It’s life during a wartime, of sorts, against the 21st century rot of corrupt governance, inequality and injustice, and in accelerating fashion over the course of 2019 it’s been spreading across every time zone and every major continent, from the now-bloodied streets of Iraq to the faded capitals of South America to the vast central squares of Eastern Europe.
If you hadn’t heard about this, blame the myopic and shorthanded American media which for the most part ignores cataclysmic events on the other side of the world, even when it doesn’t have an understandably massive distraction in the impeachment of President Trump. So let me fill you in on the something is most definitely happening here: The autumn of 2019 is fast becoming the most revolutionary season on Planet Earth since 1989 (with 2011 in the argument) when the Berlin Wall fell and it took a dictator’s tanks to subdue protesters at Tiananmen Square. This time, the fires burn differently from place to place, but the sparks are pretty much the same everywhere.
The people we’ve tasked with running the world have, for the most part, turned out to be corrupt. Did they really think that citizens wouldn’t notice?
They’ve certainly noticed in the streets of Baghdad and a dozen other cities across perpetually battered Iraq, where thousands are risking death at the hands of the state’s bullets because they’re so fed up with the inept government led by Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and a lack of jobs. Or in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, where thousands are marching in increasingly heated protest over what the Miami Herald described as an administration of President Jovenel Moïse that is “saddled with graft allegations, soaring inflation, a depreciating currency and government ineptness.” But people are fed up with “government ineptness” all over the world.
Indulge me for one moment in posting the dramatic videos of some of what’s gone almost completely uncovered by our ADD-addled American media, and I think you’ll agree that human civilization is at something of an inflection point:
You may have noticed I didn’t even include the one pro-democracy protest that has dented the American consciousness — the weeks of massive upheaval in the streets of Hong Kong against the authoritarian mandates of Beijing, which have only intensified and become more violent in recent days as rulers of the supposedly semiautonomous city crack down. Nor have I gotten to the noteworthy protests in some of America’s traditional allies like France — the Yellow Vest movement, which is still going after a year — or the United Kingdom, where thousands took to the street chanting “Stop the coup!” as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s scheme to suspend Parliament collapsed. Or, for that matter, the millions who took part in September’s climate strike, including hundreds of thousands of American kids who skipped school to prove that being glued to a couch isn’t a requirement of U.S. citizenship.
Needless to say, with dozens of nations in a state of upheaval, there are substantial differences from place to place. Although many of the marchers lean to the left or (more often) center-left, a few of the movements — like a massive recent rally in South Korea and arguably those French Yellow Vests — are more like the Tea Party than Occupy Wall Street. Some of the more courageous of those in the streets — like those in Hong Kong — are standing up to unelected dictators, but even more are speaking up against so-called democratic leaders who have failed to represent the people.
The common thread from Moscow, where thousands have defied Vladimir Putin to protest rigged municipal elections, to San Juan, where a week of marches forced out Puerto Rico’s crooked and dishonest governor, has been an epidemic of political corruption. It’s a story that arguably begins in the 1980s, when a worldwide movement toward liberal democracy — remember “The End of History” after the fall of the USSR? — masked the more significant fact that an elite technocratic class and a religious fervor for unrestrained capitalism was creating inequality on an epic scale.
In a few places — most notably Emmanuel Macron’s France — centrist, technocratic liberal democracy hangs by a thread in the face of rising protests. In much of the world, though, the failings of turn-of-the-millennium governance, spiked by the economic collapse of 2008, have caused a turn toward a reactionary form of populism that co-opts the trappings of democracy to install strongmen who then demonize immigrants or minority groups, destroy institutions like a free press or the judiciary, and rely on chaos to enrich themselves or their ne’er-do-well family members.
But both our limp liberal democracies and the far-worse authoritarian governments that are increasingly replacing them tend to rely on the same trick: That the great masses of people won’t notice what they’ve been up to. For many years, the world that was predicted in the 1980s by the late, brilliant theorist Neil Postman — that popular mass culture would create a society amusing itself to death and shunning any civic responsibility — allowed them to get away with it. In 2019, there’s been a wave of recognition, that the corruption is so blatant and out of control that it’s finally time to put down the TV remote and head outdoors.
America’s relationship to this great global tsunami has been complicated. As discussed several times previously in this space, the average citizen’s reaction to the most corrupt president in American history — even among 55 percent who’ve been opposed to him since Day One — has been surprisingly muted. Many of us seem content to think someone else — Congress, the media, some wise and independent judge — will do the hard work, and that vibe may continue now that the House has launched a formal impeachment inquiry. Time will tell whether the couch potatoes were right.
But here’s something else we need to start talking about: America — through our own narrow and self-interested foreign policies than started long before Jan. 20, 2017 — has not only tended to look the other way on foreign corruption but quite frequently has encouraged it. And global governmental rot probably won’t end until we start to play a more positive role.
There’s no better example of this than Ukraine. Unlike the protests in Haiti or Bolivia or Indonesia, Ukraine is in the U.S. headlines hour after hour — thanks to the revelations of presidential extortion tactics on the new government of President Volodymyr Zelensky that have triggered the impeachment probe. But there’s been virtually no reporting in recent days on how the disclosures of America’s meddling have destabilized Zelensky’s government, forced him to signal acceptance for a so-called peace plan for war-torn eastern Ukraine that would seem to benefit Russia’s Putin as well as Trump’s longtime interest in lifting sanctions on Moscow -- and how thousands are now protesting all of this in Kyiv.
Nor is Ukraine the only nation where America’s bad influence has affected — and angered — the people. In Iraq, one of the main triggers for the current protest is the Baghdad regime’s failure to fix the massive destruction caused by the pointless war-making of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. In Haiti, marchers are furious at the United States because our policy is continued support for the corrupt government of Moïse (who snagged a face-to-face meeting with Trump at the recent United Nations hoedown) instead of reforms that would benefit a struggling neighbor. The bottom line: The next American government is going to need to be a leader in fighting corruption, not in encouraging it.
The good news is that many of the 2020 candidates not named Trump are promoting ideas that would curb endemic graft in Washington. Indeed, the candidate currently surging toward the top of the Democratic primary field — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — has made fighting corruption the very centerpiece of her breakout campaign. Warren’s plan for that includes dramatically reducing the power of lobbyists in the nation’s capital, by preventing lobbying firms from hiring ex-lawmakers or working for corrupt foreign rulers or holding big fund-raisers. Coupled with a focus on greed and inequality, a Warren-led America could be a role model in fighting corruption instead of an incubator.
It’s worth noting that — for the most part — the fate and the future of 2019′s global protests are very much up in the air. It wouldn’t be melodramatic to say the next few months will be among the most important in human history. If the world’s autocrats send tanks into Hong Kong or ignore centuries of British democratic tradition to ram through Brexit, or if Trump’s warnings of a second American civil war somehow come to pass, our children and grandchildren may face a grim, Orwellian future. Or this can finally be the year of People Power that so many of us hoped for — and didn’t quite see realized — in 1989. It may come down to whether America chooses to sit on the sidelines or become a beacon of hope.