Archive for category Protest

Pussy Riot – Russian Heroes

Their names are Nadezhda “Nadya”Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina “Katya” Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina.   They are on trial for disturbing the peace (or ‘hooliganism’!) in Moscow.   “I am not afraid of your poorly concealed fraud of a verdict in this so-called court because it can deprive me of my freedom,” Maria Alyokhina said. “No one will take my inner freedom away.”

The women symbolize the divisions in Russian culture and politics, and as such their trial has come under intense focus.   They are part of a punk a group called Pussy Riot, which formed in 2011 as a collective of about ten members who perform provocative songs in provocative locals, usually masked with colorful balaclavas, and using pseudonyms when giving interviews.    As they put it:  “What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse and a non-standard female image.”

On February 21, 2012 members of the group went to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow with short dresses, colorful balaclavas and sang a “punk prayer” to the Virgin Mary to make Putin go away.   The Orthodox Russian Patriarch Kirill, who had already urged believers to vote for Putin, called the President when he saw the video to make sure the women be arrested.   They have been held in extended detention since March, and will be sentenced August 17.   Two of the women have small children, and they have gained support from international human rights groups, including Amnesty International.

Pussy Riot’s performances are provocative and they rely on social media and the internet to get the word out

Pussy Riot was formed as part of the anti-Putin protests that emerged last winter, and represent a Russian youth angered by the return to authoritarianism that Putin represents.   They want an open and free Russia, and Pussy Riot reflects an audacious in your face attack on politics as usual.   In a country where traditional taboos are still strong — sexism remains rampant and anti-LBGT feelings are intense, for example — they’re the new generation demanding change.

The response of the Russian Orthodox church has been one of anger, with demands that the women be punished for blasphemy and an assault on the Russian soul.    That sounds silly — and, to be blunt, it is silly — but there is a segment of traditional Russian society appalled by what the women did.   The Orthodox Church is still a powerful institution and Putin needs to make sure it stays on his side.

The defendants have used their case to gain a level of support and attention they’d otherwise not receive

The women have pleaded not guilty, claiming they were not trying to be offensive.   They were responding to Kirill’s instructions to vote for Putin.    The Courtroom prosecutor Nikiforov told the Judge that by swearing in church the girls had “abused God.”   But the girls claim that not only is Russia a secular state, but that they want dialogue.   “I’m Orthodox,” said Maria, “why does that mean I should vote for Putin?”   Kirill who has called Putin’s rule in Russia “a miracle from God,” yearns to rekindle the old Czarist era connection of Church and State.

In the Capital of Moscow there is general support for the group.   The trial has gathered large crowds who often cheer the defendants or laugh at the prosecutor.   At times the Judge had to plead for quiet, telling those gathered that “this is not a threater.”   When they laughed at some of the claims the prosecutor made, courtroom observers were told this was “no laughing matter.”

Nadia Tolokonnikova, 22 years old with a four year child, signals the women’s strength of commitment

Ultimately Putin will decide the fate of these women — it’s his country, and his court.  That’s part of what they are protesting!   In London to watch some of the Olympics he said he thought they should be “treated leniently.”   But no one doubts that the sentence depends on what he wants, not the judge in the case.

The case is important.   Russia stands at a cross roads.   Putin, having weathered the winter protests against his re-election, would like to see Russia return to business as usual:   Power in his hands and a partnership with the Orthodox church to keep the public in line.   Profits from oil and gas going to give the people enough largesse to keep their support, and some market openness to make it worth the while of the middle class to support the regime.

And the youth?   They’ll get older.   They’ll realize that it’s not worth rocking the boat.   But women like Nadia, Katya, and Maria reflect a youth that sees the wider world, and understands what a free Russia could become.   They don’t want post-Soviet Russia to continue the slide into Czarist like leadership and control.    Putin apparently had enough, and decided to use a show trial of the three women to strike terror into would be protesters to force the youth into submission.

Now 54, Madonna demonstrates her support in concert

A successful show trial requires the authorities to control the show – to script it and make certain the public learns about it in a way that achieves the desired result.    That’s not happening.    Public interest in the trial has made it a sensation.   The world watches, while Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and host of musicians and human rights activists world wide speak out.   The Russian youth follow on Facebook and Youtube, and the trial has become a symbol of the stark division between the traditional world of the Orthodox church and the globalized modern ambitions of Russia’s young people .   Quite possibly Putin won’t be able to keep all these things under control.

Maria Alekhina, an Orthodox Christian herself, apologized for offending and in her responses to church witnesses made them look petty and small

The trial originally was video streamed to make sure other would be protesters could see what might happen to them if they anger the authorities.   But that backfired; the women refused to be docile, they and their attorneys asked tough questions and helped make the witnesses for the church look ridiculous.   Video streaming was stopped, but it was too late – the trial had become a farce.   The judge moved to a smaller court room, and to wrap the case up more quickly the proceedings were dragged on for over 12 hours a day with the women getting little water or food while in their glass “cage.”   The result was to amplify the inhumane treatment of three young women.

Katya Samutsevich, a computer programmer very into art and its social role, is 29 – the oldest of the three – and active on LBGT issues

So the world watches, Russia watches and Putin squirms.    This case shows the regime’s vulnerability.   The fact they so misjudged the impact of this show trial makes it clear they don’t understand the forces they’re dealing with.   They have a late Soviet mentality in a world that is much different than that of the 20th Century.

The bizarre almost comical testimony of the church witnesses show a miscalculation of immense proportions.   They were meant to create a sense of anger at the women for defying honored Russian religious traditions; instead they made the church comes off as petty, the state as authoritarian.   The show trial actually demonstrated the bankruptcy of the Putin regime.

No one knows for sure what direction Russia will take moving forward.   Putin controls the media, the courts, the military and the police.    Russian history suggests the state will prevail at the cost of human liberty.  But this is a new era.    Globalization and the social media led information revolution are changing the rules of the game, as long time dictators like Mubarak, Gadaffi and Assad have learned.    Right now three heroic young women refuse to back down and have come to symbolize the desire for an open, tolerant, free Russia.   Perhaps their actions can inspire others to join.

