FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

SPINning the Syrian Protests

by STEVE BREYMAN

The Washington Post wonders how those protests in Syria keep going (e.g., Liz Sly, “Syrian Revolt Still Spontaneous and Leaderless,” July 28). Journalistic convention requires that demonstrations have leaders, spokespeople, identifiable representatives. Without someone fitting the preconceived bill, reporters grasp for meaning. What demonstrators want may be obvious (as in Syria), but editors and producers want sound bites. Get that charismatic honcho-in-chief-—preferably in regional costume and with clear if heavily accented English—in front of the camera!

Journalists cannot be experts on every topic they cover. Foreign correspondents should, at a minimum, speak a local language and have a CIA World Factbook grasp of the countries from which they report. That they often don’t is painfully obvious. Where would the American media be if the world did not speak English?

About those democratic uprisings: No one expects those covering these exciting and deadly affairs to have state-of-the-art knowledge of social movement studies or democratic theory. That’s what academics are for. But is it not reasonable for media organizations to consult now and then with those who do? Social movement scholars would happily offer continuing education webinars for interested journalists (probably for free, but come on, throw us a bone!).

Reports from the tumultuous field would certainly benefit by comparing this movement to that one. Claims about “twitter revolutions” would be tempered by understanding previous movements’ external communications practices. Questions of identity (ethnic, gender, tribal, national, racial, et al.) could be pursued with something approaching competence. The “violence question” would be seen as an explosive internal issue for movements, not simply the stuff of good copy or dramatic photos. Insurrections would appear not as militant monoliths but as fragile, shifting coalition of coalitions.

The unfolding and extraordinary events in Syria are a case in point. Courageous Syrians have been in the streets for nineteen consecutive weeks; they’ve battled tanks with sticks and stones, been picked off by snipers, carted away to arbitrary detention, tortured, their patriotism smeared. All this without “organization, strategy or leadership” marvels the Post.

Had an editor or reporter not merely arched an eyebrow, but was genuinely interested in the question, someone like me would’ve recommended a book from 1970: Luther Gerlach and Virginia H. Hine’s People, Power, Change: Movements of Social Transformation. That the book is over forty years old is the point.

The authors devise a model of social movement organization that sees these groups not as “centralized and bureaucratic nor amorphous, but . . . a[s] segmentary, polycentric, and integrated networks (SPIN).” By segmentary, Gerlach and Hine mean groups that are diverse and dynamic; they grow, they fold, they represent different constituencies. Polycentric refers to the groups’ “multiple, often temporary, and sometimes competing leaders or centers of influence.” Integrated networks are ” loose, reticulate, . . . with multiple linkages through travelers, overlapping membership, joint activities, common reading matter, and shared ideals and opponents.”

The SPIN model appears to capture the essence (to the extent it’s possible to say this from the other side of the planet) of the revolutionary groups in Syria. The segmentary character of the uprising is evident from what seems to reporters like the lack of clarity regarding movement tactics, strategy, and goals “beyond the universal demand that Assad should go.” Polycentricity is unavoidable for Syrian activists. To centralize, to elect formal leaders, to set up an office—even if they wanted to—is to invite repression.

Sly reports two conversations she had about movement group leadership:

“This is the purest people’s revolution there ever was,” said a Damascus-based activist who is affiliated with two of the groups engaged in encouraging protests. Leaders are nonexistent, he said, and they wouldn’t be welcomed. “Anyone who puts his head above sea level is taken down,” he said.

Nobody tells him that there will be a demonstration, nobody encourages him to go. He just shows up with a group of friends, assuming there will be a demonstration because there always is. “I’m really not political. I’m just a guy going to the streets every Friday,” he said in an interview conducted over Skype, when asked which of the various protest groups he supports. He hasn’t heard of any of them. “I only want to end the injustice and see a free democracy,” said the man, who requested that his name not be used because he fears for his safety should he be identified.

Leaders come and go; their internecine struggles can be bitter, petty, and ugly. To self-identify as a leader in Syria today is to paint the proverbial bulls eye. Just because an informant or two can’t or won’t identify authoritative figures, doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Leadership need not be strong, self-serving, or authoritarian. Resistance to conventional notions of top-down leadership has grown among social movements in recent decades. Groups don’t need commanding generals but they do need coordination, a modicum of structure, and morale maintenance (among other things). These essential tasks do not perform themselves.

Gerlach and Hine’s “integrated networks” also appear to closely approximate the little we know about groups like “Trust Circle, the Syrian Creative Revolution and the Revolution of Syrian Youth.” Their concept works even though Gerlach and Hine studied legal organizations in late 1960s America. Syrian activists must organize underground and on the Internet. They operate with pseudonyms and are justifiably paranoid as Syrian secret police monitor Facebook pages and try to chase down shifting IP addresses.

Sly’s piece is actually quite good given its relative lack of theoretical, comparative and historical grounding—better than most. Again, I’m not arguing that protest reporting have the depth or sophistication of scholarship. It’d be much less fun to read. But it ought not mislead. Journalists writing about social movements here and abroad: check with a local university. Some prof will gladly forward a syllabus and reading list.

Steve Breyman taught his first social movement course while a University of California graduate student in the late eighties. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

Steve Breyman was a William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Clinton State Department, and serves as an advisor to Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

More articles by:
June 29, 2016
Diana Johnstone
European Unification Divides Europeans: How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart
Andrew Smolski
To My Less-Evilism Haters: A Rejoinder to Halle and Chomsky
Jeffrey St. Clair
Noam Chomsky, John Halle and Henry the First: a Note on Lesser Evil Voting
David Rosen
Birth-Control Wars: Two Centuries of Struggle
Sheldon Richman
Brexit: What Kind of Dependence Now?
Yves Engler
“Canadian” Corporate Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
Return to the Gilded Age: Paul Ryan’s Deregulated Dystopia
Priti Gulati Cox
All That Glitters is Feardom: Whatever Happens, Don’t Blame Jill Stein
Franklin Lamb
About the Accusation that Syrian and Russian Troops are Looting Palmyra
Binoy Kampmark
Texas, Abortion and the US Supreme Court
Anhvinh Doanvo
Justice Thomas’s Abortion Dissent Tolerates Discrimination
Victor Grossman
Brexit Pro and Con: the View From Germany
Manuel E. Yepe
Brazil: the Southern Giant Will Have to Fight
Rivera Sun
The Nonviolent History of American Independence
Adjoa Agyeiwaa
Is Western Aid Destroying Nigeria’s Future?
Jesse Jackson
What Clinton Should Learn From Brexit
Mel Gurtov
Is Brexit the End of the World?
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Alabama Democratic Primary Proves New York Times’ Nate Cohn Wrong about Exit Polling
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
Stephanie Van Hook
The Time for Silence is Over
Ajamu Nangwaya
Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids: Racialized, Queer Solidarity and Police Violence
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull (But 500 Years of Trauma)
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Johan Galtung
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail