Person of the Year

I caught the cover art of the recent Time magazine piece calling out the “Protester” as its “Person of the Year” and thought it was very cool. For the second time in this new century this long-time bulwark of the Eastern U.S. establishment has gone against its longstanding elitist tradition of calling out a member (or at least a darling) of the elite as its (once “Man” and now) “Person of the Year”. You may recall back in 2006 when “You” were the “Person of the Year”, Time‘s nod to the growth and importance of the Internet and the egalitarian social networking it fosters.

My understanding is that Time magazine has always represented the world view and biases of its founder Henry Luce and his second wife and successor, Clare Boothe Luce. Stalwarts of a moneyed New York establishment, Republican in that old school Nelson Rockefeller or Henry Cabot Lodge sort of thinking, prior to that farther right drift of the GOP starting with Goldwater in the 1960s to the various incarnations of the political right today.

I remember my mom, who was a Democrat and feminist activist in the 1960s and 70s, telling me that she always read Time to see what the other side was thinking. (One of many bits of wisdom she gave me – putting yourself in the shoes of your adversary to more effectively challenge that adversary.) So my mom, were she still alive and ticking today, would certainly alert me to take note of this new perhaps more egalitarian nod from one of the champion voices of the elite.

I for one would like to see this new century be all about “us”, the regular folks of the world, rather than “them”… highlighted members of some defined elite or even the iconic leaders (like Barak Obama for example) that may rise out of “us” but then grab the spotlight to lead and perhaps vicariously represent our aspirations. To the extent that people in the U.S. still live vicariously through celebrities – whether politicians, sports figures, media stars, etc. – I’m so ready for all of us to move beyond that! We can move our society forward without having to put so much stock in the beneficence of our anointed superstars!

The Time piece attempts to frame the historical context…

Once upon a time, when major news events were chronicled strictly by professionals and printed on paper or transmitted through the air by the few for the masses, protesters were prime makers of history. Back then, when citizen multitudes took to the streets without weapons to declare themselves opposed, it was the very definition of news — vivid, important, often consequential. In the 1960s in America they marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War; in the ’70s, they rose up in Iran and Portugal; in the ’80s, they spoke out against nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Europe, against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, against communist tyranny in Tiananmen Square and Eastern Europe. Protest was the natural continuation of politics by other means.

I would broaden that first sentence to add “led by a few iconic figures” to “chronicled by a few professionals”. Most of the protests called out above became crystallized around charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King, Lech Walesa, or even the Ayatollah Khomeini. Maybe that was just the elite few of the media calling out their perceived elite few leading the protest movements, one elite to another.

Setting the more recent context the Time piece says…

“Massive and effective street protest” was a global oxymoron until — suddenly, shockingly — starting exactly a year ago, it became the defining trope of our times. And the protester once again became a maker of history… 2011 was unlike any year since 1989 — but more extraordinary, more global, more democratic, since in ’89 the regime disintegrations were all the result of a single disintegration at headquarters, one big switch pulled in Moscow that cut off the power throughout the system. So 2011 was unlike any year since 1968 — but more consequential because more protesters have more skin in the game. Their protests weren’t part of a countercultural pageant, as in ’68, and rapidly morphed into full-fledged rebellions, bringing down regimes and immediately changing the course of history. It was, in other words, unlike anything in any of our lifetimes…

Thinking of all the stories of the rebellions through the Arab world and the protest movements in the West (including the Occupy movement in the U.S.), it’s not that these movements have no leaders, it’s that they have hundreds of mostly unnamed leaders that motivate their own small community and the inspiration radiates through collaborative egalitarian circles.

I see my own writing in these terms, being a small witness to a larger human transformation from hierarchies of control to circles of equals. I guess that I might have a hundred people that read my blog on some sort of regular basis, either on my own site or on Daily KOS. I do my little part, along with any number of others, to witness and advocate for change, to keep trying to push the needle of human evolution forward. I do so leveraging the blessing of our new communications technology. Without the Internet facilitating all this social networking, how would I have any audience for my writing without appealing to and getting the blessing of elite media gatekeepers? And how would I have a way to tap into so much of the world’s accumulated knowledge and current thinking?

