Todd Gitlin: How Occupy's Year of Transformation Compares to the Revolutions of 1848 and 1968

Roundup: Historians' Take

Todd Gitlin teaches at Columbia University and is the author, most recently, of "The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election" (co-authored with Liel Leibovitz), and a novel, "Undying." This article is an excerpt of an excerpt from "Occupy Nation," available on May 1 from all e-book retailers.

Vast changes do not neatly follow the calendar, but it is already possible to say that the year 2011 was, as Anthony Barnett writes, “original.”

Not completely so, of course. As in 1848, 1968, and 1989, the insurgencies were many and they absorbed multitudes. As in all three, the protagonists were chiefly young. As in all three, the holders of power felt various degrees of panic. As in 1848 and 1968, they took place on more than one continent. As in 1968 and 1989, the insurgents were largely nonviolent, until the uprising in Libya. As in 1968, the targets were multiple, the identities of the movements alternately seductive and repellent in the eyes of outsiders, and often confusing.

The grandest originality was that in contrast to 1848’s uprisings across Europe and Latin America in behalf of nationalist and republican values against absolutist government and economic impoverishment, 2011 was chiefly nonviolent. The second, of course, is in the electronic means of communication: the smartphones, videos, social network and other internet linkages that sent the horrific images of the self-immolated Mohammad Bouazizi and his funeral procession flying throughout Tunisia; then the photograph of the mutilated face of the twenty-nine-year-old Egyptian businessman from Alexandria, taken in the morgue by his brother, around which formed the momentous Facebook page posted by the Google executive Wael Ghonim, “We Are All Khaled Said,” circulating throughout Egyptian cyberspace, along with the call to gather in Tahrir Square on January 25, so that cyberspace touched down on earth, and in the flesh, face to face, groups formed, found their affinities, intermingled, sized up their situations. Graphic images have become more graphic and they move faster; they horrify instantaneously. The cascades of images, horizontal contacts, and related events have sped up enormously. But this most visible of differences from past revolts can be exaggerated. Before there were online videos, there were gossip networks, secret societies, broadsides, posters, leaflets. The sluggishness of the past is an illusion. So is the isolation of history-makers from one another.

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