Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tunisia and what we can learn

Tunisia's uprising is extraordinarily interesting. Of course, seeing people stand up against corruption is always heartening, but it also gives incite into what is and is not effective for people advocating for change with limited means to do so legally. In an interview with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, Jual Cole explains that it's not just an uprising with a singular source:

All revolutions are multiple revolutions happening at the same time. So there’s a strong element of economic protest. There’s a class element. Twenty percent of college graduates are unemployed. There’s extreme poverty in the rural areas. And the regime was doing things that interfered with economic development. They would use the banks to give out loans to their cronies, and then the cronies wouldn’t pay back the banks, so they were undermining the financial system. And that made it—and the extremeness of the dictatorship, the demands constantly for bribes, discouraged foreign investment. So the regime was all about itself. It was doing things that were counterproductive. And it injured the interests of many social groups—the college-educated, the workers. Now, the three ministers that pulled back out of the national unity government today were from the General Union of Tunisian Workers, which is an old, longstanding labor organization. So, it was a mass movement; it included people from all kinds of backgrounds.

Juan Cole continues to impress me. It's easy to think of revolutionaries as a monolithic group, but the reason so few are successful is because the reality is much different than the ideal. Though direct opposition to a revolt often quashes it, the times that violence attain the desired effect of suppression require different tactics.

The Tunisian government is attempting perhaps the most insidious of tactics to deal with the revolution: fracturing. The idea being to give concessions to some of the groups while leaving the rest oppressed. It was particularly effective against the labor movements of the early 1900's whose members were often deeply bigoted white supremacists (though not nearly as violent as generations previous and relatively innocuous compared to violent racists in the same time period).

The Tunisians government has already tried a few concessions. The BBC describes them as "dramatic", but based on the details available they seem quite sparse. The president has promised to stand down in 2014 and to reduce food prices. Investigations have been opened into the President, his bank accounts and his financial connection to his network of nepotism. The curfew has been reduced (though not removed), but that might be the only real, substantial change.

The Tunisian protesters, to their merit, seem unfazed. They seem to recognize that promises made while they are active are unlikely to be followed through upon by the dictator if he's allowed to retake control, and very little has changed since then. If they stay together, I'll be excited to see how far they can take their country with regards to eliminating corruption and obtaining truly democratic representation.

If the citizens of the US with legitimate grievances stood together in solidarity, I wonder what they could achieve. I don't think any US politician would be willing to use physical violence on nonviolent unarmed US citizens without due process (though they felt it was appropriate with armed citizens in Waco, and unarmed citizens abroad like Gulet Mohamed, and unarmed non-citizens like New Americans without legal papers), so the response will definitely be to capitulate to certain interests and leave the others alone.

We've already seen this tactic effectively employed for the last few years. A big ceremonious (and imaginary) closing of Guantanamo while we continue to torture abroad, a repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell while the Defense of Marriage Act stands, pretending to pull out of Iraq while our unmanned death machines reign carnage on Pashtun weddings have all left the progressives in America divided.

Obama, we can all agree, was better than McCain. So, we fought for Obama (and we won)! With that victory, though, came the misconception that Obama was 'on our side'. We had no figure on the left and no venue to reach the level of people that the conservative media (Fox, AM radio) and the government aligned media (NPR, NYT, MSNBC, CNN, etc.) do every day. We have the occasional Amy Goodman and Glenn Greenwald, but their voices were far eclipsed by the status-quo noise machine.

Our system is dominated by money. It controls how effectively information is spread, how the public is exposed to that information and the 'groupthink' opinion is hoisted off onto anyone who sees a seed of truth and doesn't have the time, motivation or resources to investigate further. We need to stop looking to media figures or even executive leaders for cue and start concentrating on the policy, not the people.

Going through all those quotes by Dr. King yesterday, I was reminded of his triple evils of poverty, war and racism and how connected they are. Poverty would not exist in our world today without excess. Our resources are vast and our production effective beyond belief. Poverty exists because we allow it to exist every time we focus our resources on luxuries for the wealthy instead of necessities for our peers.

War serves only to pad the pockets of the owners of Lockheed Martin, Halliburton/KBR, Blackwater/XE and other war profiteers. Without the profit motive and our glorification of violent conflict, our politicians wouldn't feel so driven to it.

Racism may seem less tied to economic exploitation now than it did in Dr. King's time, but that's only because a veil draped over the connection has been propagated by that same pro-status-quo media machine. The source of the concentration of money can easily be traced to a time when Africans were exploited by wealthy whites (read: all of American History). I believe that the reason 'othering' (not just racism but also sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc) is so prevalent and sustained in our society is the benefit that the 'upper class' (those that benefit most from societies current structure) perpetuate it. In this sense, a sort of Reaganomics of ideas exists; the wealthy reward those media outlets that parrot their opinions with investment and commercial capital and the ideas 'trickle down' to the rest of us.

These three evils are symptoms of the real disease: economic exploitation. Only when everyone who is harmed by corporate, government and societal oppression comes to realize the singular source and fight against it together will the system (which has been built to last and has a myriad of tools and resources to combat change at it's disposal) be formed by the people like a true democracy, rather than by moneyed interests like the plutocracy we're degenerating into.