Butterfly Revolt and Rebecca Solnit

Two years after a global monetarycrisis, there follows a sea change of structural change out of which the newregime finally emerges.  The butterfliesare popping  from their cocoons and will developthe future.

It is global.  It is not over. And yes, I am surprised.  Arab revolt and revolt against fraudulent ruleis the present order of the day.  Revoltsyou gave up on are suddenly on.  The USSR took 70years.  The Arabs are taking about fortyyears to come to their senses and remove their tormentors.  The rest are taking notice and understandthat no one can rule a population who refuses to be ruled.

Think about that.  Railways stop running, planes stop landing,money fails to be distributed and police leave the streets.  Local employees of the government show up anddo nothing except demand cash.  Orderscease to be followed.

The population hits the bricksand waits for government to come to its senses and resign.  The noise and fury means that we will not begoverned by the likes of you.  What ismore, no one can make us.  You cannotkill us all or even a significant number of us. Do the calculation.  A 100,000 ina population of 10,000,000 is one person in a hundred.  Even Hitler killed less than that in terms ofhis available population leaving the other 99 very angry.

The true power of the mass isfinally been understood by foot-dragging glorious leaders everywhere and thesurvivors will swiftly put succession programs in place that is clearlydemocratic.  The rest will need to do itthe hard way as Qaddafi is demonstrating.

Tonight I hear a son has died.   Welcome to the fate of the barbarian king.

The Butterfly and the Boiling Point

Charting the Wild Winds of Change in 2011

Revolution is as unpredictable as an earthquake and as beautiful asspring. 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 itsbuds and showers, so revolution has its ebullience, its bravery, its hope, andits solidarity. Some of these things pass. The women of Cairo do not move as freely in public as theydid during those few precious weeks when the old rules were suspended andeverything was different. But the old Egypt is gone and Egyptians’ senseof themselves -- and our sense of them -- is forever changed.

No revolution vanishes without effect. The Prague Spring of 1968 wasbrutally crushed, but 21 years later when a second wave of revolution liberatedCzechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek, who had been the reformist Secretary of theCzechoslovakian Communist Party, returned to give heart to the people from abalcony overlooking Wenceslas Square: "The government is telling us thatthe street is not the place for things to be solved, but I say the street wasand is the place. The voice of the street must be heard."

The voice of the street has been a bugle cry this year. You heardit.  Everyone did, but the rulers who thought their power was the onlypower that mattered, heard it last and with dismay. Many of them are nervousnow, releasing political prisoners, lowering the price of food, and otherwisetrying to tamp down uprisings.

There were three kinds of surprise aboutthis year’s unfinished revolutions in Tunisia,Egypt, and Libya, and the rumblings elsewhere that havefrightened the mighty from Saudi Arabiato China, Algeria to Bahrain. The West was surprisedthat the Arab world, which we have regularly been told is medieval,hierarchical, and undemocratic, was full of young men and women using theircell phones, their Internet access, and their bodies in streets and squares tofoment change and temporarily live a miracle of direct democracy and peoplepower. And then there is the surprise that the seemingly unshakeable regimes ofthe strongmen were shaken into pieces.

And finally, there is always the surprise of: Why now? Why did thecrowd decide to storm the Bastille on July 14, 1789, and not any other day? Thebread famine going on in France that year and the rising cost of food hadsomething to do with it, as hunger and poverty does with many of the MiddleEastern uprisings today, but part of the explanation remains mysterious. Whythis day and not a month earlier or a decade later? Or never instead of now?

Oscar Wilde once remarked, “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughlymodern intellect.” This profound uncertainty has been the grounds for my ownhope.

Hindsight is 20/20, they say, and you can tell stories where it allmakes sense. A young Tunisian college graduate, MohammedBouazizi, who could find no better work than selling produce from acart on the street, was so upset by his treatment at the hands of a policewomanthat he set himself afire on December 17, 2010. His death two weeks laterbecame the match that lit the country afire -- but why that death? Or why thedeath of Khaled Said, an Egyptian youth who exposed policecorruption and was beaten to death for it? He got a Facebook page that said “Weare all Khaled Said,” and his death, too, was a factor in the uprisings tocome.

But when exactly do the abuses that have been tolerated for so longbecome intolerable? When does the fear evaporate and the rage generate actionthat produces joy?  After all, Tunisiaand Egyptwere not short on intolerable situations and tragedies before Bouazizi’sself-immolation and Said’s murder.