 

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Kony 2012

In our Children and War class Thursday we watched the 2003 film Invisible Children about a group of young Americans who travel to Uganda and become shocked by the horrid conditions suffered by especially the children of northern Uganda.   At that time Uganda had been enmeshed in a war for over 17 years as a pseudo-religious group called the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) fought the government.

The roots of the LRA started with a woman named Alice Lakwena, who was supposedly was possessed by a spirit that gave her messages.  Uganda is a very spiritual society, and the idea of a person with a connection to the spirit world can be very powerful.   From that group arose Joseph Kony who claimed to be related to her.   In essence the uprising started as a revolt by the Acholi people against the government.   Kony’s forces were beaten back and he shifted towards harsh tactics of using children to fight.

Children would be kidnapped, trained to become brutal killing machines (starting often under age 10) and used to terrorize anyone not supporting the LRA.   Estimates vary on the number of children abducted, but it certainly has been over 30,000.   Children were told that if they covered their bodies with oil they could not be harmed by bullets (if someone was shot, that person had obviously disobeyed the spirit) and that God was on their side.

The film Invisible Children follows a group of children who come into the city to sleep, walking miles each way from home because they fear being abducted at night.   They’re also in danger en route, and conditions in the city are horrific – they sleep crammed together wherever they can find shelter.   The film became a hit – the film makers founded the Invisible children campaign with a website to raise money to help these children.

The publicity seems to have worked.  The US Senate unanimously approved condemnation of the LRA, and aid to help Uganda recover from the war.  In 2011 President Obama sent American forces to Uganda to advise the Ugandan military in how to destroy the LRA completely and capture Joseph Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court.

The Invisible Children organization now have a new film, focused on Kony, to try to get people to know what’s been going on and the importance of capturing a man who destroyed the lives (and psychological well being) of so many people, including tens of thousands of children.

It starts with the factoid that more people are now on Facebook than were on the planet 200 years ago.   It’s an overt effort to create a social media phenomenon – to show how individuals sharing ideas can change the world.   For them, the goal is to make it impossible for Joseph Kony to be able to avoid punishment, and to create global consensus about the evil of the LRA and Joseph Kony the man.

It’s working.

The message is zooming across Facebook, blogs and social media.   Students are informed, asking questions, and planning events. The Youtube video has 43 million hits as of March 8th.   The goal isn’t just to bring Joseph Kony to justice, but to demonstrate the power of new media to change the world.   Thanks to social media and the information revolution it’s possible to get more people than ever to see African children as just as human and important as American children.  This could start a kind of revolution wherein problems once ignored or deemed intractable get solved because people demand they get solved.

Posters are popping up everywhere, students are educating themselves about Uganda, African politics, and child soldiers.  Young Americans who thought that too much homework was a human rights violation now confront the reality of how horrible conditions are for children living in places with war and conflict.   Boys forced to kill parents, young girls turned into sex slaves, all base on his own ambitions.    Because of his atrocities he was the first person indicted by the International Criminal Court.

Nobody can defend Kony…will, almost nobody.  That’s right – Rush Limbaugh defends Joseph Kony.   According to Limbaugh, President Obama is siding with the Muslim government in Uganda against Christians – Obama wants to target Christians, according to Limbaugh.   Wow.   Compared to this, the Fluke comment is small potatoes.  Rush Limbaugh defends one of the most heinous criminals in recent history — far worse than Osama Bin Laden — and labels the LRA “Christian”?  (Note: I got that from Huffington Post – apparently Rush defended Kony in 2010, I thought he was doing it now.)

Republicans have been quick to condemn Limbaugh on this latest gaffe, it’s so over the top it is indefensible.  But if it wasn’t for the power of social media, people wouldn’t even be talking about this.

Where will it go?  Will Kony get arrested in 2012?  Will the youth discover the power of social media and use it not just to tweet about celebrities but to be able to create momentum to start social movements that will change the world?

The first test will be April 20th, when they want to “cover the world” with Kony posters and signs, getting his name out and noticed.    It could well be that Kony 2012 will be remembered as a symbolic first step into a new world where news of atrocities and evils no longer stays hidden, pushed aside by celebrity gossip and media organizations that ignore anything in the third world.  Maybe we’re seeing not just a ‘game change’ in the case of the LRA and Joseph Kony, but in the very form of global politics and activism.  We live in interesting but also exciting times!  Or as the video says:

“We have reached a crucial time in history, where what we do or don’t do right now will affect every generation to come.   Arresting Joseph Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules.   That the technology that has brought our planet together is allowing us to respond to the problems of our friends…we are not just studying human history, we are shaping it.”

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Street Collage

“And if you’ve got enough money where you don’t have to work, let’s face it, who wants to work? There’s no reason why anybody, that five generations of people got to be on welfare…Kids nowadays, that’s the whole thing, too much money, they’ve got too much money. They don’t have to struggle and work for things like when I was growing up had to do. And I was lucky if I got that job delivering hats in a hat store for twenty-five cents per hat. Too much money today is with the young kids, everything was handed to ‘em, and that’s why they are the way they are.”

If you read that quote and reflect, you may find yourself agreeing. This generation of kids grew up with DVDs, cell phones, computers, video games and everything they wanted just handed to them. This is why they’re “the way they are” – selfish, lazy, unambitious, entitled, etc. Yup, not like when my generation grew up, we had to work!

Teens often seem entitled, aloof and arrogant to many

However, the quote comes from a street interview (not sure if it’s real or staged) in the middle of the song “Movement for the Common Man” on the album Styx I, which was released in 1972. That means that the ‘young people’ talked about in that quote are probably nearing 60.

In other words, how elders view youth hasn’t changed much in 40 years, even if today’s elders are yesterday’s youth! Why would that be? First, consider another part of that track “Street Collage” from Movement for the Common Man:

Well, you see now, I’m a depression baby and I remember the WPA. If we could just start the same thing again and get people working out there, why not? Is it too menial for somebody to sweep the street?

The elders of 1972 looking at the youth of that time compared them to the depression era. By the early seventies consumerism was beginning, the convenience society was forming (TV dinners were becoming standard fare, the microwave oven was gaining popularity. 40,000 were in use in 1970, by 1975 it was 1,000,000. Fast food was popular, but not yet omnipresent. McDonalds still kept track of how many million had been sold, not just “millions and millions.”

And then there’s this, from the same section of the song:

I had one gentlemen get in — No offense to you gentlemen, he had long hair and a beard — And I told him, he had better go home and take a bath; He had B.O. so bad, it was terrible! I said “You might be educated, but did your parents tell you to go dirty?”

It was the era of the hippies, protesters against the war, for civil rights, and sometimes against the western industrialized society completely. Having survived the depression and used to being thankful for a chance to make money, the counter culture movement of the seventies was a different cultural world. Emblematic of this is a television show that started in January 1971, All in the Family. Just consider the opening tune:

Those were the days! Now many “elders” look at see gays marrying, have the same reaction to Occupy Wall Street that their parents or grandparents had to Vietnam war protesters, and see a youth that has grown up in a time of plenty being used to having material abundance. Beyond that there are cell phones, video games, facebook (and the younger generation seems to disregard the intense concern about privacy that earlier generations cling to), a black President, and a very different world.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose….the more things change, the more they stay the same!

Frankly, I’m impressed with today’s youth. Teaching at a university I see them engaged, concerned about their future, and more knowledgable than ever due to the internet and connections made often across borders. To be sure, these are college kids, but I teach at a rural state university not an elitist private school. If students here are engaged and connected, that’s a good sign.

Today's youth - ready to change the world!

Yes, they are used to technology. I hear students talk about how hard it would be to go without their mobile phone for even part of a day — they are more connected to friends and family than I would have wanted to be when I was their age. Parents are often almost tyrannical in their desire to keep in contact with their kids, even at college (note to self: I will not be that way as my kids grow up!). When we’ve done travel courses to Italy and Germany, parents increasingly try to demand students stay in contact with them every day.

In fact, if anyone deserves criticism its the parents’ generation. There is so much effort done to protect kids or make sure they succeed that kids often get stifled by the attention and control. It’s a well intentioned stifling, and certainly better than ignoring kids or not caring, but it can go too far. If the youth of today seem spoiled it’s often not their fault — it’s being forced on them by their elders.

Being over protective leads to sometimes irrational and harmful efforts at control

That’s probably the biggest difference I notice between my youth and now. There is so much protection now – a kid brings a swiss army knife to school to show his friends and he’s expelled. Who does that protect? An ESPN announcer has “chink in his armour” about a Chinese athlete and the fact “chink” had a double meaning as a pejorative for Chinese folk and he gets fired. Really? Protecting us from double meanings in popular expressions?

Yet with all the protections, the ubiquity of fast food, video games and other temptations overpowers those who would want to protect kids from themselves. It’s a bit surreal. Yet through it all, I think we underestimate the youth — just as my elders were doing back in the 70s. They learn to navigate their reality, they understand dangers and risks, even if their belief in their immortality causes them to sometimes foolishly disregard them. But my generation was the same way. That’s youth.

Today’s youth are being handed a country in debt and decline and asked to fix things. They are pioneers in a world where even the phrase “high tech” sounds old fashioned. They are crafting new realities, throwing off old prejudices (such as the prohibition against gay marriage) and are cynical of the ideology-based politics of the past. Kids these days? Well, count me impressed. The most hope I have for my country and its future comes when I consider today’s youth. They’re no more spoiled than my generation was, and they seem to grasping the information revolution tools that can reshape the world with a gusto.

Anyway, given the mountain of debt and the myriad of ecological, social and political problems my generation is leaving in our wake, I don’t think we elders have any standing to complain!

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A Retrospective of 2011

TIME magazine’s naming of  “the Protester” as person of the year in 2011 captured what clearly is the defining aspect of the year gone by.   Whether it was the Arab Spring, the Russian winter or the Occupy Wall Street movement (which spawned imitations across the globe), 2011 was a year in which people started to more strongly question both authority and conventional wisdom.

This is made all the more poignant by how unexpected it was.   I challenge you to find me any pundit or psychic who predicted the events in Egypt (which began in January 2011) or the force of Occupy Wall Street.    Much like how no one saw the fall of the Berlin Wall coming when we went into 1989, experts and pundits are again shown to be narrow minded fools by the people on the street.   The Tunisian protests were growing when 2010 ended, but the idea that this would start a process ending with the overthrow of multi-decade stalwarts like Mubarak and Gaddafi?  Pshaw!

Moreover, in the US the talk still was of the “tea party” and the surge of the GOP.   The idea that the left would strike back with its own grass roots movement that would rise as suddenly and with force didn’t seem possible.   Not only didn’t the left have FOX News and especially Glenn Beck, primary proponents and builders of the Tea Party, but they were a spent force after 2010 — dissatisfied with Obama but nowhere else to turn.

No one knows where all this will go.   The Arab Spring is a good thing, the dictators had to go.   As bad as things may get, postponing change would have been worse.   The only alternative would have been to defend dictators doomed to fall in any event.    The path towards a better future will be rocky and often violent.   Such is how history unfolds.

New protests against Putin in Russia show promise; will the Russian state assert dominance as it always has, or do the protesters have a chance?   OWS is certain to gain strength again when the weather is warm.  Will they focus their protests on making a political difference in an election year, or will they be angry and aggressive against the status quo?   The right wing predicts the latter, inside the movement they’re confident of the former.   We’ll see.

All of this reflects a fact I’ve blogged about many times: the information and technology revolution is changing politics in a fundamental way.   By fundamental I don’t just mean that now candidates solicit via e-mail or tweet their responses to world events.   I mean the nature of sovereignty, power, economic relations and world order are being altered.   The process is only beginning, but the result will be a world very different than the one we’re used to at the start of the 21st Century.

2011 gave us a taste of what this may entail.   No matter how powerful, brutal or apparently invulnerable the leader, politics in the new era make it harder to hang on to power when the people rise up.    It’s a good thing as it is a start of a shift of power away from elites towards the people.   But it was a good thing when the reformation challenged Church dominance in 1517.   After that Europe was at war until 1648.   Change may be necessary, but it can be violent and difficult.

