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Issues of the Day Civil Society: The New Authority

When I was coming of age in the turbulent sixties and seventies, the call to "Question Authority" was widely touted on bumper stickers and lapel buttons. Today, in countries around the world, the adage seems to be gaining currency and adherence: Across borders, there is a crisis of authority and lots of people have taken notice.


The New Street

It's not exactly an uprising of the international proletariat as foreseen by Marx, but in diverse societies ordinary people are self-organizing to challenge establishments – political, economic and religious – that control or exert influence on the public space.

The social repercussions of the French Revolution are still being felt more than two hundred years later as the spirit of protest against inequality, malfeasance in government and abuse of authority are denounced by an alternative center of power, the civil forum. This new "street," powered in part by social media, has burgeoned in city squares and across boulevards from Tunis to Tel Aviv and from Sao Paulo to Sofia.


Social Protests over Bread and Butter Issues


In Israel, social protest over the cost of living, the concentration of economic power in the hands of a privileged few, and an uneven distribution of the national burden brought half a million Israelis to the street in the summer of 2011. The effects of that summer of discontent have changed public discourse and had concrete impacts.  

Still, many of the fundamental structural issues that increased poverty and eroded the standard of living of the middle class remain unaddressed by the current government. The possibility of a resumption of the 2011 protests remains on the horizon pending meaningful changes in policy.


Economics is also at issue in the social protests that have in the past months wracked Brazil, where millions are frustrated by inadequate public services, the cost of living, and disparities between the urbanized core of the country and the periphery. In Greece, as I described in a post on this site earlier this month, similar discontent resulting from the austerity measures imposed on that country by its international creditors is also behind continuing unrest in Athens and elsewhere.


In Search of Democracy


The Arab Spring was in large measure a protest against economic injustices. But more profoundly it represented an attempt to dislodge an old order based on despotic, unrepresentative regimes.


Yet protest alone does not make for the foundations of responsive democracy, and as attested to by the mounting and violent expressions of dissatisfaction against the democratically elected but increasingly contested regimes that have gained power in Tunisia and Egypt, the revolutions have not yet brought about the improvements desired by the citizenry. For many, these regimes are retrogressive.


Ironically, democracy has highlighted deep divisions between sectors in Egypt.

Across the divide, the election of the Moslem Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi is viewed either as revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, depending on which side one stands on. By the same token, Morsi's overthrow by the military following massive unrest earlier this month can be seen in the same terms. Regardless of one's perspective, the precipitants of change are found in the voice of the multitudes.  


In Turkey as well as Tunisia and Egypt, attempts to impose religious mandated behavior and norms on the public space and upon the individual have produced furious opposition from secular and educated sectors of the population.


Corruption and Suppression


In Spain allegations of government corruption has prompted the "chorizos" protest, while Bulgarian citizens denounced the same malaise while holding parliamentarians hostage last week.


In Russia, government exhibits a quite different problem: the heavy-handed rule of the Putin regime, which has aroused the ire of thousands of brave citizens in Moscow and other big cities over its highly dubious judicial prosecutions of such opposition leaders as Aleksei A. Navalny, attacks on journalists, and legislation intended to marginalize and stigmatize gays. Putin, a former KGB man, has cloaked himself as a mighty patron of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in turn has embraced him.


Impugned "Religious" Leaders


And speaking of clerics, already wracked by sex scandals the Catholic Church is now contending with a money laundering monsignor at the Vatican. Two chief rabbis, first in France and  then in Israel,  have had to relinquish their posts in recent months over plagiarism and misrepresentation in the case of the former and allegations of bribery, fraud, embezzlement, breach of trust and money laundering in the latter instance. 


Unfortunately, jihad-advocating imams and sheiks who sanction suicide-bombing as a fast-track to heaven are not new to us, but a startling dissonance in Buddhism, normally associated with pacifism and anti-materialism, has been evident in the inflammatory statements, participation and at times leadership of violent anti-Moslem mobs in Myanmar by monks and other Buddhist leaders. Similar abuse of that creed have taken place elsewhere.


The New Authority

Against this bleak backdrop, it is no wonder that in an increasingly networked world, so many ordinary people are voicing impatience with and distrust of "leaders." But as attested to by the internecine fighting going on in Egypt as this

post is being written, dissent and change does not necessarily lead to progress.


What the ongoing wave of mass protests sweeping across the globe does suggest is that there are widespread and rising expectations concerning rights, services and opportunities.

If informed by education and channeled through dialogue, the demand for accountability, fair government, the right to an affordable quality of life and an end to despotism and suppression could foretell a better, less dangerous future within societies and, perhaps, one day between them. 

© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved