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Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei walks out of his studio in Beijing November 15, 2011. Mr. Ai's secretive 81-day detention this year sparked worldwide attention. (David Gray/Reuters/David Gray/Reuters)
Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei walks out of his studio in Beijing November 15, 2011. Mr. Ai's secretive 81-day detention this year sparked worldwide attention. (David Gray/Reuters/David Gray/Reuters)

2011

Revolutions: Long in coming, they require disciplined preparation Add to ...

When we look back and try to figure out what just happened in this amazing year, we can't avoid the past.

If any year had a history, it was 2011. The year of revolutions – the very word tears us away from the minutiae of daily life and puts us in touch with the powerful concept that gave the United States its independence, overthrew France's ancient regime and brought down the Soviet empire.

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Figures as diverse as Indian corruption-fighter Anna Hazare, Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi find common cause in the revolutionary idea: The old leaders have lost touch with the people and society has to be liberated by a different kind of thinking.

When we live through an epoch-making year, or simply watch it via YouTube, we can't help but interpret it th

rough the bits and pieces of history that crowd our mind. The past is always going to be a prelude to the present.

So history matters now. But not because we're supposed to learn from it like dutiful students and avoid the bloody mistakes of the past – yes to democratic reforms, no to reigns of terror. Rather, we use history as an analogue, our best route to understanding something that by its very nature challenges our settled modes of behaviour.

And the problem with the historical analogues we carry around with us – because history isn't a single moral lesson but rather a chaotic universe of clashing ideas – is that they just as easily scramble the inquisitive brain as set it straight.

The idea of revolution is central to contemporary consumer culture: Personal transformation has become immediately accessible through the latest innovation from Apple or Nike, and modernity is about moving on in perpetual progress, not getting stuck in an outmoded past. When we experience revolutions, we can't help but bring this consumer restlessness into play: Change is good, necessary, attractive.

This is the 2011 we wanted to see: Ideas of freedom that had seemed impossible were suddenly on the point of realization.

It was as if the Just Do It approach to life were all that it took. The best sides of human nature, those triumphs of hopes and dreams against all odds epitomized by rare leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, were on display everywhere as old empires began faltering one after another.

If we seek a philosophical grounding for this modern impulse, it's supplied by the Enlightenment thinkers who paved the way for our faith in human progress: Breaking free of narrow-minded, all-controlling authority is what people are meant to do if they want to be happy and free.

It sounded good on paper. It looked good in the American War of Independence, the Enlightenment-sponsored movement that created a country dedicated to the twinning of liberty and happiness, free of all-powerful kings and all-knowing clerics. Then came the seismic change in France, where outmoded aristocrats and priests were slaughtered in the service of an idea, and suddenly the spirit of transformation seemed newly dangerous. The British writer and politician Edmund Burke, a self-declared enemy of oppressors, looked at France with fear: What he saw wasn't the linear progress of Enlightenment thinkers but a bloody-minded chaos that he damned with the word revolution.

The uncertainty about revolution and its claims was now in play, and conservatism found the human examples to justify its devotion to old orders and established authorities – revolutions by their very nature led to murderous strongmen like Lenin and Mao.

You might not like Hosni Mubarak, we're told, but history suggests that the alternative will be so much worse. In consumer-culture terms: The relentless pursuit of new stuff is bound to be dissatisfying and dehumanizing. You can't buy liberty and happiness at the mall and you can't create it wholesale in the streets and squares.

This ambivalence about revolution is constantly at play in 2011, whatever our nobler instincts tell us. How does history inform our perception of the Arab Spring? The name itself conjures up the liberalizing Prague Spring of 1968 when Czechoslovakia's reformists tried to loosen themselves from the grip of hard-line communists and their Moscow overlords. So at the level of historical branding and revolutionary pedigree, it's a good thing – hopeful, optimistic, idealistic but also fragile (Russian tanks eventually crushed Prague's outburst of innocence) and in need of protection from the bad guys if the revolution is going to take root and flourish.

The revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, then, are youthful, well-intentioned innocents, congregating in non-violent marches much like the American civil-rights campaigners in the 1960s. Through their leaders (figures like Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim, who used his social-media savvy to organize demonstrations in Cairo), the protesters look modern, educated, middle-class and unthreatening. “People like us” are in revolt – how could we not be sympathetic and admiring?

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