David R. Colburn: Revolution is in the air

Published: Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 11:02 p.m.

While much has been made of the past year, most are just grateful that it is over. Charles Dickens’s opening sentence in “A Tale of Two Cities” was written over 150 years ago, but his words could well have applied to 2011: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The world’s economy muddled through a deep recession with no end in sight. All was not doom and gloom, however. At the same time, people in many different parts of the world embraced freedom, throwing off the shackles imposed by their oppressive, corrupt and long-serving political regimes.

Few places in the world escaped the financial and economic woes of the United States and Europe. Most economies were stagnant at best, and unemployment and home foreclosures devastated many individuals and families.

But people everywhere were also inspired by Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable seller in southern Tunisia, who immolated himself in despair after corrupt local officials seized his produce and his means of supporting his family on Dec. 17, 2010. His seemingly solitary act was captured on a cellphone and quickly went viral through social media outlets in the Middle East. His desperate act unleashed a revolutionary outburst that turned the region upside down.

The economic recession and the Arab Spring were linked in ways that have only partially been understood. Young people in various parts of the world, frustrated by the economic devastation wrought by the greed of banking and financial institutions, were inspired by the actions of a lowly individual in Tunisia against those forces controlling his life.

These developments remind us, as few others can, how intertwined our lives have become in this global and technological age.

Using social media, young people took up the banner of Bouazizi’s cause, mobilizing friends and sympathizers against some of the most hard-bitten and longstanding regimes in the world. Not only did they overthrow Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, but they joined forces with others to remove Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya. These three had dominated the lives of their citizens in North Africa for 96 years. Within a few months, all had been removed from power.

Dickens’ words again spoke to this movement for freedom and human dignity in ways no others have: “it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”

There is every reason to believe these movements will continue to make their presence felt throughout the world, giving voice to the young and the most disadvantaged people. Events in Syria underscore the ability of people to communicate their message to the world, under the harshest and most brutal of regimes.

In just the past month, we have witnessed hundreds of thousands of Russians marching into Red Square to protest the corruption in the recent election. Despite efforts by the government to block these demonstrations, the leaders, mostly young and college educated, mobilized their forces through social media websites.

In China, the elders in the town of Haimen knelt on the road to block the expansion of a coal-fired power plant which, they claimed, contributed to a substantial rise in cancer cases and heavy pollution in the seas in which they fished. Their protests were captured by cellphones and circulated on social media sites throughout the world.

In the United States, many young people have embraced the Occupy Wall Street movement in anger over the greed and exploitation of Americans by the nation’s elite.

Where exactly are these protests taking us? No one can say with certainty, but it seems clear that there is great dissatisfaction over the inability of individuals to control their own lives.

It is the most remarkable development of 2011 and, so far, of this century. These social media outlets have given voice to the voiceless. And despite the efforts of the most repressive regimes to silence them, they persist and promise to challenge traditional dogma at every step.

And no nation and no institutions are immune to this, as we have seen. Dickens again wrote perceptively in 1860, “it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”

In 2011, the social media outlets and the human aspiration for freedom have combined to offer hope and placed everything before us.

David R. Colburn is director of the Askew Institute at the University of Florida and he can be reached at drcolh@gmail.com.

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