The little guy theory of history

By now we all know what ails the petro-dictator Col. Moammar Qaddafi — the fatal travails of the Tunisian vegetable vendor Muhammad Al Bouazizi, whose December death of massive burns has catalyzed the democracy movement that is roiling the Middle East and beyond. Bouazizi electrified the whole region when, traumatized by official abuse of power ...

Samir Hussein/Getty Images
Samir Hussein/Getty Images
Samir Hussein/Getty Images

By now we all know what ails the petro-dictator Col. Moammar Qaddafi -- the fatal travails of the Tunisian vegetable vendor Muhammad Al Bouazizi, whose December death of massive burns has catalyzed the democracy movement that is roiling the Middle East and beyond. Bouazizi electrified the whole region when, traumatized by official abuse of power and his tough breaks, he set himself on fire.

We have all heard of the Great Man theory of history -- that history turns on singular gigantic figures like Napoleon and Peter I. But Bouazizi is an example of the power of the little guy. There is grist for calling this the multi-dimensional time of the little guy. You can add your own examples of this phenomenon, but here are some starters.

What about Zhan Qixiong? He is the Chinese trawler captain whose arrest by a Japanese coast guard boat last September transformed the words "rare-earth" from the name of a catalogue and a rock band into a global household panic. Rare-earths are 17 elements used for cutting-edge manufacturing products such as missiles, advanced batteries and windmills. China mines about 97 percent of the rare-earths used around the world, but coinciding with Qixiong's arrest, Beijing began to cut back on exports of them; it cut off Japan entirely. Now, every industrial country from Japan west to the United States is worried whether it has sufficient lanthanum and yttrium. This has caused the price of rare-earths almost to double over the last year. Outside China, we are not happy about this. But the Chinese are, and so is Qixiong, who is a national hero. Hit the link to the jump for a couple of more examples.

By now we all know what ails the petro-dictator Col. Moammar Qaddafi — the fatal travails of the Tunisian vegetable vendor Muhammad Al Bouazizi, whose December death of massive burns has catalyzed the democracy movement that is roiling the Middle East and beyond. Bouazizi electrified the whole region when, traumatized by official abuse of power and his tough breaks, he set himself on fire.

We have all heard of the Great Man theory of history — that history turns on singular gigantic figures like Napoleon and Peter I. But Bouazizi is an example of the power of the little guy. There is grist for calling this the multi-dimensional time of the little guy. You can add your own examples of this phenomenon, but here are some starters.

What about Zhan Qixiong? He is the Chinese trawler captain whose arrest by a Japanese coast guard boat last September transformed the words "rare-earth" from the name of a catalogue and a rock band into a global household panic. Rare-earths are 17 elements used for cutting-edge manufacturing products such as missiles, advanced batteries and windmills. China mines about 97 percent of the rare-earths used around the world, but coinciding with Qixiong’s arrest, Beijing began to cut back on exports of them; it cut off Japan entirely. Now, every industrial country from Japan west to the United States is worried whether it has sufficient lanthanum and yttrium. This has caused the price of rare-earths almost to double over the last year. Outside China, we are not happy about this. But the Chinese are, and so is Qixiong, who is a national hero. Hit the link to the jump for a couple of more examples.

Then there is Mukhtar Mai. Two years ago, Mai became one of Pakistan’s most famous brides. That was seven years after she became Pakistan’s most famous victim of officially countenanced gang-rape.  Mai, from the Punjabi village of Meerwala, isn’t powerfully connected but, when she became a casualty of Pakistan’s incredibly twisted judicial system — a tribal council ordered her gang raped — she went public. In the same way that Bouazizi’s death won’t upend tyranny on the planet, Mai’s rape hasn’t stopped such official crimes in Pakistan. But Mai made it acceptable to complain really, really loud and seek justice.

Going into the cultural space, the rude and surly Simon Cowell may forever rue the day that he went up against Susan Boyle. She, as you recall, is the Scottish woman who got up on stage in the Britain’s Got Talent competition two years ago and, after fending off Cowell’s scowl (not to mention those of much of the audience) at her temerity at wasting his time, belted out an astonishing version of I Dreamed a Dream, and brought new respect to matronly and uncoifed talent the world over. So potent was the backlash that Cowell had to apologize on global television. In a week, Cowell will attend Boyle’s 50th birthday party.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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