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:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
The Coming War on China
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Steve Horn
Donald Trump’s Swamp: Meet Ten Potential Energy and Climate Cabinet Picks and the Pickers
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano
By Way of Prologue: On How We Arrived at the Watchtower and What We Saw from There
Dave Lindorff
Is Trump’s Idea To Fix the ‘Rigged System’ by Appointing Crooks Who’ve Played It?
Aidan O'Brien
Fidel and Spain: A Tale of Right and Wrong
Carol Dansereau
Stop Groveling! How to Thwart Trump and Save the World
Kim Nicolini
Moonlight, The Movie
Evan Jones
Behind GE’s Takeover of Alstom Energy
James A Haught
White Evangelicals are Fading, Powerful, Baffling
Barbara Moroncini
Protests and Their Others
Joseph Natoli
The Winds at Their Backs
Cesar Chelala
Poverty is Not Only an Ignored Word
David Swanson
75 Years of Pearl Harbor Lies
Alex Jensen
The Great Deceleration
Nyla Ali Khan
When Faith is the Legacy of One’s Upbringing
Gilbert Mercier
Trump Win: Paradigm Shift or Status Quo?
Stephen Martin
From ‘Too Big to Fail’ to ‘Too Big to Lie’: the End Game of Corporatist Globalization.
Charles R. Larson
Review: Emma Jane Kirby’s “The Optician of Lampedusa”
David Yearsley
Haydn Seek With Hsu
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail