December 28, 2011

2011: Year of the Protest Narrative

E.M. Forster famously distinguished events that are yoked only by their temporal order from those that we would consider a narrative (which he called “plot”), in which events are causally linked, with this pithy comparison:

1. The King died and then the Queen died (2 events tied only by temporal order)

2. The King died and then the Queen died of grief (the second event is caused by the first)

I’ve had this distinction on my mind as year-end wrap-ups circulate in the media.

photographer: David Shankbone
Protestors on Wall Street, September 30, 2011

The global scope of economic crisis and dramatic protests give commentators a lot of latitude to tell the story of this year in a variety of ways.  Did Mohamed Bouazizi’s galvanizing protest by fire, and the subsequent fall of the Tunisian government cause Egyptian protests? And did these, in some way cause Occupy Wall Street? Do the protests in Chile, Tel Aviv and Russia have anything to do with each other, or with others?

The answer makes a difference in how we understand the world.  Grouping one set of protestors together as the Arab Spring generates a picture of the Arab Middle East in which long-standing dictators, lack of democracy and freedom of expression are highlighted.  (Check out The Guardian’s fantastic interactive timeline of the Arab spring to see the order—and simultaneity—of events in different countries). Calling 2011 the Year of the Tyrant makes the point even more directly.

But calling Occupy Wall Street “America’s own Arab Spring,” as Reuters did earlier this fall, suggests more powerfully the global theme of global economic inequality and unemployment, which were also meaningful themes in some Arab countries (where, in fact, labor based protests had been gearing up for several years).

Time went all out in simply labeling 2011 the year of the protestor.  Kurt Anderson is commendably specific in pointing out the different circumstances and radically different goals of demonstrators in Mexico (against crime and corruption), Greece (against austerity measures), England (poverty, unemployment) and elsewhere.  But Anderson’s story also imputes causality, partly because protestors themselves describe finding inspiration in others’ protests and partly because, as literary critics have pointed out, it is actually difficult for us not to connect successive events in a causal link.

Perception and rhetoric have a lot to do with it. The more that the protests worldwide are described as a global narrative–by protestors and commentators alike–the more they actually become one.  It makes for an interesting commentary on how accustomed we have become to thinking in terms of an intermixed global community.

The global aspect is an important adjunct as meta-narrative: when protestors describe their inspiration as coming from protests elsewhere, that says something about how participants themselves identify themselves and their relationships to their local and global communities. How fascinating that the rioting protestors in England described themselves as the “99 percent,” a la American protestors, and Greek protestors chanted, “Yes we can!” –Obama’s 2008 slogan. And there are formal–although not causal–links between some of the protest movements, such as the letter that Cairo protestors wrote to Occupy Wall Street in support of their movement.

Perhaps the most interesting narrative fiction is that of the year itself—the idea that January is the first chapter and December the last and between them are the elements of a dramatic story. Imagine if our years were 4 months long, or 36 months long, how differently that might shape the stories we’d tell about what this year was all about.


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