Head to Head / Jim Frederick, Why Did Time Magazine Choose 'The Protester' as Its Person of the Year

Haaretz sits down with Time Magazine editor Jim Frederick to discuss Egypt and Libya, Occupy Wall St. and the Tea Party, and whether this past year's revolutions will bring a happy ending.

Time Magazine has chosen "The Protester" as its 2011 Person of the Year in honor of all those who demonstrated in the revolutions and mass movements which swept the globe over the past year. Jim Frederick is a head editor at Time Magazine, and among those who helped decide on this years winner.

M: So Time chose “The Protester” as Person of the Year. Who is he or she? Is it a he or a she?

Time Magazine 'Person of the Year,' 2011.

T: It is an embodiment of literally millions of protesters who have begun to change the course of 2011, if not the course of history of countries around the world. So I would not say that's it is necessarily a man or a woman of any particular nationality we would have been more specific. The protester is an embodiment of the global, disunited, unorganized and spontaneous wellsprings of civic unrest that has been - according to the editors of Time - the story of 2011.

M: Are there any characteristics that you think these people have?

T: Well, I think the characteristics that they have in common is that they are unhappy - they are disgruntled with the status quo. I think that they have taken to the street in a way they have not for almost decades. I think that one of the points that the main piece makes is that since at least the 1960s, if not several generations before, protest has not been the most effective way of affecting political change and the people in power were capable of either ignoring or not really paying too much attention to the protesters.

I think that if you look at the Middle East in Libya and Egypt you now get two regimes, at least, that have been toppled and maybe more are to come. In the West, whether its Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party, or over in Russia where they are protesting against Putin, or throughout Europe where the unrest is related to the Euro, I think what you see this year that you haven't seen in years past is that there is a growing confidence among the protesters that this is not some sort of pantomime or game that they are playing. This is a high stake business and that they might actually affect some real change.

I'd follow that up by saying another thing that I think they have in common - because we go to great pains to demonstrate and to say in the piece that this is not a unified global movement and that the protester in Wall Street has really nothing even close in terms of personal safety and livelihood at stake with protesters in Libya or Egypt - what they have in common through technology is that they are not unifying under a single ideology, but they are talking to each other and inspired by each other. Through Facebook, Twitter, the internet and cell phones there is a feeling of fellowship. Even if the ideologies and even if the politics do not match up, there is a feeling of a bottom-up movement to this.

M: You said protest was not that effective to achieve political changes and certainly not in policy. Certainly the protests in Middle-East have brought change. Do you think that the protests in the West that is also Occupy Wall Street in America as the protests in Europe, can you see any kind of effect and change in policy there? Do you think there is room for even assessing that the protesters in the West can make a difference?

T: I think that the short answer is no. I don't think that so far the protests that you've seen in the West, whether it is America, Russia, Europe or Israel are likely to affect at the same degree of change that you've seen in the other Middle-Eastern countries Arab and dictatorships. On the other hand, I do not know what will happen it Russia.

The longer answer, speaking from an American context, is that if you look at the major demonstration movements of the past couple of decades, you had a lot of protests with the first Gulf War in 1990-1991, you had a lot of protests with the contested elections between Al Gore and George Bush in 2000, and you had a lot of protests with the second Gulf War in 2003 or so.

Speaking from personal experience and as a journalist, I would say that those three examples from the past two decades, those protests, even though they were large, were almost absolutely irrelevant to the political discourse and what was going to happen. I think the difference now is that the Occupy Wall Street movement - and we also include the Tea Party in this because if you remember from early in the year, Tea Parties were very much a demonstration movement that had already entered the political mainstream in the United States - has already altered the political discourse much more than protest movements from a couple of decades ago ever did.

So if your question is "are they going to topple the government?" No I don't think so. But are people in power and in politics more worried about Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party than they were worried about whether or not they were protesting against Gulf War one? The demonstrations against the Gulf War one were absolutely irrelevant to what was going to happen. The people are paying attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement in a way they were not before.

M: When you were sitting together deciding on “the protester” and the effect it had this year - did you have any idea regarding why these protests erupted this year, one after the other?

T: I think it's one of those phenomenons where everything came together at exactly the right moment, all the way down to a certain fruit stand vendor in Tunisia immolating himself. He was not the first person protesting that way he is not going to be the last. But it captured people's attention, it captured their imagination. You add in the newfound popularity and relevance of social networking and social media, so there is a Twitter and a Facebook element to it. Those technologies are more mature than they have ever been before. In the Western countries you have way more economic insecurity than you have ever had, so there is a greater likelihood that they are going to join in.

I don't know why this year in the Egyptian and Libyan regime was different than any other year, but I think that once people around the world started noticing that they were emboldened, and the protesters came out in ever greater numbers and that I think is the force multiplier that technology can have is that people realize there is safety and there is power in numbers and then it just starts to build and build and build.

M: I looked at past recipients of TIME’s People of the Year award, and saw that “The Planet” won in 1988, “Women” won in 1975, and “The Middle Class” in 1969. All these groups aren’t doing too well today. Could the same thing happen to “The Protester”?

T: I know that we've done concepts and collectives. Some of the concepts are probably less powerful and in a less good shape than they were when we named there. Looking at the United States, I am not sure I'd say that women are in worse shape than they've been since 1975.

M: I am not at all sure it is better, and definitely the middle class is not in a better shape. I think that there is even some kind of parallel between the protesters and a middle class person. Would not you see such relation?

T: Yeah, one of the things we talk about in the piece, written by Anderson, and I don't know if it's what you mean by this is, but these movements, protest movements, are in fact very often educated middle-class movements, even in the Middle-East. This is not necessarily an underclass uprising. Many of the people who are in Tahrir square, many of the people who are in Red Square in Moscow, many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, these are not the underclass. These are a disgruntled educated middle class ,and I would direct your attention to the piece itself as Anderson had some very interesting and very subtle point to make about that very often revolutionary class. And if that's what you mean I would say that, yes, a lot of people who are the children of that “person of the year”, the children of those middle class people, they might be the people that are organizing today.

M: And the question whether of this is good news or bad news remains to be answered, I suppose.

T: Yes. I think that is absolutely the case, and one of the things we at Time always need to tell other people is that the “Person of the Year” is not an award, and we're not necessarily saying that it's all virtuous.

I think one of things we also do address is that the conclusion of all of this is far from sure, that we don't know if it's going to be happy endings in Libya, in Egypt, in Bahrain, in Tunisia. At the end of the colonial revolutions of the 50s and 60s, you got a lot of euphoria followed by dictatorships that have just been overthrown again, so are they setting themselves up for a truly long-term democratic and peaceful future, or is it just going to be a period of turbulence and more dictatorship and more oppression? I don't know - we have no idea and I think we have a great pain to say that this is moment of excitement. It is a moment of hope and a moment of possibility, but we can't say with any certainty whatsoever that it is necessarily going to lead to a happy ending.