It’s hard to find other ways 2011 stood out.   The world and especially Japan suffered an immense tragedy in March with an earthquake and tsunami that brought home the possible dangers of nuclear power, limits of human engineering and resilience of human heroes, as many in Japan gave their lives fighting to prevent absolute catastrophe.   I don’t think this means nuclear power should be taken off the table; rather, as with anything, we can’t say there is zero risk of disaster.

President Obama had a good foreign policy year, with the killing of Osama Bin Laden and an end to the Iraq war.  Obama’s diplomacy abroad has been effective, though a continually lagging economy at home makes him still vulnerable to defeat in his re-election bid.   That said, he leads any Republican challenger in head to head p0lls, though is pretty even against Mitt Romney, the strongest and most likely GOP candidate.

2011 has seen a late year bit of economic hope, but  the economy slogged through year four of a crisis that started with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 and then went into near melt down with the financial blow out in the fall of 2008.   The global economy is still resettling, deleveraging, and working out the structural imbalances the grew from 1981 to 2007.

For me personally it’s been a very good year.   I again participated as one of four faculty for a travel course to Italy in May with 42 students.   The weather was great and the students superb!   We installed our geothermal heating system, the boys excelled with skiing early in the year, Dana at age 5 skied from the top of Saddleback in April (he turned 6 this week).    The new Mallett School opened, a wonderful building with great teachers and staff.   I’ve been involved in the PTA and that’s been rewarding.   Work has been excellent, I’m even doing an online winter term course right now that is off to a good start.

The new Mallett school, built in 2011

My intuition says that 2011 has set us up for major events in 2012 (and no, I don’t mean the Mayan end of the world!)   In the US it will be an election year, and the world economy will come into clearer focus.   Right now there is optimism that the US economy is finally starting to improve, that the EU is on a path to overcome its crisis, and that we’re past the worst.  Yet debt remains a huge issue, and China is facing internal and external economic challenges that could be the first real threat to thirty years of constant 10% a year growth.  Events in Syria, Iran, Russia and elsewhere could all create real upheavals.

These changes aren’t new to 2011.   I think this has been building since the mid-eighties when the personal computer took off, globalization shifted the meaning of international relations, and the Cold War drew to a close.   So maybe it’s appropriate that a song written in 1990 captures my mood.   Glen Burtnik’s title song (co-written with Bob Burger) of the Styx album Edge of the Century reflects what I feel heading out of a very interesting 2011 and into what might be a consequential 2012:

See the world in revolution
Spinning faster all the time
We’re heading for the end of something
Just about to step across that line
Oh, can’t you see?
We’re staring in the face of reality

Can’t turn off the information
Can’t sit back in your easy chair
Can’t ignore a generation
Better get ready cause we’re almost there

We’re moving at the speed of life
Into a brave new world where the strong will survive
The dawn’s gonna break and I’ll meet you
On the other side

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2011: A Watershed Year?

I am currently reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King.  It is the first time I have ever read a Stephen King novel.  That’s nothing you are supposed to admit in Maine, he’s a state treasure.  But not being a fan of horror or even fiction for that matter, I’ve just never read one of his books.     The premise is a time traveler could alter history by intervening at “watershed” moments – events that alter the course of history — such as the assassination of JFK.

More on the book when I’ve finished it, but 2011 may prove to be such a watershed, even if it doesn’t seem that way yet (though it feels that way!)   The reason can be found in time magazine’s choice as “Person of the Year” – the protester.

What started out as protests in Tunisia at the end of 2010 seemed relatively unimportant.   On January 14, 2011 Tunisia’s President Ben Ali gave in to the surprise unrest by resigning.   By late January Egypt was in turmoil and on February 11, 2011 Hosni Mubark’s 30 year reign in Egypt ended.   This was completely unexpected, Mubarak was seen as a rock of stability.   Unrest spread to Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.   Libya’s Gaddafi, in power for 42 years and seen as virtually invulnerable,  fell after a short civil war.   Yemen’s President appears on the way out and Syria remains awash with revolt and government violence.   The Arab world will never be the same after 2011.

Protests were not limited to the Arab world, however.   As the EU worked to try to save Greece from default, austerity programs caused massive protests there.   That could be expected; after all, austerity programs and budget cuts have brought out protesters in Europe before.   But in August another movement rose, which was unexpected:  Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

Nobody thought the OWS protests would amount to much — after all, even at the height of the Iraq war when the public had turned against the conflict actual anti-war protests were barely noticed.   I still remember a student asking me about what was happening on Wall Street in late September.  “Yeah, I heard about that.   I’m not sure exactly what’s happening,” I replied.   I thought that it was just another activist protest that would quickly fade.    Within a week OWS was taking off and altering American political discourse.

Its impact could go far beyond what people now expect.    No longer does the tea party’s talk about ‘taking back’ America resonate, but public discourse has shifted to whether or not wealth and the burden of dealing with our large debt and deficit is fairly distributed.   Fair does not mean equal.   Only the most radical OWS protester would oppose there being rich and poor folk, so long as those results reflect actions taken by individuals and not a rigging of the game.   Rather, there is real concern that in the last three decades de-regulation, tax cuts and the anti-government mood may have shifted things too far to the side of the wealthy in a way that harms the middle class.

Part of this is a rethinking of what freedom means.   The “right” has defined freedom simply in terms of negative freedom, not having the government ‘get in the way.’   But a government role in helping foster positive freedom – real opportunity and social justice — is increasingly a mainstream topic.

While the Republicans are beating each other up over who is a ‘true conservative,’ playing to a tea party discourse that appears to be fading, it may be that President Obama by the end of next year will be heading for a landslide victory.   That seems an odd prediction to make, given that at best Obama’s approvals have been inching up only slowly.    Yet when a discourse shifts, an early almost imperceptible trend can become a tsunami.