Thich Quang Duc burnedhimself to death at an intersection in Saigon on June 11, 1963, toprotest the treatment of Buddhists by the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam.His stoic composure while in flames was widely seen and may have helped producea military coup against the regime six months later -- a change, but notnecessarily a liberation. In between that year and this one, many people havefasted, prayed, protested, gone to prison, and died to call attention to cruelregimes, with little or no measurable consequence.

Guns and Butterflies 

The boiling point of water is straightforward, but the boiling point ofsocieties is mysterious. Bouazizi’s death became a catalyst, and at his funeralthe 5,000 mourners chanted, "Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. Weweep for you today, we will make those who caused your death weep."

But his was not the first Tunisian gesture of denunciation. An evenyounger man, the rap artist who calls himself El General, uploaded a song aboutthe horror of poverty and injustice in the country and, as the Guardian put it, “within hours, the song had lit up the bleak andfearful horizon like an incendiary bomb.” Or a new dawn. The artist wasarrested and interrogated for three very long days, and then released thanks towidespread protest. And surely before him we could find another milestone. Andanother young man being subjected to inhuman conditions. And behind the uprisingin Egyptare a panoply of union and human rights organizers as well ascharismatic individuals. 

This has been a great year for the power of the powerless and for thecourage and determination of the young. A short, fair-haired, mild man evenyounger than Bouazizi has been held under extreme conditions in solitaryconfinement in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, for the last several months. He is charged with giving hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents to WikiLeaks and so unveilingsome of the more compromised and unsavory operations of the American militaryand U.S.diplomacy. Bradley Manning was a 22-year-old soldier stationed inIraqwhen he was arrested last spring.  The acts he’s charged with have changedthe global political landscape and fed the outrage in the Middle East.

As Foreign Policy put it in a headline, “In one fell swoop, the candorof the cables released by WikiLeaks did more for Arab democracy than decades ofbackstage U.S.diplomacy.” The cables suggested, among other things, that the U.S.was not going to back Tunisian dictator Ben Ali to the bitter end, and that theregime’s corruption was common knowledge.

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a 1958 comic book aboutthe Civil Rights struggle in the American South and the power of nonviolence wastranslatedand distributed by the American Islamic Council in the Arab world in2008 and has been credited with influencing the insurgencies of 2011. So theAmerican Islamic Council played a role, too -- a role definitely not beinginvestigated by anti-Muslim Congressman Peter King in his hearings on the “radicalization of Muslims in America.”Behind King are the lessons he, in turn, learned from Mohandas Gandhi, whosemovement liberated India from colonial rule 66 years ago, and so the storycomes back to the east.

Causes are Russian dolls. You can keep opening each one up and findanother one behind it. WikiLeaks and Facebook and Twitter and the new mediahelped in 2011, but new media had been around for years. Asmaa Mahfouz was ayoung Egyptian woman who had served time in prison for using the Internet toorganize a protest on April 6, 2008, to support striking workers. Withastonishing 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 intenseconviction:

“Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire to protest humiliation andhunger and poverty and degradation they had to live with for 30 years. FourEgyptians have set themselves on fire thinking maybe we can have a revolutionlike Tunisia,maybe we can have freedom, justice, honor, and human dignity. Today, one ofthese four has died, and I saw people commenting and saying, ‘May God forgivehim. He committed a sin and killed himself for nothing.’ People, have someshame.”

She described an earlier demonstration at which few had shown up: “Iposted that I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone.And I’ll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honor. No one cameexcept three guys -- three guys and three armored cars of riot police. And tensof hired thugs and officers came to terrorize us.”

Mahfouz called for the gathering in Tahrir Square on January 25th that becamethe Egyptian revolution.  The second time around she didn’t stand alone.Eighty-five thousand Egyptians pledged to attend, and soon enough, millions stoodwith her.

The revolution was called by a young woman with nothing more than aFacebook account and passionate conviction. They were enough. Often, revolutionhas had such modest starts.  On October 5, 1789, a girl took a drum to thecentral markets of Paris.The storming of the Bastille a few months before had started, but hardlycompleted, a revolution.  That drummer girl helped gather a mostly femalecrowd of thousands who marched to Versaillesand seized the royal family. It was the end of the Bourbon monarchy.

Women often find great roles in revolution, simply because the rulesfall apart and everyone has agency, anyone can act. As they did in Egypt,where liberty leading the masses was an earnest young woman in a black veil.

That the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazilcan shape the weather in Texasis a summation of chaos theory that is now an oft-repeated cliché. But thereare billions of butterflies on earth, all flapping their wings. Why does onegesture matter more than another? Why this Facebook post, this girl with adrum?

