Butterfly and the Boiling Point
the Wild Winds of Change in 2011
Revolution is as
unpredictable as an earthquake and as beautiful as spring. 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 its buds and
showers, so revolution has its ebullience, its bravery, its hope, and
its solidarity. Some of these things pass. The women of Cairo do not
move as freely in public as they did during those few precious weeks
when the old rules were suspended and everything was different. But
the old Egypt is gone and Egyptians’ sense of themselves -- and
our sense of them -- is forever changed.
vanishes without effect. The Prague Spring of 1968 was brutally
crushed, but 21 years later when a second wave of revolution
liberated Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek, who had been the
reformist Secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, returned
to give heart to the people from a balcony overlooking Wenceslas
Square: "The government is telling us that the street is not the
place for things to be solved, but I say the street was and is the
place. The voice of the street must be heard."
The voice of the
street has been a bugle cry this year. You heard it. Everyone
did, but the rulers who thought their power was the only power that
mattered, heard it last and with dismay. Many of them are nervous
now, releasing political prisoners, lowering the price of food, and
otherwise trying to tamp down uprisings.
There were three
kinds of surprise about this year’s unfinished revolutions in
Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and the rumblings elsewhere that have
frightened the mighty from Saudi Arabia to China, Algeria to Bahrain.
The West was surprised that the Arab world, which we have regularly
been told is medieval, hierarchical, and undemocratic, was full of
young men and women using their cell phones, their Internet access,
and their bodies in streets and squares to foment change and
temporarily live a miracle of direct democracy and people power. And
then there is the surprise that the seemingly unshakeable regimes of
the strongmen were shaken into pieces.
And finally, there
is always the surprise of: Why now? Why did the crowd decide to storm
the Bastille on July 14, 1789, and not any other day? The bread
famine going on in France that year and the rising cost of food had
something to do with it, as hunger and poverty does with many of the
Middle Eastern uprisings today, but part of the explanation remains
mysterious. Why this 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 thoroughly modern
intellect.” This profound uncertainty has been the grounds for
my own hope.
Hindsight is 20/20,
they say, and you can tell stories where it all makes sense. A young
Tunisian college graduate, Mohammed
who could find no better work than selling produce from a cart on the
street, was so upset by his treatment at the hands of a policewoman
that he set himself afire on December 17, 2010. His death two weeks
later became the match that lit the country afire -- but why that
death? Or why the death of Khaled
Said, an Egyptian youth who exposed police corruption and was
beaten to death for it? He got a Facebook page that said “We
are all Khaled Said,” and his death, too, was a factor in the
uprisings to come.
But when exactly do
the abuses that have been tolerated for so long become intolerable?
When does the fear evaporate and the rage generate action that
produces joy? After all, Tunisia and Egypt were not short on
intolerable situations and tragedies before Bouazizi’s
self-immolation and Said’s murder.
Thich Quang Duc
himself to death at an intersection in Saigon on June 11, 1963,
to protest 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 produce a military coup against the regime six
months later -- a change, but not necessarily a liberation. In
between that year and this one, many people have fasted, prayed,
protested, gone to prison, and died to call attention to cruel
regimes, with little or no measurable consequence.
The boiling point of
water is straightforward, but the boiling point of societies is
mysterious. Bouazizi’s death became a catalyst, and at his
funeral the 5,000 mourners chanted,
"Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today,
we will make those who caused your death weep."
But his was not the
first Tunisian gesture of denunciation. An even younger man, the rap
artist who calls himself El General, uploaded a song about the horror
of poverty and injustice in the country and, as the Guardian
it, “within hours, the song had lit up the bleak and
fearful horizon like an incendiary bomb.” Or a new dawn. The
artist was arrested and interrogated for three very long days, and
then released thanks to widespread protest. And surely before him we
could find another milestone. And another young man being subjected
to inhuman conditions. And behind the uprising in Egypt are a panoply
and human rights organizers as well as charismatic individuals.
