The Most Notable Revolutionaries of 2011

Right, wrong, or otherwise -- these freedom fighters haven't let the powers-that-be block them, and we're (mostly) better off for it.


The U.S. is celebrating Independence Day and 2011 has been a year of revolution. So, it only seems appropriate that we spend a moment or two celebrating the year’s most notable revolutionaries. Some directly channel the spirit of Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, others earned their place on the list inadvertently. But everyone cited below has, for better or for worse, generated some fireworks.

Let’s begin with a few honorable mention contenders for top revolutionary honors, then we can conclude by crowning a Miss Congeniality, a runner up, and a champion.

Honorable Mention: Wael Ghonim

To start on a serious note, few people captured the revolutionary spirit more fully than did Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive that even President Obama cited as an ideal leader of tomorrow for the post-Mubarak Era. Ghonim’s website “We Are All Khaled Said,” named after a young Egyptian who died at the hands of the government, helped galvanize opposition to Mubarak. But it was his arrest and his appearances following his release that made him the face of Tahrir Square and helped fill the world with hope that this Arab Spring might lead to real political change in Cairo and throughout the region.


Honorable Mention: Mohamed Bouazizi

The year began with the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26 year-old fruit vendor whose abuse by the authorities led him to burn himself in protest. He died on January 4. Ten days later, the president of Tunisia, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country and, in mid-winter, the Arab Spring was born. Bouazizi was an unlikely revolutionary, but that is what made him such a powerful symbol and empowered him to be the man who, with a single act of personal defiance, set a match to the entire region.

AFP/Getty Images

Honorable Mention: Austerity Protesters

The protestors in the streets of Greece and of England and of Wisconsin and everywhere else in the world where government austerity programs bit hard rival those of the Middle East for their impact this year. Like those in the Arab street, these demonstrators work may have just begun. Nonetheless, a strong message has been sent that average citizens will not quietly allow feckless politicians and greedy bankers to make the people the victims of the follies and misdeeds of the elites. Sadly, it is unlikely even the most vigorous protests will be able to protect them from the consequences of the fiscal, regulatory, and monetary irresponsibility of the recent past, but it is certain they will play a vital role in determining political outcomes worldwide for the foreseeable future.


Honorable Mention: Shanghai’s Truckers

The Shanghai truckers who struck in April also earned a place on this list, not just because of the visibility of their strike in protest of fuel price inflation, but because the protests that began at the local port resonated so broadly throughout China. The impact of the rising cost of living in China has the leadership in that country deeply uneasy, so much so that they actively tried to suppress references to the Arab Spring on the Internet and elsewhere.

China’s economic miracle is built on a fragile social foundation and with a leadership change scheduled for next year and with China increasingly attuned to upheaval elsewhere in the world, it could be that the aftershocks of the truckers’ strike and protests like it could have the most profound implications of all this year’s dramatic street scenes. 


Honorable Mention: Masataka Shimizu

Sometimes revolutions are triggered by accidental revolutionaries. One of these may have been Masataka Shimizu, the 66-year-old CEO of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operators of the Fukushima nuclear reactors. Shimizu earns his place on the list, of course, as a consequence of such prodigious mismanagement that the tens of billions he cost his company may be the least of his negative impacts. Within weeks of the catastrophe that TEPCO failed to prepare for and then failed to contain, the nuclear power industry worldwide was knocked on its heels. Given the need of many renewable energy sources for government supports that many developed world governments can’t afford, it could end up being that Shimizu has done more for the fossil fuel industry than anyone since John D. Rockefeller, thus proving beyond doubt that hydrocarbons do come from dinosaurs.


Honorable Mention: Bridge and Tunnel Twins

In U.S. politics, on the plus side, there were a few — sadly, a very few — revolutionaries who actually tried to fix the mess the country was in. In the interests of bi-partisanship, we shall give the award on behalf of all such outliers to the Bridge and Tunnel Twins, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. Aside from their bluntness and effectiveness, these two are very different but they do illustrate what can happen when political leaders set aside ideological litmus tests, roll up their sleeves and actually work hard on behalf of their constituents.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Honorable Mention: The Not-So-Noble

Of course, there are countless more candidates who deserve mention for their revolutionary approaches, noble and otherwise. We have for example, the revolutionary Hamid Karzai and the Pakistani government seeking to blaze new trails in the annals of diplomacy by seeking to be both the United States’ allies and enemies at the same time, demanding U.S. money and support and condemning it all at the same time. We have the cultural revolutionaries in our rising generation who this year made “Call of Duty: Black Ops” not only the top-selling video game in U.S. history but have conspired to place it in one out of every eight households in the U.S. (Be afraid, be very afraid.) And of course, we have Lindsay Lohan, serving again as the Samuel Adams of her generation, a lone voice standing up to authority, demanding, in her case, that stupidity actually be recognized as a legal defense in the State of California.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Miss Congeniality: Michele Bachmann

No contest is complete without a Miss Congeniality and in this case, the winner of this award is definitely more of a miss than a hit. This year’s award is in fact given to Republican U.S. presidential candidate Michele Bachmann for misunderstanding the most basic aspects of the revolutionary spirit she had hoped to embody when she mistakenly suggested that the battles of Lexington and Concord took place in New Hampshire rather than Massachusetts. This gaffe would be easy to over look because she makes so many, but it deserves recognition as a symbol of a larger, more revolutionary idea on the part of her party.

In a nation beset with financial problems, confronted by failing students and a withering workforce, in need of technological innovation and seeking to drawn on the best precedents from the past, the Republicans this year have decided to throw convention to the wind and actually run on a platform that is against math, science, history and, given the performance of Bachmann, Palin and others, also, it seems, against the English language. They argue that budgets can be balanced without revenue enhancements, that the facts of evolution and climate science are “theories,” and that the founders sought a theocracy they actually fought to avoid. They are wrong in their approaches, their tactics, their logic and their facts … but you have to give them credit. They are bold.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Runner-Up: The Women of Barabacoas

The women of Barbacoas in Colombia deserve a special place on this list for their understanding of effective revolutionary tactics. 300 such women from the small town on the Pacific coast of the Andean nation banded together to demand the paving of a road connecting their community to the next town that happens to be the nearest place medical services are available. In what has been dubbed “the strike of the crossed legs” they have resolved to deny sex to their husbands until the roadwork was completed. Although the men have failed to comply with the protest, begun late in June, and they have ungallantly suggested that they would prefer their wives indulge in a hunger-strike instead, such protests have been known to work in the past in Colombia … and elsewhere. In fact, apparently, these Colombian woman have learned a lesson their Greek counterparts have forgotten, but might reconsider, as illustrated by Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a comedy about a similar strike designed to end the Peloponnesian War.


Winner: No One

The winner is no one. And by no one … I mean no one individual. The revolutionary of the year for 2011 was, in the end, without one name or one face, it was and is the people who are combating the autocrats and thugs of the regimes of North Africa and the Middle East…and who are standing up to the fat cats and big spenders of the West and the party bureaucrats in China. Ghonim captured the idea well when he compared the revolution to Wikipedia and said, “Everyone is contributing content, [but] you don’t know the names of the people contributing the content. This is exactly what happened. Revolution 2.0 in Egypt was exactly the same. Everyone contributing small pieces, bits and pieces. We drew this whole picture of a revolution. And no one is the hero in that picture.” The battles are all still on-going and outcomes everywhere are in doubt. But the idea that the people could rise up as a group and, in the case of the Middle East, successfully depose leaders who raised on traditions of cults of personality or dynasties, sent what undoubtedly has to be seen as the most important revolutionary message of 2011 so far.


David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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