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When Dissent Lacks Drama, It's Still Dissent

The riveting images and real time coverage of the events in Iran this week are about as good as it gets for those who celebrate public demonstrations on behalf of progressive social and political change.  The power of the people is there to see, as are the democratizing effects of modern media technologies when they are used to organize and amplify what is happening on the street.  The interlocking institutions of authority and corruption begin to look like the walls of Jericho, cracking as they are about to come tumbling down.

May it be so, but let’s not forget that the media also features one story at a time.  There always are other protests, other causes, other appeals to the international community that are, have been, or will be overlooked.  Equally important, perhaps, is the recognition that most protests are frail things that seem pathetic at the time and inconsequential thereafter.  Most important, we should celebrate the fact that people protest anyway.

When it rains, for example.

hand-in-rain-dissent

This photograph from a demonstration in Tbilisi, Georgia captures so much of the dismal side of dissent.  A single hand strives to hold plastic sheeting together to keep out the rain that is ruining the demonstration.  It’s hard to make your case in the public square when you can’t be seen and no one is going to be there anyway.  The hand is all that remains of the citizen, who is reduced to a small act of self-preservation.  So much for the will of the people.  The sheer vulnerability of the protester is emphasized further by the white sheet, which could as well be a burial shroud.  And yet he lives, and waits for another chance to stand for his cause.

As does this demonstrator in Jakarta.

whitened-dissenter

This might be titled the activist’s very bad day.  He has gone to considerable trouble to make a statement–body paint, a performance that will have been scripted and rehearsed, all to be presented before an audience who probably couldn’t care less.  Yet he, too, is a study in fatality: white as a corpse, looking as if beaten, nakedly vulnerable, and alone but for his fatigue and discouragement while the public looks elsewhere.  It was Earth Day in Indonesia, which has a terrible environmental record including 70% deforestation and some of Asia’s worst air pollution.  Let’s hope that next year things go better.

Heroism can’t be the staple of democratic dissent.  I won’t for a minute belittle those who are standing up to brutality today, but let’s not forget the many others who have been keeping up the struggle in other settings.  They, too, keep the spirit of democracy alive, and they do it by withstanding humiliation and failure.  Heroism is a rare and beautiful thing, but for those bad days, a different kind of courage may be required.

Photographs by Shakh Aivazov/AP and Mast Irham/EPA.

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When Dissent Lacks Drama, It's Still Dissent

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