This has been a
great year for the power of the powerless and for the courage and
determination of the young. A short, fair-haired, mild man even
younger than Bouazizi has been held under extreme conditions in
solitary confinement 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 unveiling some
of the more compromised and unsavory operations of the American
military and U.S. diplomacy. Bradley
Manning was a 22-year-old soldier stationed in Iraq when he was
arrested last spring. The acts he’s charged with have
changed the global political landscape and fed the outrage in the
it in a headline, “In one fell swoop, the candor of the
cables released by WikiLeaks did more for Arab democracy than decades
of backstage 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 the regime’s corruption was common
King and the Montgomery Story,
a 1958 comic book about the Civil Rights struggle in the American
South and the power of nonviolence was translated
and distributed by the American Islamic Council in the Arab world
in 2008 and has been credited with influencing the insurgencies of
2011. So the American Islamic Council played a role, too -- a role
definitely not being investigated 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, whose
movement liberated India from colonial rule 66 years ago, and so the
story comes back to the east.
Causes are Russian
dolls. You can keep opening each one up and find another one behind
it. WikiLeaks and Facebook and Twitter and the new media helped in
2011, but new media had been around for years. Asmaa Mahfouz was a
young Egyptian woman who had served time in prison for using the
Internet to organize a protest on April 6, 2008, to support striking
workers. With astonishing 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 intense conviction:
Egyptians have set themselves on fire to protest humiliation and
hunger and poverty and degradation they had to live with for 30
years. Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire thinking maybe we
can have a revolution like Tunisia, maybe we can have freedom,
justice, honor, and human dignity. Today, one of these four has died,
and I saw people commenting and saying, ‘May God forgive him.
He committed a sin and killed himself for nothing.’ People,
have some shame.”
She described an
earlier demonstration at which few had shown up: “I posted 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 came except three guys -- three guys and three armored cars of
riot police. And tens of hired thugs and officers came to terrorize
Mahfouz called for
the gathering in Tahrir Square on January 25th that became the
Egyptian revolution. The second time around she didn’t
stand alone. Eighty-five thousand Egyptians pledged to attend, and
soon enough, millions stood with her.
The revolution was
called by a young woman with nothing more than a Facebook account and
passionate conviction. They were enough. Often, revolution has had
such modest starts. On October 5, 1789, a girl took a drum to
the central markets of Paris. The storming of the Bastille a few
months before had started, but hardly completed, a revolution.
That drummer girl helped gather a mostly female crowd of thousands
who marched to Versailles and seized the royal family. It was the end
of the Bourbon monarchy.
Women often find
great roles in revolution, simply because the rules fall 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
That the flapping of
a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can shape the weather in Texas is
a summation of chaos theory that is now an oft-repeated cliché.
But there are billions of butterflies on earth, all flapping their
wings. Why does one gesture matter more than another? Why this
Facebook post, this girl with a drum?
Even to try to
answer this you’d have to say that the butterfly is born aloft
by a particular breeze that was shaped by the flap of the wing of,
say, a sparrow, and so behind causes are causes, behind small agents
are other small agents, inspirations, and role models, as well as
outrages to react against. The point is not that causation is
unpredictable and erratic. The point is that butterflies and sparrows
and young women in veils and an unknown 20-year-old rapping in Arabic
and you yourself, if you wanted it, sometimes have tremendous power,
enough to bring down a dictator, enough to change the world.
Selves, Other Lives
2011 has already
been a remarkable year in which a particular kind of humanity
appeared again and again in very different places, and we will see a
great deal more of it in Japan before that catastrophe is over.
Perhaps its first appearance was at the shooting of Congresswoman
Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson on January 8th, where the 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 people needed help."
Martinez reached the
congresswoman’s side and probably saved her life by
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
grazed by a bullet. One elderly man died because he shielded
his wife rather than protect himself.
changed and those people rose to the occasion heroically not in the
hours, days, or weeks a revolution gives, but within seconds. More
sustained acts of bravery and solidarity would make the revolutions
to come. People would risk their lives and die for their beliefs and
for each other. And in killing them, regimes would lose their last
shreds of legitimacy.
always seems to me the worst form of tyranny. 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 tyrannies that
have sometimes cost lives and sometimes just ground down those lives
into poverty and indignity, from Bahrain to Madison, Wisconsin.
