Passing the torch of 'people power'

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

'The popular will is suddenly asserting itself all over the globe. Ordinary citizens are standing up to leaders who have at their disposal the finest military arsenals our money can buy and about as much conscience as Son of Sam.

"People are rising up and casting off oppressive regimes. What's the world coming to? Are we about to flower into a global utopia of democratic ideals? Hold me, I'm getting dizzy."

I wrote those words 25 years ago in a column published March 7, 1986 (not in this paper). At the time, the streets of Manila in the Philippines were filled with angry protestors, demanding the departure of Ferdinand and Imelda "Shoes" Marcos. The term coined to describe the Corizon Aquino-led revolution was "People Power."

I don't know how things are going in the Philippines these days, but it's been a busy quarter century for people power. Argentinians overthrew the military junta. Augusto Pinochet was brought to trial in Chile. Poland's Solidarity movement started the dominoes falling in Eastern Europe, leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Nicaragua pulled off a successful revolution – until we pulled the rug out from under them. Tiananmen Square in Beijing was thrilling – until the uprising was ruthlessly crushed. Apartheid ended in South Africa with stunning speed, and miraculously without much violence, in the early 1990s. Haitians, with our help, forced Baby Doc Duvalier to flee in '93.

Now Tunisia, Egypt and the rest of the Mideast dictatorships are starting to topple. Iran, which held one famous display of people power in 1979, almost pulled off another this past year and maybe will again in the near future. Who's next: Saudi Arabia? Hope springs eternal.

Each display has been inspiring. What courage — people putting lives on the line for regime change. Their efforts are being aided by social media, but this trend started long before the Internet. In the 1940s, Mahatma Gandhi used the principles of non-violent resistance to force the British out of India. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used those same methods in this country during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s. Power, it turns out, is a much more fragile phenomenon than most imagined.

It all goes back to 1776 with a simple truth, first articulated in our Declaration of Independence: "To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." The governed must consent — either by approval or acquiescence. People power has proven over and over that brutality and fear can control a population for only so long.

That doesn't, of course, guarantee a just government will replace what is overthrown. The Iranians are no better off under the mullahs than they were under the Shah. We don't know who will replace Mubarak and the other Mideast despots who have been, or are about to be, overthrown.

But each new revolution is worth celebrating. Each is a step in the largely overlooked History of Peace. That's what Colorado University Professor Kenneth Boulding called it back in 1986. We grew up learning largely the History of War, he said. The History of Peace is equally momentous, just quieter. The world has moved beyond legalized slavery. Only a ceremonial vestige of Monarchy remains. Colonialism faded in the years following World War II. Communism died a well-deserved death 20 years ago. Free-market capitalism will have to become more humane or follow suit. Perhaps we'll even see the end of military dictatorships at some point.

It used to be that this country was a lonely beacon of freedom. Not anymore. The people of Cairo hold the light of liberty now. Maybe they'll pass it along like the Olympic torch.

People power tends to be a two-steps-forward-one-step-back proposition. There is still a long way to go, especially in this country after we surrendered the moral high ground by starting an unprovoked war and resorting to torture in our "war against terror."

Most Americans were in denial or clueless while the Bush administration was busy planting the seeds of future tyranny. Hell, we just sold off free speech to the highest corporate bidders. This country has much to learn, or relearn, from the Philippines, South Africa, Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia, Portugal, Spain, Zimbabwe, Greece, East Germany, Nicaragua, Tunisia, Iran, and Egypt.

What I wrote in '86 is still true today: "People power is just coming into its own. We literally don't know our own strength yet."

After last week in Cairo, we know a little more.


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Posted: February 22nd, 2011 12:27 PM

Too much to ask, EX? Read the report & then launch your missive. There's plenty of blame to go around. Don't just focus on unions and the Dems. You certainly cannot support the influence of corporate money in our elections. It doesn't make sense that people are suffering while tax breaks get handed out to the wealthiest Americans. By the way, Matt Taibbi is one of the most accurate investigative reporters you'll read. He never pulls his punches and dishes it out to both sides. Good luck.

Ex-union from Oak Park  

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 12:10 PM

JC, thanks for pointing out an objective source for news about corporate excess. Yes, Rolling Stone, that last vestage of 60's counter-culture, is going to print a balanced look at the evil company vs the poor little guy. Since you're not paying attention, govt's at all levels have been redistributing resources away from social services and into the pockets of the corrupt unions and their hacks in the Democrat Party. Now, though, thanks to Gov Walker and others, the jig is up.


Posted: February 22nd, 2011 9:02 AM

Ray Simpson needs to read Matt Taibbi's report, "How Wall Street's Crooks Evaded Jail", featured in the current issue of Rolling Stone. Multi-national corporations are reporting record profits. Unions are fighting for survival. The wealthy have never had it so good. While the middle class may soon become a thing of the past. Social services for the neediest members of society have been slashed by the fed, state and local governments. Working families are in real trouble.

Ray Simpson from Oak Park  

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 8:04 AM

It is amusing to me that you use every subject you write about to stab George W Bush in the back. I am more comfortable with the government siding with corporations who answer to investors, produce a product and create real jobs. You fail to mention Obamas support of corrupt government workers unions and their self serving greed. You fail to apply the same rules to "your guy" in judging "my guy" that seems a bit hypocritical! No - that is very hypocritical. Ray Simpson

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