“…by calling for Monday’s rallies, the two [Iranian opposition] leaders had committed a crime known as moharebeh, or ‘fighting God,’ which carries the death penalty.” – February 16, 2011, Associated Press report on the week’s Iranian political unrest
The long shadows of populism stretch out before the setting sun. Like reverse vampires, regimes shy from the ensuing darkness. Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Iran. No wave, this – just an extraordinary virus creeping through the lives of ordinary people, who just want to put food on the table, and put healthy children to bed at night.
The shape hidden in the backlight’s shade is not of a sword, or of a firearm. It is community, and the singularity of civil thought that was enabled by toys like Facebook and Twitter.
Learned from the recent, moderately successful, mostly peaceful protests – particularly in Egypt: civility is not centrism, and violence is not the first arrow drawn from the revolutionary’s quiver. Indeed, if these events across Africa and the Middle East are harbingers of rebellions to come, it is more likely that the civil protester will defeat the centrist status quo, because today’s rebel will poke an iPhone before pulling an AK-47.
This populism is anti-terrorism. If it weren’t, then Tahrir would have been filled with jihadists, firing on the military, storming the presidential palace, cutting off Mubarak’s head and mounting it on a pike for all to see. That didn’t happen, despite calls from al Qaeda – nearly two weeks into Egypt’s uprising – that “urged Egyptians to [wage jihad, and] ignore the ‘ignorant deceiving ways’ of secularism, democracy and ‘rotten pagan nationalism,'” according to reports from a US based group that monitors al Qaeda’s communications.
“The jihadist narrative of al Qaeda has suffered a serious blow,” wrote Bruce Riedel, of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, this past weekend, “the victory of mass demonstrations and civil disobedience strikes at the very heart of the al Qaeda narrative that proclaims change can only come to the Islamic world through violence and terror, through the global jihad.”
It’s the difference between an idealist and an ideologue: an idealist sees the world as it could be and does what she can to make it so; an ideologue will accept nothing less than the world on his terms. Idealists will look at ways to work with others who may not feel the way they do, while keeping their eyes on the goal. To the ideologues, however, every doubt expressed in the purity of their movement is something to be ignored, even crushed, lest it squelch their vision’s victory.
In Egypt, the goals melded rather nicely, because the ideologues, mostly, nodded in agreement with the idealists over the key demand that Hosni Mubarak step down. Now, they all must work with the military, lest matters be made worse.
In Iran, the regime’s extreme dogmatism breeds equal-and-opposite-reaction ideologues on both sides. You will see things being burned and Tehran’s municipal infrastructure being attacked. There, the burden is heavier on the secular idealists to keep the passions of their more boisterous partners at an even keel.
Here in the United States, our ideologues are harder to recognize. Populism is centrist, but not necessarily civil. But in Wisconsin, the populists fighting to retain the collective bargaining power of AFSCME and other government worker unions are civil, but not centrist. Centrists want there to be a civil resolution to the issue of unionized workers who work for cash strapped public and private enterprises. But those who are behaving civilly, do not want to move to the center, especially if it means never again being able to negotiate from any kind of collective movement at all. There is too much for those being civil to lose, should they go to the center. This revolution, though, is coming down on the wrong side. A blade has been drawn by Governor Scott Walker’s regime, and it aims to take the head off from union power across the country, making Madison, at least figuratively, more Tienanmen than Tahrir.
Once the blade falls, though, it will not take long for those doing the slicing to realize that they just cut off their own right arm. It’s like trying to catch fish by shooting a hole in the middle of the boat.
What built the middle class in the post-war boom of the last century was the collective bargaining power of the unions who stood up for the workers – not “generous” plutocrats who fought against every pay raise and benefit package.
“We stand united for the rights and freedom of all Americans to collectively bargain for their piece of the American Dream,” Wisconsin AFSCME leaders said in a statement late Wednesday night. “We stand united against any effort to deny workers this freedom — whether it’s for a day, a year or the rest of our lives.”
The proposed Wisconsin law is backsliding – not progress – and its “assault on unions,” as President Obama characterized it, Wednesday, takes advantage of a difficult economy, making it all seem so reasonable, and centrist.
Meanwhile, centrism will not win the day in Madison. According to the AFSCME statement, “Yesterday we were told that passing this bill was a foregone conclusion. Today, as 30,000 Americans gathered at the Capitol, the bill’s fate is much less certain and some senators are seeking a compromise.” Civility may win in Wisconsin, after all.