Wanted: More courageous little ‘Mack’s to unsettle Yertle Kings of our times!

Yertle the Turtle King: My mental image of a despotic ruler!

Related blog post on 7 Feb 2011: Of Dictators and Terrible Cockroaches: A Russian children’s story…from 1925!

January 2011 has been an eventful month for democratic reform in the Middle East. As People Power successfully toppled the deeply entrenched dictator Ben Ali in Tunisia, and the ordinary Egyptians intensified their pressure on own 30-year-long regime of Hosni Mubarak, commentators around the world have been trying to make sense of the rapidly unfolding developments. One of them, David Kravets, writing in Wired linked to a blog post of mine that talked about the experience of one of the earliest successful demonstrations of people power — in the Philippines, when they toppled a long-misruling dictator in 1986.

Amidst all this, and while following the developments on the web, I have been re-reading my Dr Seuss. In particular, the delightfully inspiring tale of Yertle the Turtle King. To me, that is the perfect example of People Power in action — cleverly disguised as children’s verse!

The story was first published in April 1958, in a picture book collection by Theodor Geisel, published under his more commonly-known pseudonym, Dr. Seuss. In 2001, Publishers Weekly listed it at No 125 on a list of the best-selling children’s books of all time.

For those poor Seuss-deprived readers, here’s a helpful summary I have adapted from Wikipedia:

The story is about Yertle the Turtle, the king of the pond in the far-away island of Sala-ma-Sond. Unsatisfied with the stone that serves as his throne, he commands the other turtles to stack themselves beneath him so that he can see further and expand his kingdom (he considers himself the master of all he can see). However, the stacked turtles are in pain. Mack, a very ordinary little turtle at the very bottom of the pile, asks Yertle for a respite, but Yertle just tells him to shut up. Dissent is suppressed.

King Yertle is still not happy: he wants ‘to expand his kingdom’. So he commands more and more turtles to add to his throne. Mack again asks for a respite because the increased weight is now causing extreme pain to the turtles at the bottom. Again Yertle yells at Mack to shut up. At this point, little Mack decides he has had enough and decides to do something to vent his anger and frustration: he just burps. That simple action shakes up the entire stack of turtles, and the mighty king comes crashing down into the pond — and all turtles are freed at last!

Required reading for all despots?Years ago, when I first read the story to my then very young daughter, I could immediately see strong parallels between the vain, merciless Yertle the turtle king and the equally egotistic megalomaniacs in the world of human politics and governance. I would later learn that Dr Seuss meant Yertle to be Adolf Hitler: the turtle’s rule of the pond and takeover of the surrounding areas signified Hitler’s regime in Germany and invasion of surrounding Europe.

The ordinary but courageous Mack epitomises long-suffering Everyman and Everywoman in all countries where autocratic or dictatorial regimes rule, piling ever more burdens on their people. Like the turtles in the stack, the people can go on for years taking a great deal of suffering and sacrifice while the despots plunder and make merry. But there comes a day when a ‘Mack’ says enough is enough…and emits a humble ‘burp’ that shakes up everyone.

As Dr Seuss wrote (and this is my favourite part!):

But, as Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand
And started to order and give the command,
That plain little turtle below in the stack,
That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack,
Decided he’d taken enough. And he had.
And that plain little lad got a bit mad.
And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing.
He burped!
And his burp shook the throne of the king!

And Yertle the Turtle, the king of the trees,
The king of the air and the birds and the bees,
The king of a house and a cow and a mule…
Well, that was the end of the Turtle King’s rule!
For Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-Sond,
Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! in the pond!

And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.

Read the text of Yertle the Turtle King

I don’t mean to oversimplify or belittle the enormous courage and resolve it takes for ordinary people to take on a brutal regime, but as pop-culture metaphors go, it’s hard to find a better one than Mack and his defiant burp. That little burp by a tiny turtle brought a vain king down, and its real-world equivalent is called people power: when long-oppressed ordinary people take to the streets to protest against the accumulated excesses of their rulers, demanding reform or regime change.

Not all such ‘burps’ bring all ‘Yertles’ down in the real world. The mighty Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s thanks to the courage and persistence of ordinary people who stood up and stepped out. It also worked twice in the Philippines: first against an outright dictator (Marcos) in 1986, and then against a renegade elected president (Estrada) in 2001. A variation of it happened in Nepal against the brutal King Gyanendra, who was dumped into the dustbin of history with the entire monarchy in 2006. Each case had its own history, dynamics and outcomes but shared the common feat of people power.

Sounds familiar? That's because it's all too common!

But elsewhere, as in Tiananmen Square of China (1989) Burma (2007) and Thailand (2010), people power failed to change regimes and led to much violence and bloodshed. What particular combination of social, political and technological factors make people power work is currently the subject of intense study and debate among scholars, diplomats and activists.

But there’s no doubt that recent history has been shaped and made by Macks who broke the silence and, figuratively speaking, burped. Some such burps were heard around the world, and some Macks went on to lead prolonged revolutions that ended with them becoming rulers themselves: Lech Walesa, Cory Aquino and Valclav Havel come to mind.

For every ‘Mack’ who succeeds, though, there are many who go unsung —or much worse. We still have no idea what happened to that much photographed and celebrated ‘Tank Man’ who stood up against the Red Army’s tanks on Tiananman Square one fateful day in June 1989. We don’t even know his name, but his defiance against such enormous odds still inspires assorted Macks all over the world.

For sure, our world is a tiny bit larger — and more complex — than that muddy pond in far away Sala-ma-Sond. And we have an abundance of Yertles, of various colours and hues, riding literally on the backs of their fellow people.

At least some of these tyrants must be following the recent developments in Tunisia and Egypt with growing anxiety. We can only hope that there will be a steady stream of courageous little ‘Macks’ in all such countries who will finally speak up and say: ‘Oi, Enough is enough!’

And then…BURP!

PS: Interesting footnote: Dr Seuss was the first to use the word “burp” in print. That apparently was cause for some concern before publication. According to him, the publishers at Random House, including the president, had to meet to decide whether or not they could use “burp” because “nobody had ever burped before on the pages of a children’s book”.


See also this interesting poem The Vain King, by American poet Henry Van Dyke (1852 – 1933)

Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone…

I cry, therefore I am

I cry, therefore I am

“If you have tears, prepare to shed them now,” urged Mark Antony to fellow Romans after Julius Caesar died.

But what if you simply don’t have any tears to shed? That’s what my eye doctor recently cautioned me, after a routine examination. The natural tearing in my eye, necessary for keeping it moist and clean, wasn’t quite working. There is nothing to worry, he hastened to add, for it sometimes happens as our bodies slowly age. He asked me to use eye drops twice a day for a while.

This set me thinking about the value and power of tears. Although most land mammals have a lacrimation system to keep their eyes moist, humans are the only mammal generally accepted to cry emotional tears.

In my circles, I’m known to be an emotional guy. I have never believed in that macho myth of men not crying. I shed tears of joy and tears of sorrow, sometimes in public. I cry when people I know, admire or love leave this world, sometimes at the most unexpected moments. Powerful movie moments of triumph or despair often move me to tears, as do simple joys of life — such as seeing my kid perform well on stage in a school concert.

Despite what my doctor says, I’ve been shedding plenty of tears this year.

I openly wept when journalist colleague Lasantha Wickrematunge was gunned down in broad daylight on a cruel January day. He was Sri Lanka’s real leader of the opposition.

My eyes were completely misty when the news of the original TV news anchorman and broadcast giant Walter Cronkite passed away on 18 July 2009 after an illustrious career spanning decades.

Have tears, will shed...

Have tears, will shed...

Two weeks later, I joined millions of Filipinos in mourning the passage of Cory Aquino, the courageous woman who led the world’s first People Power revolution, toppling one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century.

In contrast, Michael Jackson’s death on 25 June didn’t immediately move me to tears, even though I quickly wrote a tribute. But the live broadcast of his star-studded funeral service on 6 July did. I watched it in the solitude of a hotel room in Amsterdam on a warm summer evening, and cried — as much for the tragic end of the man as what he stood for. Those tears inspired the op ed essay on the two Moonwalks.

I can add more to this list if I think long enough. The point is: my eye specialist’s clinical examination didn’t capture these highlights (lowlights?). There’s a part of our emotional lives that our doctors may never fathom. We ourselves are often barely aware of it.

A recent article in Reader’s Digest (March 2009 issue), titled Big Boys Don’t Cry — and Other Myths About Men and Their Emotions, said new research reveals that a man’s emotional life is as complex and rich as a woman’s, but often remains a mystery to him as well as to any woman who loves him. You can say that again!

Conventional wisdom doesn’t encourage or celebrate grown men crying. One of my favourite poems is ‘Solitude’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, which opens with these memorable lines:

“Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.”

My close friends think I’m melancholic by nature, and long ago I came to terms with who and what I am. I don’t spend my days lamenting or weeping, for sure, but I also don’t hesitate to cry when the emotion warrants it.

If that means I weep alone, so be it.

Cory Aquino (1933 – 2009): Unleashed People Power, still haunting tyrants worldwide

The remains of former Philippine president Corazon Aquino passes through the historical EDSA road with some 300,000 supporters waving to pay their last respect. The road is remembered in 1986 as then anonymous Cory and some 2 million people rallied out the streets to fight a 20-year government dictatorship through peaceful people power revolution. Photo by Arwin Doloricon/ Voyage Film

The remains of former Philippine president Corazon Aquino passes through the historical EDSA road with some 300,000 supporters waving to pay their last respect. The road is remembered in 1986 as then anonymous Cory and some 2 million people rallied out the streets to fight a 20-year government dictatorship through peaceful people power revolution. Photo by Arwin Doloricon/ Voyage Film

I know this post appears rather late, but I couldn’t let Cory Aquino’s death on 1 August 2009 pass without comment. The original inspiration for People Power that toppled one of the worst tyrants of the 20th Century, she would now turn the Patron Saint of peaceful democratic struggles everywhere.

Last week, I was reduced to tears reading two links that my Filipino friend Ruth Villarama, who runs Voyage Films in Manila, sent me of new comments posted on their website.

In the first post, A housewife, a leader, an angel in yellow (3 August 2009), Joan Rae Ramirez wrote: “Her death at 3 AM on August 1 has stopped a nation from its apathetic works to once again remember what was once fought by this ordinary housewife. It is on these rarest moments where the oligarchs came down from their kingdoms to pay their respect and mingle with the people who truly represent the real state of the Philippine nation.”

Karen Lim, who works with Voyage Films as a producer and project coordinator, wrote a more personalised piece titled The Famous Anonymous.

It opened with these words: “I see her on TV. In some instances I even covered her for a story. Our relationship did not go deeper than the reporter-subject, or the audience and the watched. Yet I feel a certain affinity to the most revered President. And when she died I got sad, a strange feeling of sadness where the source is unknown.”

Karen was too young to have remembered much of those heady days of the People Power Revolution of February 1986 — a series of nonviolent and prayerful mass street demonstrations in the Philippines that eventually toppled the 20-year autocracy of Ferdinand Marcos. Indeed, a whole generation of Filipinos has been born since. But that doesn’t stop them from relating to the monumental events that unfolded at at Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, known more commonly by its acronym EDSA, in Quezon City, Metropolitan Manila and involved over 2 million ordinary Filipinos as well as several political, military and religious figures.

As Karen wrote in her tribute: “Cory’s life became ours too. We watched her, sometimes we joined her. We experienced her highs and lows. We are her “Mga minamahal kong kababayan”(my beloved fellowman). She did what no stranger did in my family – unite us in prayer for the country, unite us in laughter amidst the uncertainties of those times. I had no personal connection to this lady, but I have now every reason to mourn her passing.”

