Changing Times 

Is this 1989 all over again? Only the very young among us have no residual memory of that year, when so much of the world chose to come out from under the yoke of usurped and unearned authority. All of Eastern Europe did, as did the various peoples of the monolithic empire that had called itself the Soviet Union. China made a valiant effort with the uprisings of youthful freedom-seeking citizens who massed every day in Tiananmen Square. That revolt was crushed by the still-powerful forces of the dictatorial state, but if political democracy itself was denied, the Chinese authorities were at least forced to open the vault of economic opportunity, and all the sublimated energy of frustrated revolution would go on to transform China into a powerhouse of technology and world trade.

So here we are in 2011, a generation later, and the dominoes have started falling again — in what had seemed the least likely place, amid the oligarchic states of the Middle East. First Tunisia fell, then Egypt, and now the Libyan regime of strongman Muammar al-Gaddafi is teetering. Bahrain and Yemen may be next, or even Iran, which deposed its shah in 1979 and nearly did the same to its demagogic premier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after a conspicuously faked election two years ago. Much is being made of the role of digital technology and social networks in effecting this change. Who would have thought, a decade or so back, that something with the effete-sounding name of Twitter could connect the previously cowed masses in those disciplined lands and organize them in concerted action against their masters?

Something like that is what Beethoven had in mind during a previous revolutionary epoch, the early 19th century, in the wake of the American and French Revolutions, when he adapted words of the poet Schiller to a stirring final work, his Ninth Symphony, which ended with the choral declaration that "Alle Menschen Werden Brüder!" "All mankind will be brothers!"

It's taken awhile, but now it begins to seem possible, after all. As Marty Aussenberg notes in this week's Viewpoint (p. 17), the viral energy that began in Tunisia and Egypt managed somehow to end up in Wisconsin, where protesters have taken to the streets to defend the continued existence of public employees' unions. We're realistic enough not to assume that something similar will happen in Tennessee, where the same cause is at stake in the current session of the state legislature. But it could.

If it doesn't happen in Tennessee, it will be because the revolutionary tides in our state are shifting in an opposite ideological direction. Even that, however much it may dismay the losers in the last election cycle, is a sign of the popular ferment that is a fact of our lives these days. A fact, indeed, of all lives everywhere. It is not what we expected, but what did we expect? The times, they are a-changin'. Indeed they are. As they always do.

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