I know my cat Phantom has a following, so I wanted to share an update. Because of a limp which started on March 27, I took him to the
After the Tuesday peace vigil, 5
Published on Sunday, March 20, 2011 by TomDispatch.com
The Butterfly and the Boiling Point
: Charting the Wild Winds of Change in 2011
Revolution is as unpredictable as an earthquake and as beautiful as spring. Its coming is always a surprise, but its nature should not be.
Revolution is a phase, a mood, like spring, and just as spring has its buds and showers, so revolution has its ebullience, its bravery, its hope, and its solidarity. Some of these things pass. The women of
No revolution vanishes without effect. The Prague Spring of 1968 was brutally crushed, but 21 years later when a second wave of revolution liberated Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek, who had been the reformist Secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, returned to give heart to the people from a balcony overlooking Wenceslas Square
The voice of the street has been a bugle cry this year. You heard it. Everyone did, but the rulers who thought their power was the only power that mattered, heard it last and with dismay. Many of them are nervous now, releasing political prisoners, lowering the price of food, and otherwise trying to tamp down uprisings.
There were three kinds of surprise about this year’s unfinished revolutions in
And finally, there is always the surprise of
Oscar Wilde once remarked, “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.” This profound uncertainty has been the grounds for my own hope.
Hindsight is 20/20, they say, and you can tell stories where it all makes sense. A young Tunisian college graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, who could find no better work than selling produce from a cart on the street, was so upset by his treatment at the hands of a policewoman that he set himself afire on December 17, 2010. His death two weeks later became the match that lit the country afire -- but why that death? Or why the death of Khaled Said, an Egyptian youth who exposed police corruption and was beaten to death for it? He got a Facebook page that said “We are all Khaled Said,” and his death, too, was a factor in the uprisings to come.
But when exactly do the abuses that have been tolerated for so long become intolerable? When does the fear evaporate and the rage generate action that produces joy? After all,
Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death at an intersection in Saigon on June 11, 1963, to protest the treatment of Buddhists by the U.S.-backed government of
Guns and Butterflies
The boiling point of water is straightforward, but the boiling point of societies is mysterious. Bouazizi’s death became a catalyst, and at his funeral the 5,000 mourners chanted, "Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today, we will make those who caused your death weep."
But his was not the first Tunisian gesture of denunciation. An even younger man, the rap artist who calls himself El General, uploaded a song about the horror of poverty and injustice in the country and, as the Guardian put it, “within hours, the song had lit up the bleak and fearful horizon like an incendiary bomb.” Or a new dawn. The artist was arrested and interrogated for three very long days, and then released thanks to widespread protest. And surely before him we could find another milestone. And another young man being subjected to inhuman conditions. And behind the uprising in
This has been a great year for the power of the powerless and for the courage and determination of the young. A short, fair-haired, mild man even younger than Bouazizi has been held under extreme conditions in solitary confinement in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, for the last several months. He is charged with giving hundreds of thousands of secret
As Foreign Policy put it in a headline, “In one fell swoop, the candor of the cables released by WikiLeaks did more for Arab democracy than decades of backstage
Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a 1958 comic book about the Civil Rights struggle in the American South and the power of nonviolence was translated and distributed by the American Islamic Council in the Arab world in 2008 and has been credited with influencing the insurgencies of 2011. So the American Islamic Council played a role, too -- a role definitely not being investigated by anti-Muslim Congressman Peter King in his hearings on the “radicalization of Muslims in
Causes are Russian dolls. You can keep opening each one up and find another one behind it. WikiLeaks and Facebook and Twitter and the new media helped in 2011, but new media had been around for years. Asmaa Mahfouz was a young Egyptian woman who had served time in prison for using the Internet to organize a protest on April 6, 2008, to support striking workers. With astonishing courage, she posted a video of herself on Facebook on January 18, 2011, in which she looked into the camera and said, with a voice of intense conviction
“Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire to protest humiliation and hunger and poverty and degradation they had to live with for 30 years. Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire thinking maybe we can have a revolution like
She described an earlier demonstration at which few had shown up
Mahfouz called for the gathering in
The revolution was called by a young woman with nothing more than a Facebook account and passionate conviction. They were enough. Often, revolution has had such modest starts. On October 5, 1789, a girl took a drum to the central markets of
Women often find great roles in revolution, simply because the rules fall apart and everyone has agency, anyone can act. As they did in
That the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in
Even to try to answer this you’d have to say that the butterfly is born aloft by a particular breeze that was shaped by the flap of the wing of, say, a sparrow, and so behind causes are causes, behind small agents are other small agents, inspirations, and role models, as well as outrages to react against. The point is not that causation is unpredictable and erratic. The point is that butterflies and sparrows and young women in veils and an unknown 20-year-old rapping in Arabic and you yourself, if you wanted it, sometimes have tremendous power, enough to bring down a dictator, enough to change the world.
Other Selves, Other Lives
2011 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
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
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
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
“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
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.
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 50 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.
Then the army defected and dictator Fernando Marcos was ousted from power after 21 years.
Can’t Happen Here?
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
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
The authorities were shaken by the uprising in
"The difference between rebellion at
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
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
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
Oppression often works -- for a while. And then it backfires. Sometimes immediately, sometimes after several decades.
There was a splendid surliness in the wake of the economic collapse of 2008
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
San Franciscan Rebecca Solnit keeps an earthquake kit at the ready and wrote the opening line of this piece a few days before the
© 2011 Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit is an activist and the author of many books, including
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs