It was a dreadful year in many ways: the embarrassment of the debt ceiling clusterfuck, Europe’s lurching inability to manage its own currency, mass slaughter in Syria, civil war in Libya, the Japanese nuclear disaster, and the GOP primary circus. But it also felt to me, with my nose pressed up against history’s fleeting present, as a deeply transformative and actually positive year, in which underlying tectonic plates in world politics and culture shifted – for the better.
What we had seen in 2008 and 2009, as the new media powered both Obama’s unprecedented campaign and then the Green Revolution, turned out to be prescient, not a fluke. The increasingly connected global consciousness, the awareness of how others live in the same moment as you subsist, the globalization of thought and interaction, the power of peer-to-peer communication: all these led to a shift in power from the top to the bottom. Hence the miracle of Tunisia’s revolution, the continuing struggle of Egypt’s, the emergence of post-totalitarian Libya and the astonishing resilience of Syria’s people. Hence too, in the West, the sudden bubble of the Occupy movement, as a negative image of the Tea Party. And the rises and falls of various insurgent candidacies in the GOP that wanted to shake the status quo, and the great restlessness on the center-left with Obama’s incremental, conservative liberalism.
We do not know where this will lead, except that democracy really does seem “on the march” at last. And not a forced march, with US bayonets prodding from the rear, as in Iraq. But a genuine popular movement in many places, reacting spontaneously to a fast-shifting global economy and polity. This cannot be managed by the US, it seems to me, using the tools of the Cold War. It cannot be handled without a vast amount of muddling through, mistakes, misjudgments, restraint and observation. In fact, it should be managed lightly, if at all. These are epochal changes – happening in their own time, not on America’s quadrennial presidential schedule. If we haven’t learned already that we cannot control this, that we should not try to, but should protect our interests as pragmatically as we can, and advance our values as humbly as we ought to, then we never will.
The wars, moreover, are done. In 2011, Obama got us out of Iraq on the schedule dictated by George W. Bush and Nouri al-Maliki. We have also done about as much damage as we can to al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan without active Pakistani support. We’re outta there in two years anyway. A clear majority of Americans, moreover – 53 to 36 percent – believe that the current decade-long war is not worth fighting any more. The brilliant capture and killing of Osama bin Laden by Seal Team Six closed an open wound. If we can reach back and remember why so many backed Obama in 2007, this really is the change we believed in.
On two issues the Dish cares passionately about – the freedom to marry for all and the end of the military gay ban – 2011 was also a watershed. For the first time, polls consistently showed a majority of Americans favoring marriage equality; in New York State, a Republican Senate brought marriage rights to one of the biggest states in the Union, effectively entrenching what was once a pipedream into a permanent part of the American landscape. For good measure, the ban on openly gay servicemembers was finally lifted, and the non-consequences were deafening. There remains much work to be done. But we broke the back of the anti-gay opposition this year, and cemented our huge majority in the next generation.
This revolution was built from below as well: largely by gay people and their families and friends in daily acts of courage and candor and conversation. It was powered by the Internet. It became global, as change in places as backward as sub-Saharan Africa on gay rights brought new conflict and terror. And the Obama administration put America’s weight behind the advancement of gay dignity and equality worldwide.
And in this new world, Obama’s critical contribution is indeed “leading from behind” because in this new world, leading self-righteously from the front, commanding other nations to behave as we wish, unilaterally intervening at will, and generally continuing the role that America played in the last century is an ineffective anachronism. The Bush-Cheney years proved this, when America’s international isolation led to a long, costly disaster in Iraq, where China and Iran benefited more than the US. The rise of the new powers of Brazil and India and Indonesia and China mean that American hegemony in the 1990s sense is over; and if we do not understand that and adjust, we will be caught in the worst trap of declining empires. This does not mean the abandonment of military power and reach, but a much subtler, lighter and more collaborative force.
The man of the year, in my mind, is Mohamed Bouazizi, even though he died a few weeks before the year began. His self-immolation on Decmber 17, 2010, was an act of civil disobedience that became the spark for the democratic wave in the place we never expected it: the Arab Middle East. He was one man, with no power but his own conviction. But, in the words, of RFK:
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of other, or strikes out against injustice, he send forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Through the recession and deaths of 2011, this truth emerged. There are dark clouds around – specifically the vile regime in Tehran, the dangerously radical government in Jerusalem, the Egyptian military’s fear, the chance of a lingering depression. But if we allow these to overwhelm the real news of this year, we are missing the screen for the pixels.
This was an inspiring year for human dignity and freedom. Know hope.