One of the first stories to replace the killings in Tucson and the national response as the lead story in the New York Times has been upheaval in Tunisia, a country I suspect most Americans could find only with assistance from Google Maps. But there’s a painful connection to the common topic of how societies struggle to bring change against what they consider unjust, repressive regimes.

As of Friday evening (US Eastern time), the New York Times is reporting that the Tunisian President, Ben Ali, who’s been the country’s dictator for 23 years, has fled the country and been “temporarily replaced” by the Prime Minister with promises of major reforms, a new government and elections. All this comes after months of public protests and street demonstrations that reportedly included police killing scores and crowds ransacking one ministry and the palace of a member of Ben Ali’s family and further threats to the posh residences of the ruling elite.

It’s not clear what will happen next; we don’t know whether just, humane reforms will actually occur or the moment for that lost. But observers are looking at what’s happening and wondering about the precedent this sets for forcing political change in a corrupt, authoritarian kleptocracy. From the Times’ Anthony Shadid:

The reported departure of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, after popular protests in his North African country, electrified an Arab world whose residents have increasingly complained of governments that seem incapable of meeting their citizens’ demands and bereft of ideology save a motivation to perpetuate themselves in power.

“We hope that what happened in Tunisia could happen in other Arab countries where leaders and kings have rusted on their thrones,” said Abeer Madi al-Halabi, a newscaster on New TV, a Lebanese station that supports leftist causes.

Since their beginning, the protests have been closely followed by Arabic-language networks, as well as social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter. Hours after Mr. Ben Ali’s departure, messages were posted to Facebook celebrating the fall of one of the Arab world’s heaviest handed dictatorships.

There is a different version of this same conversation occurring in America, which remains shocked by the killings of six people and wounding of a dozen others. Before any facts were in on the nature and motives of the suspect, the country leaped to an entirely plausible connection with vehement advocacy of violence to meet political ends, and this in turn has resulted in wide-spread denunciations of such advocacy.

But what does Tunisia say about this?

Suppose you lived in a country in which the ruling elite had retained power for decades and then used that power to heap enormous wealth and privilege on the ruling elite, while the elite’s financiers profited even more from their regime by looting the nation’s financial system.

Suppose these financial and political elites had ignored the plight of ordinary citizens, allowed massive poverty and income inequality to persist, and instead fostered conditions allowing the elite to plunder the country’s resources and loot its citizen’s wealth, leaving millions unemployed and at risk of losing their homes.

Suppose this same elite controlled the media, could buy/bribe government officials at will, and could use the media and the trappings of democracy to claim legitimacy while enforcing a narrow range on political discourse and even narrower range of which problems and solutions possess political legitimacy.

And suppose any efforts at reform kept the same elites and their institutions in charge, even after they ransacked the country and caused great harm to millions of ordinary citizens, while the elite held none of themselves accountable, let alone criminally responsible.

What should the citizens of that nation do? And which country am I describing?

In his Tucson speech, the President of the United States said this:

Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

“Expand our moral imaginations,” he said. Paul Krugman today said that even though there is a great, possibly irreconcilable national disagreement over what government functions and actions are morally acceptable, he hoped we could at least agree that the debate occur within non-violent bounds.

LIke Krugman, I would like to believe that’s possible (I doubt it), but I share his skepticism that the long arc of history bends towards justice. It does only if we persistently lean on it that way. But I think it’s necessary first to describe the conditions under which it might be possible in a supposedly democratic nation.

Most important, the range of what’s morally and pragmatically acceptable can’t be confined to notions that leave our governing/economic elites comfortable. It’s not enough to assume, as this Administration has repeatedly done, that the only problems and only solutions we can consider are those that leave the current elites and the institutions they control in charge, while everything else is automatically taken “off the table.”

If the elites don’t want enraged crowds ransacking their palaces, they need to broaden their imagination about what’s politically and morally possible, and even that may not save them in the end. Ask the Tunisians.

More Tunisia background and coverage from:
Al Jazeera: PM replaces Tunisia President
BBC: President forced out

Update: See Marcy Wheeler’s post on the wikileak link wrt Tunisia and US policy on press freedoms

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