That the actual removal of real dictators didn’t take very long in Tunisia and Egypt only fuels our expectations for a quick transition in power in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere, even though as of yet nothing like a democracy yet exists in either Tunisia or Egypt. Depending on ordinary matters such as a continuing supply of affordable food, clean water, free medicine provided by aide agencies, and access to wi-fi, it all could go in a variety of ways not entirely in line with the success story we want so badly to tell about it. The fact is that in real life protests that challenge real life authorities take time, and, even when they are successful, as is so far the case in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as Iraq, the resulting turbulent quest for bringing about a better society can go on for years.
Even then, there are no guarantees. None.
For those of us old enough to have actively participated in the protests against the Vietnam war, protests that lasted in one form or other for almost as long as we have been in Afghanistan, we remember that those protests included a lot of boring, violent, and nasty bits. It ended with the fall of Saigon and a final troop withdrawal on April 30, 1975, which was only made possible when Congress finally cut off funding, sensing the angry mood of the voting public and still reeling from a rude Republican political scandal the year before that led to the only resignation in history of an American president
Nixon was shamefaced until he was pardoned and then wrote his next book; Ford blamed the Secret Service every time he farted; and Carter wore blue jeans all the way into the most unsuccessful presidency in the 20th century, save, perhaps, that of Herbert Hoover. Then America, not wanting to be suffering from “malaise” nor wanting to be very introspective about the relationship of capitalism to colonialism and political oppression, elected Reagan, Ronald Reagan, who promised us a new and better society. That election is, in hindsight, when the real damage to our democracy began and the true legacy of the protests that led to the resignation of the tyrant Nixon and the end of a long and unwinnable war in Vietnam were finally realized. Insert BIG IRONY here.
The difference between the story we tell now about it and the reality of the storyline then is more like, as Mark Twain famously put it, the difference between “lightning and a lightning bug.” Today, to our shame, we say only that the sixties were turbulent times and there was a long war going on. We say that protesters marched on Washington and smile at the mediated images of long hair, the clothing, the music, and the joints. We say that the war then ended; we lament those images of helicopters taking off, dropping bodies back to the roof of the Embassy.
What we don’t say, what is not part of our national storyline, is that ending a war and overthrowing a tyrant took a long, long time. What we don’t admit is that in the end, the tyrant was, in fact, reelected to a second term and only brought himself down through the stupidity of those who served him as well as a colossal inability to admit he had fucked up. What we don’t say is that the war ended not because of the success of the anti-war protesters, but because “the silent majority” finally put enough pressure on Congress to cut off the funding for the war, against the best interests of those large corporations and stock holders who urged us into it and who were still benefiting from it
Dictators and presidents don’t fall or fail easily. And what happens after that is often problematic.
Dictators like Moammar el-Gaddafi spent years gaining his position and solidifying his control of Libya. He is a dictator. He has resources as well as a military force under his command. He also knows that eventually most people get tired of protesting, and, if the dictator just waits long enough and/or is brutal enough, the protesters may well give up and go home. Particularly if the people are promised symbolic reforms. Or, if their leaders are paid off or politically compromised or if their families are taken hostage. Or if the army opens fire and air force drops bombs.
Damn! There are those boring, brutal, and nasty parts again. The parts of the revolution we don’t like to hear about. Or admit. Or know.
Recent experience provides evidence that it can all go south very quickly. In Dexter Filkins riveting account of what followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, The Forever War, he shows how a people who at first welcomed freedom and democracy were turned into warring factions when the promises of a better life, of a better society with actual electricity and food and water, turned sour. In a leadership vacuum that featured a Bush campaign hack and Republican pretty boy named Paul Bremer running things he little understood and obviously did not care a whit about so long as his career prospered, old tribal allegiances between Sunni and Shiite as well as old grievances leftover from Saddam played out in the suburbs and turned into reasons to make a bad situation much, much worse. Death squads and whole armies rose up to battle not only the coalition forces but also each other. The result, according to Filkins, is that from late in 2005 until sometime in 2007, anarchy ruled Iraq.
Since then, which is to say since the “surge” put 110,000 Iraqis on the U. S. Government payroll and added 30,000 troops to the war effort, things improved but the random violence of suicide bombers and ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods continues. Just not as much. In the interim free elections have been held and a fledgling government led by Jalal Talabani and funded by U. S. dollars has been established, and is holding on, if only by a thread. Joe Biden, with a big smile for the cameras back in January, says it will work. Other experts who rely on more than political briefing notes and compromised intelligence aren’t so sure. And, as a show of good faith that may be read by our foes as a lack of resolve, we have withdrawn all but 47,000 troops.
To put that number of troops into narrative perspective, imagine that (1) they are called “non-combat” personnel although they carry weapons and engage the enemy, and (2) withdrawing 150 of them stateside—just 150 of them—would provide enough money this year to balance Wisconsin’s budget. That is because each and every soldier we place in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, costs the American taxpayer $500,000 or more a year.
You may now close your astonished mouth and sit back down.
I didn’t intend to bring this narrative about long protests and war costs back to the U.S.A. But I can’t help it. The brave protesters in Madison and their righteous stand against Scott Walker are just the beginning of this mid-winter of our burgeoning political discontent. Their stand for what is right and just signals to the rest of us that we are in for a long slog against rich Republican tyrants, Tea Party dupes, and their Koch Brothers financed lackeys, all of whom are hell-bent on overthrowing the democratic idea of America and replacing it with rule by wealthy political tyrants, Wall Street Pharaohs, corporations, banks, and health insurance kings.
But we should not expect too much, too quickly from our protests. Revolutions are won by patience and persistence, not shock and awe. In Iraq, that truth is interpreted by Muslims to reference the final surra in the Qur’an, the verse that asks Allah for the gift of patience, patience enough to see His vision for a just society to reign triumphant.
I fear that in America our misguided evangelical Christian Republicans, from Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin all the way down to Scott Walker and most of the Republican controlled state legislatures have another reference in mind for their revolution against democracy, justice, immigrants, teachers, unions, construction workers, and firefighters, just to name a few of us. It, too, drawn from a sacred text: the apocalypse.
For what they want is, as George Lakoff in a column about the Conservative moral mindset expresses it, is not democracy, but rule by a Strict Father who has no social conscience, no sense of the public good, and who uses Orwellian tricks of language to redefine “earnings” as “entitlements”; “necessities” as “services”; and “moral authority” not as something derived from a just God, but from “free markets.” What these evangelical Republicans, backed by big money want is the end of America as we know it.
Is there hope? Lakoff believes there is and so do I. We see it in Wisconsin. We see it in Ohio. We will see it shortly in popular uprisings from sea to shining sea, as more of us become involved in organizing for the America we want to live in. If the Tea Party has taught us anything of value, it is the power of protest to persuade voters and publics to get involved. Their influence is felt here and now in this year’s budget battles. Our influence must challenge them.
As I said at the outset, this will be a long slog. We cannot expect to overturn thirty years of right wing propaganda about government being the problem, taxes being evil, and regulation and unions being the work of communists in a fortnight, or even a season. But we can take to heart the lessons of our forebears who pledged themselves to “a more perfect union” and to a better America for our children.
That’s worth fighting for each and every day for as long as it takes.