The protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in driving dictators out of power.  And the demonstrations in Wisconsin may be having some success in turning popular opinion in favor of the protesters, and forcing the governor and the majority in the state legislature to compromise.  On the other hand, we may see some limits to the effectiveness of these tactics, if they turn violent, if they spark backlash, or if they are crushed by police crackdowns, as happened in Iran, and as may happen in Libya or Wisconsin.  For the most part, however, the new era of protest movements has been peaceful and surprisingly successful.

I don't credit Twitter or facebook with this new wave of uprisings. These kinds of demonstrations weren't that much more difficult to organize before the rise of new social media. Instead I think we are just seeing a lot of ordinary people deciding, as people periodically do, that they have the power to demand change. And that can be a good thing, as long as our energies stay channeled in a positive direction. But I'd still like to see us reach the truly revolutionary stage of sitting down and talking to one another instead of doing so much shouting.



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