Woman of the Year 1986

Woman of the Year 1986

I can only echo her Karen’s words. As a politically curious 19-year-old, I had followed with much interest the daring gamble and eventual triumph of People Power unfolding thousands of kilometres away from my Colombo home. In the pre-Internet era, and before satellite TV channels provided 24/7 coverage across Asia, my sources were daily newspapers, evening news bulletins on local TV and, once every few weeks, the second-hand copies of Time magazine passed on to me by an uncle. The housewife in yellow ended up becoming Time Woman of the Year for 1986, with Pico Iyer writing a suitably reflective piece.

In the years since the return of democracy – with all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies – I have stood at EDSA more than once, and wondered what it must have been like to mobilise millions of ordinary, concerned people in the days before email, Internet and mobile phones — communication tools that today’s political activists, and indeed everyone else, take for granted. There is a thin line between a non-violent struggle and a passionate yet violent mob that, ultimately, works against their own interests. I am amazed that Cory and her activists didn’t cross the line, despite provocations and 20 years of repression.

Of course, it wasn’t just the human numbers that turned the tide in EDSA. Cory Aquino’s charismatic leadership and moral authority persuaded other centres of power – including the Catholic church and sections of the military – to align with the struggle to restore democracy. It was this combination, and the sudden change of mind by the Americans who had backed Marcos all along, that enabled People Power to triumph.

Elsewhere in Asia, where these elements didn’t align as forcefully and resolutely in the years that followed, the outcome was not as dramatic or positive. We’ve seen that, for example, in places as diverse as Tiananmen Square in China (1989), Burma (2007) and most recently, in the streets of Tehran, Iran. In contrast, it did indeed work and ushered in regime change in places like Nepal, even though it entailed more protracted struggles.

What interests me, in particular, is the role played by information and communication technologies (ICTs) in such People Power movements. Alex Magno, a political analyst and professor of sociology in Manila, sees clear links between new communications technologies and political agitation. Interviewed on the Canadian documentary Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News (2002), he said: “In the last two decades or so, most of the political upheavals had some distinct link to communications technology. The (1979) Iranian Revolution was closely linked to the audio cassette. The first EDSA uprising in the Philippines was very closely linked to the photocopying machine and so we called it the ‘Xerox Revolution’. Tiananmen, the uprising that failed in China, was called the ‘Fax Revolution’, because the rest of the world was better informed than the rest of the neighbourhood because of the fax machine. The January (2002) uprising in the Philippines represents a convergence between electronic mail and text messaging. And that gave that uprising its specific characteristics.”

Mobile phones' role in People Power II acknowledged in a Manila mural

Mobile phones' role in People Power II acknowledged in a Manila mural

But it was People Power II in the Philippines that is perhaps the best known example of ICTs fuelling and sustaining a revolution. The ability to send short text messages on cell phones helped spawn that political revolution in early 2001, a full decade and a half after the original wave that swept Cory Aquino into office.

President Estrada was on trial facing charges of bribery, corruption and breach of the public trust. Despite mounting evidence against him, the President was let off the hook. That was the turning point. According to Ramon Isberto, a vice-president at Smart Telecom in the Philippines: “People saw it on television, and a lot of people were revolted. They started text messaging each other, sending each other messages over the Internet, and that thing created a combustion.”

Because of texting and email, within two hours over 200,000 people converged in the main street of Manila demanding the president’s resignation. The vigil lasted for four days and four nights, until President Estrada finally got the message and stepped down. It ended with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo taking her oath of office in the presence of the crowd at EDSA, becoming the 14th president of the Philippines.

Those events have been documented, analysed and interpreted by many people from various angles. The Cold War had ended and the geopolitical map of the world had been redrawn. By this time, 24/7 satellite television was commonplace in Asia and the mobile phone was already within ordinary people’s reach. Gloria was no Cory, and Estrada wasn’t Marcos. But the forces and elements once again aligned on EDSA, and with history-making results. The role that the humble mobile phone played is acknowledged, among other places, in a mural in Manila.