Bouazizi, says Daniel Pipes, was a 26-year old fruit vendor in Tunisia who supported an extended family of 8 people by selling apples in the marketplace. Every day a couple of beat cops took apples from him on the arm. Finally day his uncle complained to a police chief about it, but that was only the beginning and not the end of his problems.
The police chief told off the beat cops and one of them, a policewoman, decided to teach the troublemaker a lesson. She calmly went to his fruit stall and started loading his fruit into her car. And she kept loading and loading. Then she took away his weighing scale. When the impoverished vendor pleaded with her to stop, she beat him with a baton and slapped him in the face. An Arab man being beaten by an Arab woman in a public place. Bouazizi went down to the town hall and looked in vain for someone with whom he could lodge a complaint.
No, he was told: Everyone is in meetings. Go home. Forget it. Rather than let the matter go, however, he went to his fellow vendors and announced his intent to protest the injustice and corruption by setting himself on fire. True to his word, he doused himself with an inflammable liquid at 11:30 a.m., applied a match, and burst into flames.
Bystanders eventually put out the fire. But it was too late. The vendor was burned over large parts of his body. It took him 18 days to die.
But by that time his story had touched a chord. Political movements took up his story, perhaps adding a little here and a little there, but doubtless conscious they were dealing with an anecdote that spoke to the man in the Arab Street. Five thousand people attended his funeral. In two weeks President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had left the country. The Arab Spring had begun.
The common face of totalitarianism is not, as cinema often depicts, that of uber-Nazis marching in satanic rows, or of cultured madmen planning the extinction of millions with violin music softly seething in the background. Its quotidian face is one of petty, arbitrary, unappealable abuse. For the average man life under tyranny consists of being precisely zero in a society that can do anything — anything at all — to him.
And usually the average man simply tries to forget. There is family, home, the television. There is drink. But for Mohammed Bouazizi, watching his pitiful baskets of fruit and cheap weighing scale being carted away and slapped as he groveled in the dust, there was no escape from reality into illusion. At that moment he knew exactly what he was. Not a man, nor even the mockery of a man. He was nothing. When city hall told him, “everyone is in meetings. Go home. Forget it,” he knew exactly what they meant.
If the “shot heard round the world” was fired at Concord, the cry of pain which set the Middle East aflame was uttered in Tunisia. One of Plekhanov’s ants had reached the magic line on the moment arm, and the slow movement began. But what did Bouazizi assert so emphatically by his immolation? Was it the lack of a “decent livelihood” or lack of access to Facebook? Earlier this year, Eric O’Keefe described the response of Levi Preston, the last survivor of the Battle of Concord at a speech to a Tea Party crowd. Preston was 91 and asked at school talk in 1842 why he and his fellows had fought the British. The teacher, Mellen Chamberlain, received a surprising answer.
He did not speak, for example, of the “intolerable oppressions” of British rule that Chamberlain had heard so much about.
“Oppressions?” Preston said. “I didn’t feel them.”
“Well,” Chamberlain said, “were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?”
“I never saw one of those stamps,” Preston said. “I never paid a penny for one of them.”
“Well, what about the tea tax?”
“Tea tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff. The boys threw it all overboard.”
“Then I suppose you had been reading Locke on the principles of liberty?”
“Never heard of ‘im,” Preston said. “We only read the Bible and the Almanac.”
“Well, then,” Chamberlain asked, “why did you fight?”
And here’s where Preston summed up the crisis of his time.
“Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: We always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. Those people did not believe we should.”
Bouazizi on that final day wanted to become something that his society would not allow. The desire for self-possession is a very powerful impulse. Causes like low-cost housing, the dole or state-paid education can be less impelling than the desire not to be controlled, than the need not to be humiliated. People don’t like to be told what to do, especially if they already know what how to order their affairs. As Levi Preston explained, he did not fight for a political theory or to gain tax advantages; he was at Concord to limit the power of a regime over himself. He stood at the bridge because he wanted, in his words, to govern himself.