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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Serpico and Social Change Recipe

The great movie director, Sidney Lumet, died a couple of days ago. I remember how inspired I felt after seeing "Serpico", the story of a cop who refuses to go along with the corruption in the department, suffering heavy consequences along the way to a total reformation of the NYPD. I remember calling my favorite professor to recommend the movie to him. (I was a senior at UCSB.) He was unimpressed and said it was typical of Hollywood to write stories of change as though only one heroic person made it happen. He taught a class in "social movements" and was definitely a scholar on institutional change. Leaders on the left (and probably the right too) have always emphasized the importance of organizing and setting up an infrastructure to catalyze and shape change. They would point out that you can have a Martin Luther King Jr. but without the Southern Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee you don't get a civil rights movement.

A couple of blogs back, I wondered what the secret ingredient is in all the social upheavals going on since February throughout the Middle East. Some folks rightly pointed out that Facebook and social media online is what made the demonstrations go viral. Others pointed out that with very high youth unemployment and highly repressive governments, that the boiling point was finally reached. It does appear however, that the one Tunisian man who immolated himself in protest, was way more the catalyst for what happened in the streets, than any organized opposition organizations.

I think that individual heroes, Internet communications vehicles, a shared social/political frustration, and even opposition organizations all work in concert, but most people have to feel there's a large scale happening underway - before getting involved. Somehow, the risks of getting tear-gassed, arrested, or shot are acceptable if people feel there's a mass movement going on. For many, it may be the draw of the "happening" itself. (I think that dynamic was at play when I think back to our student anti-war demonstrations at Northwestern.)

People will live, beaten down for many years and decades, even knowing there are some people protesting - and getting arrested - maybe tortured - for doing so. When the idea takes hold that there is really going to be a mass uprising, then suddenly thousands can turn out in the street and a movement is underway. I'm still unclear how that perfect storm occurs.

There's another thing my professor said that I haven't forgotten. He was one of the earliest members of Students for a Democratic Society. He traveled to a national convention after reading a number of articles by Tom Hayden who wrote about a mass movement growing quickly at campuses throughout the country. When my professor got to the meeting, much to his surprise, there were only a few dozen people there. Apparently, Hayden was writing the articles with smoke and mirrors in order to help get a movement started. Maybe that's another essential ingredient in the mix.

What do you think is still missing from the recipe?

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