Moreover, while the Tea Party seemed to be a short term media event defying America’s demographic and culture change, OWS feeds into demographic changes that create a more diverse and socially liberal America.   That doesn’t necessarily bode well for the Democrats, even if they are able to harness its power in 2012.   People could be breaking out of the conformity demanded by 20th Century political ideologies, discovering ways to both empower themselves and force accountability from those with wealth and power, both business and governmental.   Such political discontent cuts to the core of the system, and while a democracy can handle such pressures better than a dictatorship, we could be on the verge of fundamental change in the US.

Most recently the protests have spread to Moscow.   Inside the Kremlin they debate whether to crush the protest movement now in its infancy, or let people vent and let the protests peter out.  The notion of actually responding to them or that the people may force change doesn’t even register.    That could prove to be a fatal error.

Just as the printing press allowed the reformation to spread rapidly in Europe, the power of the internet and social media gives the people information, voice and the tools to organize and communicate.   We don’t know what that means for the future, but it could portend a complete change in the very core of political action and organization.   This could be the start of the collapse of the sovereign bureaucratic state and the rise of, well…we don’t know!

People are hesitant to predict radical change.   Usually such predictions are wrong; systemic inertia is strong and people find a way to muddle through.      Yet I’m amazed each day how much I learn about through facebook — stories my friends posts, links to information I’d otherwise not notice.    Multiply that by all the millions linked and connected, and it can’t help to have an impact.   We as citizens are becoming better informed, empowered and able to act.   The elite are less able to control the discourse or dominate the culture.

2011 was the year of the protester.   From Cairo to Athens to Wall Street to Moscow people are rising up in ways unexpected and strong.    Perhaps we’re on the verge of what “Inner Simplicity” labeled a “black swan event” last August.  We could be in the process of change that impacts politics, culture and leads into a new era.

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The Decembrists!

On December 14, 1825 (or December 26 with the new calendar) a society of military officers led 3000 soldiers in an uprising against the ascension to the throne of Czar Nicholas I, who was replacing his father Czar Alexander I.  They were hoping to bring liberal reforms to Russia, believing their system to be out of date and stagnant.   Czar Nicholas I, who was destined to become a brutal and conservative Czar, put down the revolt, and since the uprising took place in December the upstarts were called ‘the Decembrists.’   (Pssst – if you googled this hoping for something about the band the Decembrists, this isn’t the page for you).

It is now nearly 200 years later and a new group of Decembrists are trying to bring change to Russia — young people angry about the November election which saw United Russia, the party of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev win a majority of seats in the State Duma, though with far, far fewer votes than in 2007.  In that election they had 64% of the vote, this time it was officially 49%.   Most are convinced that the actual total was much less.  Medvedev called it proof that Russia was democratic, since they lost so many seats, but many in Russia believe the result was rigged.

Putin and Medvedev - beer drinking buds enjoying soccer

And they have reason to believe that.    As the election was taking place election monitors were suddenly told to leave; they could no longer monitor the election voting and counting.   That’s the equivalent to having student in an exam grab her text book and tell the professor to leave as she finishes the test — it’s tantamount to announcing that you’re going to cheat.

In Russia social media is driving a growing call to go to the streets and force the election to be held again, as former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has demanded.   Saturday in Moscow 50,000 people gathered, protesting peacefully.  The police were said to be numerous and friendly — Putin clearly doesn’t want images of Russian police crushing protesters, but it’s also clear that the government doesn’t know what to do.

Putin’s essentially kept the media under control and relies on the fact that Russians historically do not defy authority.  Even the famous Russian revolution of 1917 was actually a coup d’etat, not a true popular uprising.   Protests of opposition leaders and public calls for calm on the day after the election seemed effective; protests were relatively mild — and the pro-United Russia rallies were relatively large.

However, there is a growing discontent and call for action among the Russian youth that suggest that perhaps like so many other movements this year, from Cairo to Wall Street, the dissatisfied may have more support and staying power than the elite anticipate.   To be sure, December is a horrible time to start a mass protest movement in Moscow.  Temperatures already can dip well below zero and it’ll only get colder as time goes on.   If the heat of the Arab desert helps ignite the blood of the protesters there, the Russian winter might cool the enthusiasm in Moscow.

Still, what if?   What if growing protests start to threaten the stability of Putin-Medvedev state?   Where could these protests lead?

Women's rights activists try to join the protest

One thing Moscow’s police will prevent is the occupation of a public place.  One reason the movements in Cairo and elsewhere were so successful is they could occupy 24/7 a public spot to give protests an identity and on going presence. People could join or leave as they saw fit, they didn’t have to organize every event.  That’s unlikely to happen in Moscow and probably in the rest of Russia.

Russian demographics are very different than the youth-centric Arab world.    The median age is 38 and they’re experiencing negative population growth.   On the other hand the youth are well educated, modern and connected.  They are also very angry about what is happening to their country.   Until recently leaving Russia was a goal of many young folk, figuring that the corrupt patronage system of United Russia would simply persist, leaving limited opportunity.

Putin, for his part, claims to want to revitalize and modernize the economy.   But with the money flowing in due to high oil and gas prices, the temptation to give into corruption — corruption that has been a part of Russian politics and life for decades — is high.   Putin had been riding a wave of popularity as Russians were disgusted with the flagrant growth of wealth of the so-called “oligarchs” or “new Russians” in the 90s, when the country suffered poverty and massive disruption as communism fell while oil prices were low.

Putin took them on and they either had to sell their assets back to the state and take a diminished role or, as in the case of  Mikhail Khodorkovsky, end up in prison.  Khodorkovsky was a multi-billionaire determined to take on Putin’s effort to reassert state control.   He is now in jail.

Message: play by Putin's rules or else

The fall of the oligarchs and the rise of oil and gas prices improved life for Russians who saw the chaotic anarchy of the Yeltsin years give way to stability and economic growth.    Even those who realized that high oil and gas prices were the main cause of improved conditions gave Putin the benefit of the doubt.   The oligarchs had acted like the worst caricatures of capitalism and most thought the state needed to get involved to bring the Russian economy into the 21st Century and stabilize democracy.

With Putin’s determination to seek the Presidency for a third term, playing a kind of tag team match with Medvedev, many Russians have had enough.   Especially the youth see oil money being squandered to line the pockets of the elites while Russia’s economy remains under developed and corrupt.

