Protests every­where

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer (gwynne7631­[email protected]) has worked as a free­lance jour­nal­ist, columnist, broad­caster and lecturer on in­ter­na­tional af­fairs for more than 20 years. He is the au­thor of “Grow­ing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work).”

Jour­nal­ists don’t just travel in packs; they write in packs too. And what they were writ­ing last week was end­less pipe-suck­ing ru­mi­na­tions about what’s driv­ing the seem­ingly syn­chro­nized out­break of protests in a large num­ber of very dif­fer­ent coun­tries around the world. They can’t see the for­est for the trees.

You will doubt­less have seen a few ex­am­ples of this fash­ion re­cently. If you lived in the belly of the me­dia beast, like I do, you’d be see­ing dozens a day, as journos try to ex­plain the phe­nom­e­non with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess. Vary­ing from zero to about 1.5 out of 10, in my opin­ion, but there is clearly some­thing transna­tional go­ing on.

A group of young Cata­lan na­tion­al­ists, walk­ing out onto the high­way to oc­cupy Barcelona air­port two weeks ago, were chant­ing “We’re go­ing to do a Hong Kong” as if they shared the same cause.

They don’t, ac­tu­ally. You could even say that the protesters in Hong Kong are anti-na­tion­al­ists, in the sense that they are de­fend­ing their free­doms against a regime in Bei­jing that wants to smother them un­der a blan­ket of con­form­ist Chi­nese na­tion­al­ism. But the tac­tics are the same in Cat­alo­nia and Hong Kong, and the emo­tions are too.

A strik­ing thing about the tac­tics, by the way, is that they have moved on from the strict non­vi­o­lence that char­ac­ter­ized would-be demo­cratic rev­o­lu­tions from the mid-1980s un­til the early days of the Arab Spring nine years ago.

From the “gilets jaunes” (yel­low jack­ets) in France who be­gan their protests al­most ex­actly a year ago; down to the protesters in the streets of Chile, Le­banon and Hong Kong to­day; the ma­jor­ity are still nonvi­o­lent. How­ever, they can­not con­trol (or maybe just don’t want to con­trol) the mi­nor­ity who throw bricks and flam­ing bot­tles at the po­lice.

The po­lice, of course, use vi­o­lence too: tear gas, rub­ber bul­lets, and some­times guns. Peo­ple have been killed — in small num­bers in most places, but in the hun­dreds in Iraq and in Su­dan. Even big­ger blood­baths are pos­si­ble in Hong Kong (if the regime in Bei­jing loses its nerve) and in Egypt (if Septem­ber’s protesters re­turn to the streets).

An­other com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor is that the trig­ger that sets the protests off is usu­ally some­thing small. The bread price went up in Su­dan; metro tick­ets got more ex­pen­sive in Chile; a new tax was put on What’s App calls in Le­banon; the price of petrol rose not very dra­mat­i­cally in France a year ago and in Ecuador last month — and the next thing you know, masses of peo­ple are out on the streets.

More­over, when the gov­ern­ment backs down and can­cels the of­fend­ing law or charge, as has gen­er­ally been the case af­ter a few days or weeks, the protesters don’t quit and go home. By then their de­mands have ex­panded to in­clude things like full demo­cratic rights (Hong Kong, Al­ge­ria and Egypt) or an end to a cor­rupt sys­tem (Iraq and Le­banon) or ac­tion on huge and grow­ing in­equal­i­ties be­tween rich and poor (Chile, France, and Ecuador).

But all this is just tax­on­omy, not re­ally anal­y­sis. It doesn’t ex­plain why this phe­nom­e­non is hap­pen­ing at the same time in such dif­fer­ent coun­tries. It doesn’t ex­plain why it’s hap­pen­ing now, not last year or in 2022. And it cer­tainly doesn’t tell us where it’s go­ing next.

Nor do I have an­swers to these ques­tions, and I can’t bring my­self to make the usual trite re­marks about global me­dia and im­i­ta­tion, or the lin­ger­ing and un­re­solved legacy of the 2008 crash, or the fact that 41 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion is un­der 25. How­ever, these events are show­ing us one im­por­tant thing: We re­ally do have a global so­ci­ety now.

You could see it tak­ing shape even three decades ago, in the way nonvi­o­lent rev­o­lu­tions flashed be­tween coun­tries, bring­ing some form of democ­racy to the Philip­pines, then South Korea, Thai­land and Bangladesh, and on to Poland, the fall of the Ber­lin Wall, and the end of the Soviet Union, all in the five years 1986-1991. But the tar­get then was just crude dic­ta­tor­ships; now it’s much broader.

It’s about eco­nomic and so­cial in­equal­ity as well as po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion, and in­creas­ingly it’s also about gen­er­a­tional in­equal­ity. Ob­vi­ously the in­jus­tices are more bla­tant and ex­treme in Egypt than they are in France, but they are not re­ally very dif­fer­ent and the young know it.

Never mind the na­tion­al­ists and the pop­ulists, who are just play­ing the same di­vi­sive old tunes as al­ways. What we have here, de­spite the mul­ti­plic­ity of lan­guages, re­li­gions and his­to­ries, is an emerg­ing global so­ci­ety with shared val­ues and am­bi­tions, es­pe­cially among the young.

There are mil­lions of an­gry dis­senters from this evolv­ing con­sen­sus, but for the first time ever we re­ally are be­com­ing one peo­ple. That is a com­fort­ing thought as we head into the mil­len­nial storm of cli­mate change. It couldn’t have come at a bet­ter time.

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