Oy gevalt more appropriate than applause

A headline in today''s Ha''aretz, "From New York to Tokyo, demonstrations in more than 900 cities and 80 countries against capitalism and in behalf of social reform. In Tel Aviv they blocked streets." Another item reports that a Reuters survey in the United States found 38 percent viewing the demonstrations positively, and 24 percent negatively. (page 7)
Journalists and academics who aspire to great ideas are seeing a movement in behalf of social justice. One political scientist sees a distinction between "civil disobedience" and "political disobedience."
"Civil disobedience accepted the legitimacy of political institutions, but resisted the moral authority of resulting laws. Political disobedience, by contrast, resists the very way in which we are governed: it resists the structure of partisan politics, the demand for policy reforms, the call for party identification, and the very ideologies that dominated the post-War period."
Academic careers may be made by seeing this kind of clarity in the noise of crowds.
"One way to understand the emerging disobedience is to see it as a refusal to engage these sorts of worn-out ideologies rooted in the Cold War. The key point here is that the Cold War’s ideological divide — with the Chicago Boys at one end and the Maoists at the other — merely served as a weapon in this country for the financial and political elite: the ploy, in the United States, was to demonize the chimera of a controlled economy (that of the former Soviet Union or China, for example) in order to prop up the illusion of a free market and to legitimize the fantasy of less regulation — of what was euphemistically called ''deregulation.'' " http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/occupy-wall-streets-political-disobedience/?ref=opinion
Individuals promoting social reform via Facebook and Tweeter are saying it again. News and encouragement is spreading from place to place, this time around the globe and not only from one coffee house to another in Tel Aviv or through the neighborhoods of Cairo.
It is appropriate to pause, and consider some moderation in the inflation of rhetoric. Remember the predictions about unfolding democracy during Arab spring? That was two seasons ago. People are still being killed in Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. Yesterday''s New York Times headline was a long way from applauding the onset of democracy; "Egypt''s Military Expands Power, Raising Alarms." http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/15/world/middleeast/egypts-military-expands-power-raising-alarms.html?_r=1&scp=6&sq=Egypt&st=cse
Tunisia appears more sedate, but the New York Times is now reserved rather than enthusiastic.
"Tunisia’s electoral process appears more chaotic than the more staid expressions of the people’s will in Europe and America. Some 11,000 candidates in more than 100 political parties, some of them hardly more than parties of one, are competing for 217 seats in a constituent assembly that will draw up a new constitution, form a parliament and choose a president. This is democracy in the rough . . . With 50 percent undecided, almost anything could happen." http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/opinion/13iht-edgreenway13.html?scp=6&sq=Tunis&st=cse
The numbers of people and places involved may excite the romantics, but should caution the rest of us. A couple of epigrams provide useful guidance:
  • It''s easier to destroy than to create
  • Keep it simple. If you can''t keep it simple, it simply won''t work.
The numbers of people and the vacuous nature of their chants (e.g., social justice, equality) are likely to be barriers to change rather than assurances of change. The challenge is translating crowds and slogans into priorities and finding a leadership that can decide and impose discipline, and deal with established institutions of governments and political parties that already have leadership and discipline, and are likely to resist competition for control.
Hooligans and anarchists are playing their part in the protests, and complicate the effort to decide just what is being demanded.
This is not a note in behalf of the status quo, but only one that cautions expectations associated with diverse crowds.
Orderly change requires priorities, and the discipline to follow a leadership capable of selecting a few manageable goals, and following through with appropriate allocations of resources, administrative detail, and the monitoring of implementation.
This is the dull stuff of government, rather than the excitement of protest or the cheering of commentators. The people of Cairo and the tribes of Libya--the latter with considerable outside help--have succeeded in ousting their leaders, but are a long way from replacing them with anything other than a different group of autocrats.
The various people claiming leadership of Israelis'' demands for social justice are hoping to rejuvenate a movement after a long pause for religious holidays. They will have to struggle against municipalities and a court that removed their tent cities and ordered medical residents back to work. Also to be dealt with are those among the earlier protesters who see promise in moderate proposals coming out of a government committee, and the uplift of the prime minister''s standing due to a prisoner exchange that has swept everything else out of the media.
The latest monthly report of consumer prices has shown a dip of two tenths of one percent. It may be fair to link that with a boycott of food producers that grew out of initial protests against the price of cottage cheese (notably more precise than "social justice.") It is important to note that price cuts did not come from government now more beholden to the people, but from business firms concerned to gain something by actions that make sense in terms of public relations.
There is a lesson to be had in comparing the occupation of Wall Street or the Brooklyn Bridge with earlier movements against the war in Vietnam or racial segregation, or the more distant movement in behalf of Abolition.
None of those brought about change quickly, and all were relatively simple in seeking to stop easy to define activities: the end of military activity in Southeast Asia, slavery, or legally enforced racial segregation. The movement against segregation was more focused than "social justice." Not only did integration fail to produce "social justice," but that is something which still bedevils those who propose public policy. The need to pursue integration a century after Abolition, and the ongoing concern with African American poverty should be lessons to all who expect early gratification.
One can also quarrel with the accomplishment of the anti-war movement of the 1960''s and 1970''s. Their major feat was to end conscription. They did not prevent problematic adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is early to worry about American involvement in Central Africa, but a recent item should remind us old folks about John Kennedy''s campaign against the evil of Communism in Southeast Asia.
"President Obama said Friday that he had ordered the deployment of 100 armed military advisers to central Africa to help regional forces combat the Lord’s Resistance Army, a notorious renegade group that has terrorized villagers in at least four countries with marauding bands that kill, rape, maim and kidnap with impunity." http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/15/world/africa/barack-obama-sending-100-armed-advisers-to-africa-to-help-fight-lords-resistance-army.html?ref=global-home
"Oy gevalt" is more appropriate than applause, both for this humanitarian gesture of Barack Obama, and for all the expectations loaded on to the protesting crowds.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem