Time magazine’s annual “person of the year” designation, coming as it does in mid-December, invites the first of many looks back at the waning year. The magazine staff’s deliberations usually end with a thought-provoking and appropriate choice, one that helps make sense of the previous 12 months while also casting a light over the coming year.
This year, Time chose “The Protester” as its person of the year. The image that illustrated the magazine’s cover could be a woman or a man; the face and hair are covered, but the way the eyes are drawn suggests it is one of the young adults who swelled the Arab Spring movement. The cover further explains: “From Arab Spring to Athens, from Occupy Wall Street to Russia.”
The influence of the Arab Spring protesters is indeed remarkable. Their seemingly spontaneous gathering in public squares began almost exactly a year ago. In Tunisia and Egypt, the reigning governments were overthrown, without widespread violence. In Libya, the protesters waged war with Moammar Gadhafi, and with the assistance of NATO, deposed and killed the dictator. Other uprisings were seen in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Oman.
The drama is over, but the hard work remains. How those changed governments progress ultimately will determine whether the protesters succeeded or failed.
In Athens, the protesters were not yearning to breathe the air of freedom, but rather hoping to cling to government-provided benefits. The government’s austerity measures included such moves as changing the retirement age from 61 to 65, hardly abusive. Still, these protesters were emblematic of the transformation in many societies as the effects of the worst recession in 75 years washed across the globe.
The impulse seen in Greece — to object to the impotence of government in protecting economic welfare — played out here as well. High unemployment, high government debt and flat wages were acceptable in the short term. But four years after the recession began, as the perpetrators of the risks that led to the recession landed on their well-heeled feet, anger grew.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters fall somewhere between the live-free-or-die activists of the Arab Spring and the “don’t cut my fat pension” of the Athens protesters. The OWS participants are demanding that their government acknowledge their plight. They are calling for government to commit to policies that favor the middle class and increase access to it.
The challenge for Arab Spring, Athens and OWS protesters is to more finely tune their activism. They must set down their placards for petitions, their bull horns for ballots. To create change, they must make elected officials see their outrage as a force that affects votes. Their howl of indignation must morph into more muted tones that persuade elected officials that policies can make small, but important changes in their lives.
Time’s choices since the designation began in 1927 — aviator Charles Lindbergh was the first — suggest the magazine considers both impact and emblem. Both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin — ruthless dictators, but indisputably players on the world stage who changed the course of history — were “winners.” But in later decades, Time seems to have changed its view, describing the designation as an honor. In 2001, Osama bin Laden arguably had more impact, yet Time’s Person of the Year was Rudolph Giuliani.
The protesters are clearly an emblem of our times. Their impact — if any — will be seen next year and beyond.