Even to try to answer this you’d have to say that the butterfly is bornaloft by a particular breeze that was shaped by the flap of the wing of, say, asparrow, and so behind causes are causes, behind small agents are other smallagents, inspirations, and role models, as well as outrages to react against.The point is not that causation is unpredictable and erratic. The point is thatbutterflies and sparrows and young women in veils and an unknown 20-year-oldrapping in Arabic and you yourself, if you wanted it, sometimes have tremendouspower, 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 ofhumanity appeared again and again in very different places, and we will see agreat deal more of it in Japanbefore that catastrophe is over. Perhaps its first appearance was at theshooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson on January 8th, wherethe 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 peopleneeded help."

Martinez reached the congresswoman’s side and probably saved her lifeby 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 razedby a bullet.  One elderly man died because he shielded his wife ratherthan protect himself.

Everything suddenly changed and those people rose to the occasionheroically not in the hours, days, or weeks a revolution gives, but withinseconds. More sustained acts of bravery and solidarity would make the revolutionsto come. People would risk their lives and die for their beliefs and for eachother. And in killing them, regimes would lose their last shreds of legitimacy.

Violence always seems to me the worst form oftyranny.  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 tyranniesthat have sometimes cost lives and sometimes just ground down those lives intopoverty and indignity, from Bahrainto Madison, Wisconsin.

Yes, to Madison.I have often wondered if the United States could catch fire the way othercountries sometimes do. The public space and spirit of Argentina or Egypt oftenseem missing here, for what changes in revolution is largely spirit, emotion,belief -- intangible things, as delicate as butterfly wings, but our world ismade of such things. They matter. The governors govern by the consent of thegoverned. When they lose that consent, they resort to violence, which can stopsome 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 songattacking the dictator who has ruled all his young life. Or people sign adeclaration like Charter 77, the 1977 Czech document that was a milestone onthe way to the revolutions of 1989, as well as a denunciation of the harassmentof an underground rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe. Or agroup 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, thatfavorite 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 sealedMubarak’s doom. When people are afraid, murders make them take flight. Butwhen they have thrown off fear, murders have the opposite effect and make thembold. 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 ofwhich revolution is made.”

When a revolution is made, people suddenly find themselves in a changedstate -- of mind and of nation. The ordinary rules are suspended, and peoplebecome engaged with each other in new ways, and develop a new sense of powerand possibility. People behave with generosity and altruism; they find they cangovern themselves; and, in many ways, the government simply ceases to exist. Afew days into the Egyptian revolution, Ben Wedeman, CNN’s senior correspondentin Cairo, wasasked why things had calmed down in the Egyptian capital.  He responded: “[T]hings have calmed down because there is nogovernment here," pointing out that security forces had simply disappearedfrom the streets.

This state often arises in disasters as well, when the government isoverwhelmed, shut down, or irrelevant for people intent on survival and then onputting society back together. If it rarely lasts, in the process it doeschange individuals and societies, leaving a legacy. To my mind, the bestgovernment is one that most resembles this moment when civil society reigns ina spirit of hope, inclusiveness, and improvisational genius.

In Egypt,there were moments of violence when people pushed back against the government’sgoons, and for a week it seemed like the news was filled with little butpictures of bloody heads. Still, no armies marched, no superior weaponrydecided the fate of the country, nobody was pushed from power by armed might.People gathered in public and discovered themselves as the public, as civilsociety. They found that the repression and exploitation they had longtolerated was intolerable and that they could do something about it, even ifthat something was only gathering, standing together, insisting on their rightsas the public, as the true nation that the government can never be.

It is remarkable how, in other countries, people will one day simplystop believing in the regime that had, until then, ruled them, asAfrican-Americans did in the South here 50 years ago.  Stopping believingmeans no longer regarding those who rule you as legitimate, and so no longerfearing them. Or respecting them. And then, miraculously, they begin tocrumble.

In the Philippinesin 1986, millions of people gathered in response to a call fromCatholic-run Radio Veritas, the only station the dictatorship didn’t control orshut down.
Then the army defected and dictator Fernando Marcos was ousted frompower after 21 years.

In Argentinain 2001, in the wake of a brutal economic collapse, such a sudden shift inconsciousness toppled the neoliberal regime of Fernando de la Rúa and usheredin a revolutionary era of economic desperation, but also of brilliant, generous innovation.  A shift in consciousnessbrought an outpouring of citizens into the streets of Buenos Aires, suddenly no longer afraid afterthe long nightmare of a military regime and its aftermath. In Iceland in early 2009, in the wakeof a global economic meltdown of special fierceness on that small island nation, a once-docile population almostliterally drummed out of power the ruling party that had managed the countryinto bankruptcy.