Communism fell twenty years ago this month — on December 25, 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev announced the end of the Soviet Union, nearly to the day 166 years after the Czar Nicholas put down the Decembrists.   The youth now have grown up in a post-Communist era, hearing promises of better times to come as connections and media access to Europe and the West grows.   They realize that their leaders have yet to have grasped the promise of democracy and economic modernism; that the old KGB agent Vladimir Putin is too wedded to the tactics of the past to really guide Russia into a better future.

So now they are taking to the streets.   Czar Nicholas easily disposed of the Decembrist revolt of 1825, so far the collapse of communism in December of 1991 has yet to yield a modern vibrant Russia.   As protesters try to take things into their own hands, defying Russia’s tradition of authrotarian rule and public docility, the world watches to see if the winds of change are going to sweep from the heat of the Arabian dessert to the steppes of the Russian tundra.

Back on January 19 this year I wrote a blog post speculating on whether the Tunisian revolt could possibly spread around the Arab world.   It seemed very unlikely at the time, it went against everything people thought and expected about countries like Egypt and Libya.  But something’s up.   The world is in motion, change is real.   Perhaps the Decembrists of 2011 can start a true Russian transformation.

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Adieu, Tea Party?

As we go into the 2012 election season I get the sense, as I wrote last month, that the political pendulum is starting a swing to the left.    The political discourse doesn’t sound the same, rage at the Democrats and Obama has faded, and disillusionment with the GOP Congress and its refusal to even close loopholes for the wealthy is growing.  Moreover even if the public doesn’t embrace Occupy Wall Street, they’ve shifted the conversation to one about relative wealth and the power the establishment elite.    That doesn’t necessarily help Obama, as he’s an establishment Democrat, but overall it’s not the kind of mood that’s good for the Republican party.

Pew research has released some polls that might give us a glimpse at the mood of the voters.   The first is the above poll showing “Tea Party” approval and disapproval.  Almost all through 2010 more people agreed with the Tea Party than disagreed, with an election day peak of 27% agreeing while 22% disagreed (most people, obviously, were non-committal).    Now 27% disagree while only 20% agree.   In tea party districts election day agreement was 33% to only 18% disagreeing.   Now it’s almost even, 25% agreeing, 23% disagreeing.   This loss of support by the Tea Party coincides with a loss of media exposure and the lack of any big rallies or media blitzes.   The Tea Party appears at the very least dormant.

Here’s another snippet from Pew:

Around election time in 2010 the GOP was viewed negatively by 49% of the population, with 43% having a positive view. This may seem odd given the election results, but don’t forget that a lot of people see both parties in a negative light.  By last month the favorable rating for the GOP fell to 36%, while 55% had an unfavorable view.   Not a good trend for the Republicans heading into an election year.

In tea party districts the GOP was viewed favorably by 51% around election time and unfavorably by 43%.  By March 2011 that gap had grown to 55% favorable and 39% unfavorable.   Since then it has turned around.  In Tea Party districts the Republicans are now viewed favorably by only 41%, while 48% view them unfavorably.   Given that many of these districts have vulnerable first term members, this could be an ominous sign for the Republicans.   The good news in this for the GOP is that maybe they bottomed out in August — there was a slight uptick for October.

But what about the Democrats?

The Democrats don’t have rosey numbers either.  Last year before and even after the election they were viewed more favorably than they are now.  Still by 46% to 45% the general public views them more favorably.  In tea party districts the Democrats remain almost as unfavorable as ever, though their numbers are about the same as the Republicans.   Though the trend hasn’t been as pro-Democratic as it has been anti-Republican, the Democrats haven’t been hurt this last year as much as the GOP has been.

So what does all this mean?   First, there is a real chance that 2012 will turn out to be a much bigger Democratic year than most people now predict.   Not only is Obama still the odds on favorite (in part due to weakness in the GOP field), but the Republicans are almost certain to lose seats in the House despite Democratic retirements.   The possibility of the Democrats retaking the House cannot be ruled out.

But besides electoral politics, this is a sign that the Tea Party may have ran its course.  Not only is Occupy Wall Street grabbing the headlines and media attention, but anger at Republicans is muting past anger at Democrats.   Obama is hurt by a bad economy, but enough people still see it as something he’s inherited and believe the Republicans have stood in the way of compromises designed to pass measures to improve things.    People may not have warmed to the Democrats, but they’ve cooled to the Tea Party.

This suggests that the Republicans need to seriously think about compromise.   The message is clear: the American people don’t want hyper partisan ideological jihad.    Moreover when stories come out from Wisconsin that groups are collecting fake petitions on the Scott Walker recall ballot in order to try to fool voters into thinking they’ve signed — a felony offense (some are even going up and ripping them up) — it feeds into the stereotype of the Tea Party as mean spirited extremists.     The GOP has to turn this around if it wants a chance to hold on to the gains of 2010 and perhaps take the Presidency.

This creates opportunity for the Democrats.   Obama can run against Congress, and Democratic candidates can push Republicans on unpopular stances and their refusal to close loopholes on the wealthy.   However there is one thing President Obama and the Democrats need to harness if they’re to turn around their 2010 fortunes and garner a big victory: optimism.

On the campaign trail and in individual campaigns the Democratic theme has to be “a better tomorrow, starting today.”   Optimism needs to replace the hope of 2008.   The worst is behind us, we have a vision of renewal and innovation.   America isn’t done for, we’re not facing long term crisis or inevitable collapse.   We don’t all have to learn how to grow crops and prepare for calamity.   We’re neither going to war with China nor are we going to be overtaken by them.   The future is bright.

An optimistic message and a little economic good news, and the Democrats could end up looking at 2011 as a tough period that they survived.   Republicans might look back and think they peaked too soon.    All of this is speculative, it’s trying to intuit the pulse of the country, interpreting slight shifts in public mood.   Bad news, a scandal, a foreign policy disaster, economic crisis (or growth) all can push aside other factors in shaping 2012.

