Small World: Dissent abroad and home

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Whatever channel you tune into for the evening news, you are almost certain to see a segment on people — fists raised, throwing stones, setting fires — who are demonstrating against their government or against other folk demonstrating for the government.

With a little experience, you can tell the source of the film: all bundled up means Ukraine; short-sleeved — often red — shirts are Thais. Explosions are featured in Syria, while violent skirmishes with the police suggest Egypt. Scenes from the latter, however, are rare because the military regime locks up journalists. Libyan demos are now infrequent because the place is unpredictably dangerous and too complicated for TV reporters to explain. Same for Yemen. And in Africa, travel is difficult and expensive for news organizations. I could go on — Bahrain, Iraq, Pakistan, India — but pretty soon the networks find the governor of New Jersey a more attractive (Is that the right word?) topic.

What’s going on? In the old days, autocrats kept crowds at home or in jail. Is this the payout from George Bush’s promotion of democracy? In a word, hardly. There are four large explanations, I would say, plus a host of locally grown grievances. Let’s look briefly at the four biggies:

1. Sour economies. Virtually nowhere on the globe (Germany excepted) are national economies producing the jobs and opportunities they used to do. The free market is supposed to take care of that, but it isn’t working according to the textbooks. When youth don’t have a job, or prospects for one, they might as well throw pavement stones at the police — who somehow have managed to find work.

2. Too many people. The population of Egypt has about doubled in 35 years — a condition that is common in many places. There is no way that a nation of severely limited resources can employ those surplus hands. The government must provide; the government can’t (see paragraph #1.)

3. Rise of nationalism, sectarianism and other us-them divisions. When a community is in trouble, they blame the outsider: the despised neighbor, faith or class. It’s irrational, but it’s a compelling force.

4. Environmental decay. Why is there fighting in Syria and Sudan, Yemen, Somalia? Because severe drought has killed farming and pushed people into the cities unprepared to receive them. Elsewhere, climate change-caused storms or tons of snow are more frequent. Countries that rely heavily on the export of fossil fuels find supplies dwindling and national incomes accordingly.

When you switch off the news, you may ask why don’t we have crowds in our streets? Well, yes, we have/had the Tea Party and, briefly, Occupy Wall Street. Why nothing more virulent? After all, we have great economic inequality and little upward mobility. We have serious racial divisions and problems with immigrants. Our economy is barely producing the jobs and cash that we expect. To a greater or lesser degree, we are also afflicted by the four big problems. Yet, ever see an unhappy crowd forming on Main Street? Why not?

Although the younger generation might not have the stability and promise that old generations enjoyed, they have technology we couldn’t even imagine and diversions to match to keep them “occupied” and their minds on things other than forcing the powers-that-be to make the changes that might improve the basics of their lives. Sometimes, the aggrieved have safety nets (with holes) to catch them and government regulations (with holes) to protect them. Plus, we’re a huge community with a wide range of diverse interests.

Those who remain unhappy at home, it seems, often focus their ire on the less fortunate who might be helped by government, i.e., the Obamacare opponents are most grieved because health care is being extended to those at the bottom of the heap and society has to pay the bills. Those at the bottom, seeing no socially accepted way upward, sometimes turn to crime. Criminality — drugs, traditional thievery — can become, in effect, a substitute for political protest.

Finally, there is the persisting optimism of Americans. Our national creed holds that somehow, some day, I will win the lottery.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

Please follow and like us: