Solnit on Revolutions & Tipping Points

At, Rebecca Solnit has an incredibly thoughtful essay on the nature of tipping points and revolutions, specifically through the change movements we’ve seen around the world in the last three months, as well as historical looks at revolutionary movements going back two hundred years in history. Along the way she connects movements in Egypt, Tunisia, and Wisconsin to Wikileaks, the French Revolution, the civil rights movement, Charter 77  and the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. Solnit’s analysis is encouraging in a way that the technophobic rants of Malcolm Gladwell are not; actual realism involves taking a holistic view of what is happening and understanding individual pieces in concert, not looking at one piece of technology and blaming it for not being things it cannot be.

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.

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.

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 “tractorcade” 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 better. [Emphasis added]

Solnit’s whole piece is great, as well as inspiring.

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