Time’s 2011 Person Of The Year: “The Protester”
Time Magazine has chosen "The Protester" as its Person Of The Year. Let the outrage ensue.
It’s that time of year again for Time Magazine to name its Person of the Year, and for people to complain about it. This year, the editors at Time returned to a formula that has become familiar, and somewhat annoying, in recent years. Instead of actually naming a person as person of the year and explaining why that person had such a huge impact on the world, which is what the concept was originally intended to be when Henry Luce started it so long ago, they picked a group. This year, the group is amorphously called “The Protester,” which Time describes thusly:
Once upon a time, when major news events were chronicled strictly by professionals and printed on paper or transmitted through the air by the few for the masses, protesters were prime makers of history. Back then, when citizen multitudes took to the streets without weapons to declare themselves opposed, it was the very definition of news — vivid, important, often consequential. In the 1960s in America they marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War; in the ’70s, they rose up in Iran and Portugal; in the ’80s, they spoke out against nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Europe, against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, against communist tyranny in Tiananmen Square and Eastern Europe. Protest was the natural continuation of politics by other means.
And then came the End of History, summed up by Francis Fukuyama’s influential 1989 essay declaring that mankind had arrived at the “end point of … ideological evolution” in globally triumphant “Western liberalism.” The two decades beginning in 1991 witnessed the greatest rise in living standards that the world has ever known. Credit was easy, complacency and apathy were rife, and street protests looked like pointless emotional sideshows — obsolete, quaint, the equivalent of cavalry to mid-20th-century war. The rare large demonstrations in the rich world seemed ineffectual and irrelevant. (See the Battle of Seattle, 1999.)
There were a few exceptions, like the protests that, along with sanctions, helped end apartheid in South Africa in 1994. But for young people, radical critiques and protests against the system were mostly confined to pop-culture fantasy: “Fight the Power” was a song on a platinum-selling album, Rage Against the Machine was a platinum-selling band, and the beloved brave rebels fighting the all-encompassing global oppressors were just a bunch of characters in The Matrix.
“Massive and effective street protest” was a global oxymoron until — suddenly, shockingly — starting exactly a year ago, it became the defining trope of our times. And the protester once again became a maker of history.
The Time feature story starts, of course, in Tunisia where a 26-year-old street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in downtown Tunis after being forced to endure yet another indignity at the hands of the police. That event set off waves of protests across Tunisia that led to the surprisingly fast downfall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power. From Tunisia, the protests spread like wildfire. First to Egypt, where text messaging and Facebook helped organize a series of protests that led to the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years in power. Protests also popped up in Yemen, which also led to the downfall of that country’s leader, and to Baharain where a Shi’ite uprising against the monarchy led to intervention by military forces from the other Gulf States. In Libya, the protests led to a brutal crackdown by the Arab world’s longest ruling dictator that set off a civil war that led to NATO intervention and, ultimately, to a new and uncertain future that had not known anything but the Gadhafi regime since 1969. Finally, protests even popped up in Syria where they continue to this day despite the efforts of Bashar Assad’s regime to brutally repress it. The future course all these uprisings will take is still not clear, but it surely cannot be contested that, in the course of just eleven short months, the face of the Arab world, and teh world as a whole, has been changed significantly. Along with 1989 and 1848, 2011 looks to go down in history as a year of massive change, whether it will be for good or ill remains to be seen.
Of course, as Time notes, it wasn’t just the Middle East that saw protests in 2011:
In the spring, they spread to Europe. On May 15, tens of thousands marched to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza, along with tens of thousands more in dozens of other cities, united by slogans like “We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers.” They were frustrated by unemployment, a lack of opportunity and politics headed nowhere. They called themselves Los Indignados, the Outraged.
Spain’s one-day march turned into a months-long self-governing encampment — one of the new defining characteristics of 2011’s brand of communal resistance. Throughout the country, about 6 million out of a population of 46 million participated in Indignados protests. Among those in Madrid was Olmo Gálvez, 31, an Internet entrepreneur just back from three years working in China and new to politics. He’d helped set up social-media networks for the protest. “It was marvelous to see people become the actors in their own lives,” he says. “You could watch them breaking out of their passivity.”
Ten days after the Madrid protests began, the contagion spread to Greece. George Anastasopoulos, 36, has a Ph.D. in sociology but earns his living as a DJ. “That first Sunday when we saw 100,000 people show up, we were overwhelmed,” he says of the Athenians’ camp in Syntagma Square, in sight of Parliament. “And then the second Sunday, 500,000 people showed up. That enthused us so much, and we started dreaming really big
In early August, after police in London shot and killed a young black man they were arresting, riots broke out all over England. Naturally, the rioters’ instantly resorting to violence attracted little sympathy. Yet a new, three-month study by the Guardian and the London School of Economics concluded that these rioters were also protesters, motivated by anger about poverty, unemployment and inequality as well as overaggressive policing.
Until late September, 99% of New Yorkers had never heard of Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public plaza tucked between the Federal Reserve Bank and the World Trade Center site. On the last Saturday of the summer — sunny, mid-60s, perfect — a couple thousand people showed up, a hundred slept overnight, and the occupation was on. It seemed as though the world would little note nor long remember it. On the third day, the first arrests — of protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks in violation of an antique New York anti-insurrection statute — got scant attention.
For the next two months, though, the Occupy movement was one of the most-discussed news stories in the United States. It was hard for anyone to ignore it, whether they agreed with the movement or not, and while it now seems to have petered out and been taken over by malcontents who think that shutting down the Port of Oakland is a good substitute for having a coherent agenda, it’s entirely probable that some manifestation of it will return during the 2012 elections.