The piece paints the demographic and goals of the protesters…

It’s remarkable how much the protest vanguards share. Everywhere they are disproportionately young, middle class and educated. Almost all the protests this year began as independent affairs, without much encouragement from or endorsement by existing political parties or opposition bigwigs. All over the world, the protesters of 2011 share a belief that their countries’ political systems and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt — sham democracies rigged to favor the rich and powerful and prevent significant change. They are fervent small-d democrats. Two decades after the final failure and abandonment of communism, they believe they’re experiencing the failure of hell-bent megascaled crony hypercapitalism and pine for some third way, a new social contract.

Maybe we are pining… but I think we are also developing that “third way”. Perhaps not yet in any grand sense, but in some sort of “thousand points of light” thing. Just read journals like Ode magazine and you’ll see the flickers. In a world still gripped for the most part by these traditional hierarchies of control there is (in my thinking at least) a strong underlying egalitarian disturbance of that control “matrix”.

Conventional wisdom is that a movement falters unless it quickly transitions from anger to a specific point by point agenda for change. But the many leaders of this movement may be seeing a new dynamic…

All over the world they are criticized by old-schoolers for lacking prefab ideological consistency, which the protesters in turn see as a feature rather than a bug. Miral Brinjy, a 27-year-old blogger and TV-news producer who grew up in Saudi Arabia and arrived in Tahrir Square on the first day of protests 11 months ago, doesn’t presume to have a precise picture of the new Egyptian government and society she envisions, but as she told me in Cairo last month, “I know what I don’t want.”

Maybe the new way forward is to keep calling out what you don’t like while you also keep stirring the political “pot”. Seems like it was the same deal with the Tea Party folks on the right, the lack of focus of their movement somehow made them particularly powerful in our new more egalitarian electronic media zeitgeist.

In each place, discontent that had been simmering for years got turned up to a boil. There were foreshadowings. In the U.S., the Obama campaign was in part a feel-good protest movement that galvanized young people, and then its shocking success and the Wall Street bailout produced an angry and shockingly successful populist protest movement in the Tea Party, which has far outlasted its expected shelf life.

Along with other 2009 protests in Tehran and London…

The Web and social media were key tactical tools in all three instances. But they seemed at the time to be one-offs, not prefaces to an epochal turn of history’s wheel.

Could it be that this is the year that we seem to have hit a tipping point in our now ever more “Global Village”. The “Arab Spring” followed by Spain, Greece, England, and then the U.S…

At the end of July, in an office in New York’s financial district, the proto-Occupiers met with some veterans of the protests in Spain, Greece and North Africa. To figure out what “Occupy Wall Street” might mean, they reconvened two days later at a come-one-come-all meeting — outdoors, for hours, in a park near that charging bronze bull, amid the thousands of unwitting passersby on an ordinary Wall Street workday.

There were leaders, but just not people who got anywhere near that iconic celebrity radar…

David Graeber, 50, a prominent anthropology scholar and soft-spoken pro-anarchism activist, showed up. Some standard leftists were pushing for a standard rally making a standard demand — no cutbacks in government social spending. Slowly but surely, Graeber and a pal, 32-year-old Greek émigré artist Georgia Sagri, nudged the group to a fresh vision: a long-term encampment in a public space, an improvised democratic protest village without preappointed leaders, committed to a general critique — the U.S. economy is broken, politics is corrupted by big money — but with no immediate call for specific legislative or executive action. It was also Graeber, a lifelong hater of corporate smoke and mirrors, who coined the movement’s ingenious slogan, “We are the 99%.”

For years, progressive activists have been spreading the mantra of “think globally but act locally”, but now we have the communication technology and the broadening savvy to use that technology to turn local action into global thought…

Globalization and going viral have been the catchphrases of the networked 21st century. But until now the former has mainly referred to a fluid worldwide economy managed by important people, and the latter has mostly meant cute-animal videos and songs by nobodies. This year, do-it-yourself democratic politics became globalized, and real live protest went massively viral… One of the unequivocal generational virtues of these movements has been their use of the Internet and social media. Two years ago, scholars Nicholas Christakis (Harvard) and James Fowler (University of California, San Diego) published Connected, a groundbreaking study of social networks, which they summarize as “how your friends’ friends’ friends affect everything you feel, think and do.” The protests of the past 12 months look like a spectacular worldwide confirmation of those findings.

Marshall McLuhan would love it. A younger generation learning to “swim” in the “waters” of our new egalitarian electronic communications technology. Thousands of egalitarian broadcasters in conversation with each other and the rest of us, rather than just viewers of the broadcasts of the media elite.

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