Yes, to Madison. I have often wondered if the United
States could catch fire the way other countries sometimes do. The
public space and spirit of Argentina or Egypt often seem missing
here, for what changes in revolution is largely spirit, emotion,
belief -- intangible things, as delicate as butterfly wings, but our
world is made of such things. They matter. The governors govern by
the consent of the governed. When they lose that consent, they resort
to violence, which can stop some 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 song attacking the dictator who has ruled all his young life.
Or people sign a declaration like Charter
77, the 1977 Czech document that was a milestone on the way to
the revolutions of 1989, as well as a denunciation of the harassment
of an underground rock band called the Plastic People of the
Universe. Or a group of them found a labor union on the waterfront in
Gdansk, Poland, in 1980, and the first cracks appear in the Soviet
Those who are not afraid are ungovernable, at least by
fear, that favorite 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 sealed Mubarak’s
doom. When people are afraid, murders make them take flight. But
when they have thrown off fear, murders have the opposite effect and
make them bold. 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 of which revolution is
When a revolution is made, people suddenly find
themselves in a changed state -- of mind and of nation. The ordinary
rules are suspended, and people become engaged with each other in new
ways, and develop a new sense of power and possibility. People behave
with generosity and altruism; they find they can govern themselves;
and, in many ways, the government simply ceases to exist. A few days
into the Egyptian revolution, Ben Wedeman, CNN’s senior
correspondent in Cairo, was asked why things had calmed down in the
Egyptian capital. He responded:
“[T]hings have calmed down because there is no government
here," pointing out that security forces had simply disappeared
from the streets.
This state often arises in disasters as well, when the
government is overwhelmed, shut down, or irrelevant for people intent
on survival and then on putting society back together. If it rarely
lasts, in the process it does change individuals and societies,
leaving a legacy. To my mind, the best government is one that
most resembles this moment when civil society reigns in a spirit of
hope, inclusiveness, and improvisational genius.
In Egypt, there were moments of violence when people
pushed back against the government’s goons, and for a week it
seemed like the news was filled with little but pictures of bloody
heads. Still, no armies marched, no superior weaponry decided the
fate of the country, nobody was pushed from power by armed might.
People gathered in public and discovered themselves as the public, as
civil society. They found that the repression and exploitation they
had long tolerated was intolerable and that they could do something
about it, even if that something was only gathering, standing
together, insisting on their rights as the public, as the true nation
that the government can never be.
It is remarkable how, in other countries, people will one
day simply stop believing in the regime that had, until then, ruled
them, as African-Americans did in the South here 50 years ago.
Stopping believing means no longer regarding those who rule you as
legitimate, and so no longer fearing them. Or respecting them. And
then, miraculously, they begin to crumble.
In the Philippines in 1986, millions
of people gathered in response to a call from Catholic-run Radio
Veritas, the only station the dictatorship didn’t control or
Then the army defected and dictator Fernando Marcos was
ousted from power after 21 years.
In Argentina in 2001, in the wake of a brutal economic
collapse, such a sudden shift in consciousness toppled the neoliberal
regime of Fernando de la Rúa and ushered in a revolutionary
era of economic desperation, but also of brilliant,
generous innovation. A shift in consciousness brought an
outpouring of citizens into the streets of Buenos Aires, suddenly no
longer afraid after the long nightmare of a military regime and its
aftermath. In Iceland in early 2009, in the wake of a global economic
meltdown of special fierceness on that small
island nation, a once-docile population almost literally drummed
out of power the ruling party that had managed the country into
Can’t Happen Here?
In the United States, the communion between the governed
and the governors and the public spaces in which to be reborn as a
civil society resurgent often seem missing. This is a big country
whose national capital is not much of a center and whose majority
seems to live in places that are themselves decentered.