Still, one thing seems clear: the Tea Party is yesterday’s news.   Even in its own distracts it’s lost popularity and has run out of gas.  Its style and methods now turn people off more than they help.   The Republicans have to recognize this, and realize that the anger of the Tea Party may have helped in 2010, but it’s not an effective long term approach.   They have the House now, anger works against them.

And if it makes the Tea Party feel any better, the same kind of collapse happened to President Obama after his election.   Movements can arise, but are hard to sustain.   OWS should take notice and learn from this as well.

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The New Pepper Spray Craze!

If you were in charge of marketing the “occupy” protests and wanted an image to elicit the maximum sympathy for the protesters and most animosity towards the police, this image would win, it’s a marketer’s dream.   The officer nonchalantly springs the painful chemical into the eyes of waiting youth, crouched and docile.    The STATE will not be challenged by mere youth!

Yet even as pepper spray images proliferate via Facebook and other social networking sites, the use of pepper spray seems to be turning into a national craze.   First, you get the inevitable humor:

Pepper spray at the Macy's parade! (What - you say it's been photoshopped?)

If King George III had had pepper spray

Of course, good ideas spread fast.  If it’s good enough for the state, then it should be useful for the private sector.   One shopper took that message to heart as she expressed the Christmas spirit by pepper spraying twenty other shoppers, many of whom had to be hospitalized, so she could get her Xbox game system.

Successful shopping with credit cards and pepper spray!

Of course, why should anyone be bothered.    After all, pepper spray is, at least according to FOX news, a food product.

Why, if you listen to this bimb…I mean, anchor, it’s sort of like throwing rice at a wedding, it’s just a food product!  Despite FOX news’ efforts to try to make it seem like pepper spray is essentially harmless (perhaps one reason shoppers might think it OK to bring to a competitive shopping match like Black Friday), it’s not that simple.   There have been deaths associated with pepper spray, it can cause temporary blindness, and is an inflammatory agent irritating the eyes and making it difficult for people to offer resistance.

Even the Pentagon had reservations about approving it for widespread use, and besides death it has been associated with a number of potentially severe reactions.     It might have been messier to arrest the protesters, but that would have been a smarter choice (though the smartest choice would have been to let them be).

The occupy movements are not going to continue forever.  They’ve made a huge impact on the political conversation in the country and have publicized the rather dramatic shift of relative wealth from the middle class to the wealthiest over the last 30 years.    The have been successful at job one — shift the agenda, shape the conversation, and get attention.   Job two, turning that into political results, requires them to organize and act politically on multiple levels.

Most protesters are workers and students who take time from their otherwise busy schedules to participate.   Most pay taxes.   Their dedication is inspiring; they’re willing to undertake considerable effort to try to bring about change they think is good for the country, and that demonstrates true patriotism .   I get a sense that a political change is starting.    Images like that of the police spraying docile protesters helps them far more than having to move off a square hurts; such a movement is less about occupying territory than about ideas.

I still hope they call a “global day of protest” and move the “Occupy” movement to stage two, I think they’ve achieved all they set out to achieve in stage one — and probably beyond their wildest expectations.     The “pepper spray moment” may be remembered as one of those iconic images that helps define the issue — and gives us some humor at the same time.

Under the sink next to the Pam and the Olive Oil

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Global Day of Protest

The writing is on the wall.    After months of remarkably peaceful protests and the igniting of a global social movement that may change politics and even herald a new era, it’s time for the Occupy Wall Street movement to move to a new phase.

Winter is coming, the thousands of devoted supporters contributing time when they can are being drawn away by other life concerns, and there is a danger that the crowds could become more militant and needlessly confrontational.    With tents and sleeping bags no longer allowed at Zuccotti Park, the viability of a long term presence declines.   Continuing the occupy movement now risks losing the profound message of the need to expand democracy and transparency lost with the shift of power to global financial and corporate interests.

To mark the end — and make clear that those who are violent and destructive are not representing the movement — the Occupy Wall Street leaders should proclaim a global day of protest and solidarity for the cause of democracy and transparency.    December 1st would be a good day for that, maybe call it “Democracy day.”    They should call on everyone to come out and engage in peaceful protests to underscore the efficacy of the movement so far and show that while they’re ending the first phase, it’s not an end to their efforts.    That way the “occupy” portion of OWS ends in a confident victory rather than stories of police confrontations and declining numbers.

The next phase should be to maintain connections across the globe, coordinate protests at various points (including flash protests to show the latent strength of the movement), and most importantly mobilize and energize especially the youth to be politically active and engaged.   The US has a major election coming next year, and across the planet the current economic crisis leads to new challenges.  21st Century protests shouldn’t be run in accord with 20th Century norms; arrests and unrest is a mark of failure not success.   Occupation of space is only valuable to garner attention, in and of itself it is unimportant.

The fact is that neo-liberal de-regulation and a “hands off” approach to the economy has failed.   For thirty years government has become less willing to regulate the economy, taxes have declined, and debt has grown.  The result is a mountain of debt, the largest maldistribution of income since the 1800s, an economic crisis, and a decline in democratic accountability as non-state actors grow in prominence and power.

The “Tea Party” movement recognized this too, and their solution seems to be rooted in nostalgia.   They want to go back to the America they used to know.   At one level that’s good — they remember an America with a bustling middle class, a strong work ethic, and a sense that you are responsible for your own destiny.    I daresay OWS wants the same thing, but disagrees that you can get there just by cutting government.    That “painless” solution ignores the fact that the world is fundamentally different now than it was 30 or 40 years ago.    Some on the tea party fringe want a culture war over homosexual rights and immigration, but that’s something they can’t win — since about 1300 western civilization doesn’t go backwards, it progresses.

Some OWS folk also look backwards, to failed ideals of socialism, Marxism and big government.   Yet enough in both movements also look forward.   They recognize that high debt levels are unsustainable, that power has become centralized to a big business/big government nexus, and that average folk are increasingly unable to have a strong voice in how the polity functions.

The common bond between left and right here is a desire for democracy and a rejection of centralized power.   The left is concerned about centralized corporate and financial power while the right is more concerned about centralized governmental power, but if each is honest, they’ll realize both have a point.   Big business funds, finances and supports big government.   Big government answers to big money.  If the left and the right choose one “side” and demonize the other it just perpetuates the problem.

