The anonymous person of the year

By Biljana Vankovska

There is something very bizarre and alike in the selection of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners and the Time’s person of the year. Coincidence (or rather not), the three Nobel laureates (two of them from Liberia and one from Yemen) and the Protester are all female and pictured as “ordinary” activists, i.e. actresses in the developments that marked 2011.

The Nobel Committee argued that these remarkable women made extraordinary contribution to the battle for women’s rights, promoted the role of women in peace-building and democratization. Surely, the laureates have names (the most famous is the current President of Liberia) but I intentionally omit them because they ring no bells to my readers, or even in the wider international public.

In my mind, they were selected precisely because of their relatively low personal profiles, i.e. merely as symbols for million (anonymous) female-activists all over the world, and particularly in Africa and the Arab world. Their portfolios may look impressive if seen through the human rights activism but their impact on the world peace and fraternity among nations is rather weak (apart from the criticism of their close bonds with the US establishment).

Time’s person of the year is not only truly anonymous but his/her face is covered (the experts have already ‘discovered’ that it is a masked face of a young woman). In this context, Time is being more honest than the Nobel Committee: the magazine intentionally opted for a symbol that embodies many rather than a real person. Claiming that this year the “spring” has lasted almost 12 months and million of people marched and protested for one or another reason all over the globe, Time allegedly chose the most fair way to pay tribute to these people, regardless if they protested in Cairo, Santiago de Chile, New York, Madrid or Moscow. And here too, the message is a pro-feminist one.

At first sight, both decisions look right because they managed to turn the world’s attention on those who are most often unjustly walking in the shadow. The narrative behind reads: the activists, campaigners and protesters are those “small heroes”, ordinary people who have finally become aware of their power to change their societies, or even the world, the ones that are indignant and disappointed by dictators or the financial and political elites led by greed and desire for unlimited power. (Recently, Robert Fisk denounced the banks and financial establishments as the Western dictators).

Despite my instinctive wish to applaud it all, there is something that awakes the cynic in me. For ten years now we have been living with another anonymous (although portrayed as emanation of evil) person of the decade: the Terrorist. S/he has been like an empty container that waited to be filled with a certain identity, from Chechnya to Israel, USA, Great Britain or Pakistan). Her/his anonymity provided plenty of possibilities to shape an identity in an arbitrary manner, depending on the context and the moment, and always to the wishes of the political and military establishments.

In a similar way, the good guy, the Protester, may apply to millions of different people, and may symbolize different issues to different peoples/states/societies. The glorification of the Protester is exaggerated. It is enough to see the way in which corporate TV media broadcasted and presented the Time’s choice: one sees pictures of people fighting for democracy or human rights with bloody hands and Kalashnikovs or even grenades in their hands (such as the photos from the alleged democratic protests in Libya) just next to the pictures of those who seek social changes in a non-violent manner – such as Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Everything.

In general, it is a mixed and confusing picture of a world in which many people protest from the streets with no clear agenda and often with conflicting agendas. For instance, while some ask for liberal democracy and free market, others protest exactly because of the shortcomings of these ideals. The very fact that the person on the Time’s cover page is masked may be interpreted as a message that, behind the shawl the readers should ‘recognize’ a participant in the Arab Spring rather than a one from Athens or Oregon.

Of utmost importance is, however, the fact that the Protester is anonymous: the subtle message is that a person loses his or her identity in the crowd and that what we have witnessed throughout the year was little but the politics of the crowd, of the mass.

No matter what is the real point of Time’s message, one may conclude that 2011 was not a victorious year for deliberative or participatory democracy especially in the West. The mass character of the protests dismisses the thesis that the protests were just practicing the constitutional right to public protest and dissent. Not only a few dictators were toppled – with no guarantee that genuine democracy would follow – but what happened could also be seen as a planetary failure of democracy.

First and foremost, democracy retreated not only before the dominant power of markets and profit but also before the geopolitics of intervention and war.

At some point the Indignant from Spain said that they were not against the system but the system was against them – and that sounded very revolutionary and progressive. But when other ‘revolutions’ took place soon with a ‘bare-handed’ Libyan, Syrian or even Egyptian people there was a déjà vu of scenes from recent Balkan history. In our part of the world we still remember ‘the bare-handed’ Serbian or other peoples or ‘happening of the people’: it was the beginning of a terrible turmoil.

The corporate global media stick to their well-known double standards while following these ‘democratic revolutions’: while grossly ignoring the scenes of police brutality over Western activists, they are by default shocked by the behavior of the Russian police towards the protesters.

The Protester there is by default a good guy even when, amongst the Russian opposition, there are members of non-democratic parties or even a war volunteer who was joyfully firing grenades over Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.

When a corporate medium such as Time attaches such a great significance to an anonymous Jungean archetype from our collective but desired unconscious, a feeling of skepticism begins to build immediately.

No doubt, we are witnesses of important events on a planetary level but we are ages away from the “global we”. In the style of James Joyce one could say “here comes Everybody” but I am afraid that 1% (Nobody) is very fond of this shallow glorification of the allegedly empowered Everybody (99%).

Realistically speaking, the outcomes of the Year of the Protester are catastrophic: in addition to the numberless civilian victims and destruction of whole societies, it’s obvious that the Arab winter of newly established sharia regimes is going to be long, while on the other side of the globe the bankers are doing quite well.

Unable to offer any substantial alternative, the political opposition in many countries is now able to put on the mask of the virtuous “protester”. In my country, Macedonia, the opposition already promises that it is going to come to power by voters “from the streets”.

Almost by default, in the election aftermath any opposition can now challenge the electoral outcome because the virus of democratic protests spreads as quickly as the swine flu. The crucial question soon may be: how many protesters should gather together and how long should they endure on the squares before the toppling of a government becomes a legitimate goal?

And all over again we’re in a vicious circle: Without respect for the rules of the game and the political tolerance, there could be no genuine politics neither could there be democratic outcomes. The right to protest is an essential part of the civic rights but it cannot substitute for representative democracy.

And if this model of democracy is against the interests of the majority citizens then the alternative is: change of the system as such, through reforms or revolution. I doubt that, among all those revolutionaries, there are many who would gladly change everything in order for things to remain exactly the same and to establish themselves as Calife A La Place Du Calife, the phrase of the old strip character Iznogoud. Another reminiscence that pops us while following many of the protests is Izongoud’s discovery of the “road to Nowhere”, a road that only leads back to itself.

At the end of one more apparently rebellious year, the crucial deficiency remains: our incapacity to imagine and then to realize a different system, a different Europe, or a different world. Hence Churchill’s saying still rings true: democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

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