At its best, revolution is an urban phenomenon. Suburbia
is counterrevolutionary by design. For revolution, you need to
converge, to live in public, to become the public, and that’s a
geographical as well as a political phenomenon. The history of
revolution is the history of great public spaces: the Place de la
Concorde during the French Revolution; the Ramblas in Barcelona
during the Spanish Civil War; Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in
1989 (a splendid rebellion that was crushed); the great surge that
turned the divide of the Berlin Wall into a gathering place in that
same year; the insurrectionary occupation of the Zocalo of Mexico
City after corrupt presidential elections and of the space in Buenos
Aires that gave the Dirty War’s most open opposition its 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, but these are only preludes. You also need to rise
up, to pour out into the streets. You need to be together in body,
for only then are you truly the public with the full power that a
public can possess. And then it needs to matter. The United States is
good at trivializing and ignoring insurrections at home.
The authorities were shaken by the uprising in Seattle
that shut down the World Trade Organization meeting on November 30,
1999, but the actual nonviolent resistance there was quickly
fictionalized into a tale of a violent rabble. Novelist and then-New
Yorker correspondent Mavis Gallant wrote in 1968:
between rebellion at Columbia [University] and rebellion at the
Sorbonne is that life in Manhattan went on as before, while in Paris
every section of society was set on fire, in the space of a few days.
The collective hallucination was that life can change, quite suddenly
and for the better. It still strikes me as a noble desire..."
Revolution is also the action of people pushed to the
brink. Rather than fall over, they push back. When he decided to push
public employees hard and strip them of their collective bargaining
rights, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took a gamble. In response,
union members, public employees, and then the public of Wisconsin
began to gather on February 11th. By February 15th, they had
taken over the 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’s history was held, led by a
of farmers. The Wisconsin firefighters have revolted too. And
the librarians. And the broad response has given encouragement
to citizens in other states fighting similar cutbacks on essential
services and rights.
Republicans like to charge the rest of us with “class
war” when we talk about economic injustice, and that’s
supposed to be a smear one should try to wriggle out of. But what’s
going on in Wisconsin is a class war, in which billionaire-backed
Walker is serving the interests of corporations and the super-rich,
and this time no one seems afraid of the epithet. Jokes and newspaper
political cartoons, as well as essays and talks, remark on the
reality of our anti-trickle-down economy, where wealth is being
pumped uphill to the palaces at a frantic rate, and on the reality
that we’re not 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 whether the party best serving big corporations can
strip the rest of us of our rights and return us to a state of
poverty and powerlessness. If the people who gathered in Madison
don’t win, the war will continue and we’ll all lose.
Oppression often works -- for a while. And then it
backfires. Sometimes immediately, sometimes after several decades.
Walker has been nicknamed the Mubarak of the Midwest. Much of the
insurrection and the rage in the Middle East isn’t just about
tyranny; 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 their lives. This is
increasingly the story for young Americans as well, and here it’s
clearly a response to the misallocation of resources, not absolute
scarcity. It could just be tragic, or it could get interesting when
the young realize they are being shafted, and that life could be
different. Even that it could change, quite suddenly, and for the
There was a splendid surliness in the wake of the
economic collapse of 2008: rage at the executives who had managed the
economy into the ground and went home with outsized bonuses, rage at
the system, rage at the sheer gratuitousness of the suffering of
those who were being foreclosed upon and laid off. In this country,
economic inequality has reached
a level not seen since before the stock market crash of 1929.
Hard times are in store for most people on Earth, and
those may be times of boldness. Or not. The butterflies are out
there, but when their flight stirs the winds of insurrection no one
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 heroines of 2011 have. I am sure they themselves are
as surprised as anyone. Since she very 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 there
will be hope."
San Franciscan Rebecca Solnit keeps an earthquake kit
at the ready and wrote the opening line of this piece a few days
before the Sendai quake. She has been writing for
2003, mainly on hope and insurrection. Her most recent
books include A
Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in
Disaster (2009), which explores the connections between
disaster and revolution, and Infinite
City: A San Francisco Atlas. To listen to Timothy
MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Solnit
discusses both revolution and disaster, including the recent
earthquake/tsunami in Japan, click here,
or download it to your iPod here.
Copyright 2011 Rebecca Solnit
Originally published by TomDispatch.com - without the images.