Expanding democracy and citizen voice will not be easy.   Due to the information revolution, the loss of sovereign powers by states and the obsolescence of current political structures, it’s not something that an election can “fix” or a few policies can address.   We’re looking at the need to transform political structures and use technology and communication to not only increase transparency but make clear how power is being exercised.

But that’s OK.   OWS doesn’t need an end game now, the fact that they don’t have specific goals and demands is a strength.  It reflects the reality that these problems require a political transformation so fundamental that we have no real understanding of what it will look like.   Right now the process of expanding knowledge about the situation and waking people up to the fact things need to change is important.   That’s why the lack of a clear agenda is a good thing — no one knows where this is going.

I hope the OWS leaders realize that long term occupation is not feasible, and that they have already had a powerful start to a movement that represents an historic and monumental shift in global politics.   They have to keep this going, and the way to do so is to move from ‘occupation’ to spreading ideas and expanding connections.

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Only the Beginning

Defying odds and predictions, Occupy Wall Street continues

When I started this blog in 2008 I had little trouble describing it’s purpose: “Reflections on culture, politics, philosophy and world events during an era of crisis and transformation.”   It was clear to me that the US and indeed the world was on the verge of fundamental change, as the technology and information revolutions made the old order obsolete.

Nearly four years later it’s clear that the world is changing and its caused confusion.   Political partisans continue in their comfortable contentions that the other side is to blame for the problems and their side will get it right.    Some scream the sky is falling, others worry about the rise of China, Brazil, India and newly industrializing states, and others — though surprisingly few — are still mainly concerned about terrorism and Islamic extremism.

All of these views, I think, suffer from a common flaw: extending 20th Century thinking into the 21st Century.   In other words, most people use the categories and theories of the past to extrapolate into the future, trying to figure out how change will impact existing actors and interests.   New thinking is required; the world is changing and old theories, ideologies and strategies are increasingly ineffective and counter productive.

Consider Iceland.  I recall being in on line debates with true free market ideologues who would point to Iceland as proof that the key to success is let markets work (some tried even to claim feudal Iceland success proved pure capitalism could work which is perhaps the most bizarre argument I’ve ever encountered).   They privatized their entire banking structure and opened up the country to virtually unregulated economic speculation.   The result is that the country went bankrupt.

As the article notes, when a bail out plan and series of loans was “offered,” with threats of severe reprisals should Iceland default, the people rose up, wrote a new constitution, sought to arrest and punish those involved in destroying the economy, and essentially took back their sovereign and democratic rights.   This is an amazing story, an example of what groups like “Occupy Wall Street” want: rejection of control over the economy by international finance.

However, I don’t think the story ends there.  Iceland provides one part of what is likely to happen as this transformation continues:  The people will seek to reclaim local power and resist global finance and ‘big business.’    More local authority and control is a necessary component of the change that is coming.   Without it power gets amassed in the hands of a few large economic actors who can control, influence and penetrate state governments and undermine democratic accountability.   It is precisely those economic actors who caused the current crisis and rendered impotent government regulators who tried in vain to put limits on derivative trade, enforce lending standards, and increase capital requirements for big financial institutions.

Yet localization alone is not the answer.   Globalization is real.   Iceland will be punished for not playing along, and while this is likely better for Icelanders than being stuck in a loan/debt/austerity bind, their shift from radical libertarian principles to regulation and localism isn’t the complete path to the future.   Globalization is real, and it is a good thing.   But it’s also new, and political and economic structures built around the notion of sovereignty and the state have to be transformed.

One reason global finance has so much power is that regulatory efforts are by definition state-centric.   Big money has found a way to game the system by playing states off against each other or shopping for the cheapest tax rates, least regulation or most ineffective enforcement — the so-called race to the bottom.   States aren’t impotent and have tried to respond, but usually it ends up with arrangements that cede more power to transnational enterprises and away from states.

States still have the guns, but they just don’t matter as much as they used to, especially for the most advanced economies. The monopoly on the use of force which used to be considered as granting states ultimate power doesn’t work if force isn’t as relevant.  Big business doesn’t worry about the lack of a monopoly on force because such force is irrelevant to them.   Their influence over governments is due to the new ultimate weapon:  capital!   Force is structural and economic, old fashioned violence is less effective and crude.

Money and wealth create the capacity to help or harm a state with just a few economic decisions.   Besides regaining local control a way has to be found to create global accountability; the sovereign Westphalian system has to give way to a kind of post-sovereign structure of governance that recognizes and can cope with the global identity of modern transnational enterprises (or multinational corporations).

We’ve got a long way to go.   The rather dramatic rise in activism globally – and literally out of the blue and unexpected — with the various “occupy” movements is powerful evidence that discontent, anger and desire for change is real and widespread.   What happened in Iceland can happen elsewhere; perhaps not in such extreme form, but the long term impact of today’s new social movements is still unknown.    The fact that they are global means that a network of social organizations can gather and share information on what corporations and banks are doing, and organize responses.  Partnerships between first and third world states through such organization can lead to pressure to use international organizations like the WTO (which has nascent regulatory power) to build a method of holding transnational actors accountable.

We’re not there yet.   Our thinking is still mired in the 20th Century world of sovereignty, states, and ideology.   The new world cannot reflect any one ideological perspective — it should construct new avenues and venues for debating the path forward.  It is not anti-free market to want to limit big money because there is a strong argument that such a powerful position of a few elite companies and institutions is itself a threat to the proper functioning of the market.

So hang on for the ride.   It’s only just beginning, and there will be jumps and starts, gyrations to the left and to the right, emotional manipulation, fear, hope and at times anger.   However, the future should not be feared.   Those who scream gloom and doom lack creativity and an appreciation of what humans can and have accomplished.   Those who give simple answers or promise to “fix” things and make things like they “used to be” are deluded.

It’s an exciting time to live, and it’s within our capacity as humans to use technology and our ability to communicate and interact across the globe to solve problems and build a better future.   Globalization is what we make of it.

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