The power of populist thinking: Why ‘Occupy’ is not the Arab Spring

    Last week, I bumped into one of my students on her way to the “Occupy America” protest near Wall Street. I told her I was glad she was participating in the most exciting political development I’d seen in years. “You’re right,” she replied cheerily. “It’s like our own Arab Spring.”

    No, it isn’t. Such analogies demean demonstrators in the Middle East, who have risked torture and death. And they discount America’s rich tradition of free speech, which has been on vibrant display since the Occupy America movement began.

    The Arab Spring rhetoric is all around us. It’s on some of the signs in New York and at other Occupy America sites around the country, including City Hall in Philadelphia. Last week, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus also invoked it.

    “They see the inequalities that exist in this country,” Rep. John Larson of Connecticut said of the American protesters. “Everybody ought to take heed that it’s not only an ‘Arab Spring,’ but there is an ‘American Fall’ as well.”

    Larson is right about inequality. By every measure – income, home ownership, education – the gap between our haves and have-nots has widened. That’s why I’m a fan of the Occupy America demonstrators, who have shone a bright light on these facts.

    But it’s also why I deplore facile comparisons to the Arab Spring, which harm the credibility of anyone who makes them. Consider that an estimated 2,900 people have already lost their lives in Syria alone, according to the United Nations’ human rights office. More than 800 died in the protests in Egypt, and nearly 500 in the demonstrations in Tunisia, Yemen, and Bahrain.

    But all these figures pale next to the death toll in Libya, which could be as high as 30,000. To be sure, some of these were loyalists fighting to protect the ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But untold thousands lost their lives trying to overthrow Gadhafi, who reportedly ordered a wave of murders after protests against his regime began.

    In New York, meanwhile, 700 protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge and released several hours later. A ham-handed response by the police? I think so. But an “American Fall”? Please.

    Calling it that insults the martyrs of the Middle East and gives too much credit to the American demonstrators. Most of all, it papers over the key distinction between democracy and autocracy: one allows citizens to criticize their leaders, and the other doesn’t.

    In that sense, the Arab Spring protesters are fighting for freedoms that the Occupy America demonstrators already possess. When the Wall Street crowds shout, “This is what democracy looks like,” they’re right. And that’s what makes the Middle East analogy so wrong.

    But it’s tempting to project our romantic dreams and fantasies onto faraway rebels, who make our own struggles seem more heroic as well. Back in the 1960s, the American radicals Tom Hayden and Staughton Lynd visited North Vietnam and came back proclaiming a unity of purpose and spirit with the people they met there. “We felt they were like us,” Hayden and Lynd wrote, “that their cause was ours as well.”

    Cuba also became a cause célèbre for American leftists in those years. After touring the country, the activist David Dellinger praised the communal spirit he encountered in its factories and cooperatives. Indeed, he hoped such practices “may some day help inspire a similar revolution in this country.”

    By identifying with the North Vietnamese and Cubans, an American activist could assume the mantle of the bold young revolutionary. Never mind that these nations routinely denied their citizens freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and more.

    So do most Arab countries today. But unlike the dictators of Vietnam and Cuba, Arab regimes are being seriously threatened by their own citizens. These protesters are the real revolutionaries, risking everything for freedom. The Occupy America demonstrators aren’t.

    So while I hope my student keeps fighting inequality in America, I also hope she’ll remember how fortunate she is to be able to do so. Millions of others aren’t so lucky.

     

    This article previously appeared at Philly.com.

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