Can’t Happen Here? 

In the United States,the communion between the governed and the governors and the public spaces inwhich to be reborn as a civil society resurgent often seem missing. This is abig country whose national capital is not much of a center and whose majorityseems to live in places that are themselves decentered.

At its best, revolution is an urban phenomenon. Suburbia iscounterrevolutionary by design. For revolution, you need to converge, to livein public, to become the public, and that’s a geographical as well as apolitical phenomenon. The history of revolution is the history of great publicspaces: the Place de la Concorde during the French Revolution; the Ramblas inBarcelona during the Spanish Civil War; Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 (asplendid rebellion that was crushed); the great surge that turned the divide ofthe Berlin Wall into a gathering place in that same year; the insurrectionaryoccupation of the Zocalo of Mexico City after corrupt presidential electionsand of the space in Buenos Aires that gave the Dirty War’s most open oppositionits 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, butthese are only preludes. You also need to rise up, to pour out into thestreets. You need to be together in body, for only then are you truly thepublic with the full power that a public can possess. And then it needs tomatter. The United Statesis good at trivializing and ignoring insurrections at home.

The authorities were shaken by the uprising in Seattle that shut down the World TradeOrganization meeting on November 30, 1999, but the actual nonviolent resistancethere was quickly fictionalized into a tale of a violent rabble. Novelist andthen-New Yorker correspondent Mavis Gallant wrote in 1968:

"The difference between rebellion at Columbia[University] and rebellion at the Sorbonne is that life in Manhattanwent on as before, while in Parisevery section of society was set on fire, in the space of a few days. Thecollective hallucination was that life can change, quite suddenly and for thebetter. It still strikes me as a noble desire..."

Revolution is also the action of people pushed to the brink. Ratherthan fall over, they push back. When he decided to push public employees hardand strip them of their collective bargaining rights, Wisconsin Governor ScottWalker took a gamble. In response, union members, public employees, and thenthe public of Wisconsinbegan to gather on February 11th.  By February 15th, they had taken overthe 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’shistory was held, led by a “tractorcade” of farmers. The Wisconsinfirefighters have revolted too.  And the librarians.  And the broadresponse has given encouragement to citizens in other states fighting similarcutbacks on essential services and rights.

Republicans like to charge the rest of us with “class war” when we talkabout economic injustice, and that’s supposed to be a smear one should try towriggle out of. But what’s going on in Wisconsinis a class war, in which billionaire-backed Walker is serving the interests ofcorporations and the super-rich, and this time no one seems afraid of theepithet. Jokes and newspaper political cartoons, as well as essays and talks,remark on the reality of our anti-trickle-down economy, where wealth is beingpumped uphill to the palaces at a frantic rate, and on the reality that we’renot 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 whetherthe party best serving big corporations can strip the rest of us of our rightsand return us to a state of poverty and powerlessness. If the people whogathered in Madisondon’t win, the war will continue and we’ll all lose.

Oppression often works -- for a while. And then it backfires. Sometimesimmediately, sometimes after several decades. Walkerhas been nicknamed the Mubarak of the Midwest.Much of the insurrection and the rage in the Middle East isn’t just abouttyranny; 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 theirlives. This is increasingly the story for young Americans as well, and hereit’s clearly a response to the misallocation of resources, not absolutescarcity. It could just be tragic, or it could get interesting when the youngrealize they are being shafted, and that life could be different. Even that itcould change, quite suddenly, and for the better.

There was a splendid surliness in the wake of the economic collapse of2008: rage at the executives who had managed the economy into the ground andwent home with outsized bonuses, rage at the system, rage at the sheergratuitousness of the suffering of those who were being foreclosed upon andlaid off. In this country, economic inequality has reached a level not seen since before the stock marketcrash of 1929.

Hard times are in store for most people on Earth, and those may betimes of boldness. Or not. The butterflies are out there, but when their flightstirs 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 heroinesof 2011 have. I am sure they themselves are as surprised as anyone. Since shevery 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 therewill be hope."

San Franciscan Rebecca Solnit keeps an earthquake kit at the ready andwrote the opening line of this piece a few days before the Sendai quake.  She has been writing forTomDispatch.com since 2003, mainly on hope and insurrection. Her mostrecent books include A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities thatArise in Disaster (2009), which explores the connections betweendisaster and revolution, and Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas.  To listen toTimothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Solnit  discussesboth revolution and disaster, including the recent earthquake/tsunami in Japan,click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Rebecca Solnit

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