More recently, and not in time t make it into Time’s story, we’ve seen protests in Russia of all places over Parliamentary elections and a system that many, correctly, perceive to be rigged in favor of Vladimir Putin and his cronies. What will become of that only time will tell.
Of course, it’s not entirely appropriate to lump together the protesters in the Middle East, Southern Europe, London, and Zuccotti Park as if they are representative of the same phenomenon. The protesters in Tunis, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya were motivated by a combination of grinding poverty, political systems that gave them absolutely no voice in governance whatsoever, and regimes that brutally cracked down on any form of dissent. The protesters in Spain and Greece were motivated by the fact that decades of profligacy by their leaders was forcing massive cutbacks in a welfare state that their nations could no longer afford, with the terms being dictated by bankers in France and Germany. In London, the summer riots seemed to be motivated by little more than the desire by some groups to commit violence and the damage that was done to small businessmen in some parts of the city dwarfed any benefit that whatever political agenda they claimed to advance would have had. Finally, the Occupy movement seems motivated both by frustration over an economy that has been stagnant for going on 4 years and the sense that the political system was rigged against anyone who didn’t buy access to the levers of power in a government that has become far too big to even think about being responsive to the needs of the public. Yes they were all protesting, some more violently than others, but the fact that they were using similar tactics doesn’t mean that there’s much of a relationship between them.
It is perhaps the tying of the Middle East protests, the European protests, and the Occupy movement into the same narrative that is causing some people to react negatively to Time’s pick. Ed Morrissey, for example, is fairly dismissive of the entire concept:
Oh, please. First, the idea that political protest originated in the 1960s is nothing but nostalgic nonsense, and quoting the long-debunked Fukuyama at this point is almost self-parody. America has seen plenty of grassroots protests throughout its history, nor is the US alone. From our own history, we had massive anti-war and anti-draft protests in the 60s … the 1860s, in New York. It had the same effect as anti-war protests in the 1960s, which was that the war continued apace (and the nation elected a Republican as president in the next national election).
In 2009, Time had the same opportunity to pick “the protester” when the protests were the Tea Party and Iran’s Green Revolution, which followed from Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and so on. Who did they pick? Ben Bernanke. When the Tea Party movement actually delivered results at the ballot box in 2010 in a historic midterm drubbing of Barack Obama’s Democrats — they lost 68 seats, the worst outing since 1938 — they could have hailed The Protester then, too. Who did they pick? Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
So they’re a little late to “the protester” story in terms of real impact. And what impact has “the protester” actually had in 2011? Has the Occupy Movement, such as it is, had any kind of ground-breaking impact on politics in the way the Tea Party did in 2010 and still does in this cycle? Not even close, and even people on the Left have begun washing their hands of the literally pointless display. The Arab Spring protesters have had somewhat more impact, but the two dictators they overthrew in Tunisia and Egypt look to be replaced by Muslim Brotherhood theocrats. In Libya, Moammar Qaddafi didn’t get taken down by “protesters,” but by an armed insurrection that combined several militia forces with NATO’s air power dropping bombs on the capital for several months. In Syria, the Assad regime is mowing down the protesters while the US and Europe stand idly by. In that sense, it’s exactly like Iran in 2009 — when Time passed on the opportunity to name the martyred Neda as their person of the year.
I’m not sure I agree that Time was wrong in 2009 when it named Bernanke, and by extension the efforts to pull the United States’ economy out from its deepest recession in a generation, was the most significant news story of 2009. Yes, the Iranian protests were an important news story but the most important of the year? Probably not, especially from the perspective of an American news magazine. Moreover, its worth noting that the title “Person of the Year” isn’t meant to be honorific, but to make note of the most significant newsmaker of the year. Which is why it made perfect sense for them to name Hitler as Person of the Year for 1938 as the world careened toward a conflict that was only nine short months away, or Stalin as Person of the Year for 1939 given the role the Non-Aggression Pact played in allowing Germany to have free reign for the first year of World War II.
We don’t know what impact the protests movements that raced around the world this year will have in the future. There are fears in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, that greater democracy will lead to the rise of Islamist governments that will pose problems for the West, and lead to renewed domestic repression. None of the nations in Southern Europe have adequately dealt with the fiscal problems that faced them in 2011, and its entirely probable that the Eurozone will compete with the U.S. Presidential Election for our attention in the headlines in 2012. Here in the Untied States, it still seems unlikely that the amorphous, unorganized, and seemingly fizzled Occupy movement will lead to anything significant politically, but it’s already clear that the Obama campaign intends to adopt at least parts of its message for the campaign so we’re going to be talking about those issues for most of next year as well.
In the end, I think we’ve come to the point where this “Person Of The Year” choice ends up generating far more attention than it’s really entitled to given the declining influence of news magazines in the United States. Usually, that attention comes from people complaining about the choice, or complaining that one person, group, or movement or another was ignored unfairly. Frankly, I can’t see how it really matters. When Time picked Charles Lindbergh as the first Person Of The Year it meant something. Now, though, if you look through the list of Persons of the Year, especially in the years before 1938, there are many people on the list that make you wonder either who they are or what they did that was so newsworthy that they deserved the cover of one of America’s top magazines at the time. Many of the names have faded into history — does anyone remember who Owen Young was today, or Hugh Samuel Johnson? Does it matter? At this point, much like news magazines themselves, the Person of the Year has outlived its usefulness except as a means to garner attention for Time Magazine once a year.
That said, who can deny the bravery of the protesters who stood up against dictatorships across the Middle East, or the anger of protesters in the West when they look at a world that seems to offer a far different future than the one promised to them? And even if you can, saying that this wasn’t the most newsworthy event of the year seems rather silly since it seems to have been the only thing we all talked about from January until now other than the ridiculous circus that is the race for the Republican Nomination for President.