By now we all know what ails the petro-dictator Col. Moammar Qaddafi -- the fatal travails of the Tunisian vegetable vendor Muhammad Al Bouazizi, whose December death of massive burns has catalyzed the democracy movement that is roiling the Middle East and beyond. Bouazizi electrified the whole region when, traumatized by official abuse of power and his tough breaks, he set himself on fire.
We have all heard of the Great Man theory of history -- that history turns on singular gigantic figures like Napoleon and Peter I. But Bouazizi is an example of the power of the little guy. There is grist for calling this the multi-dimensional time of the little guy. You can add your own examples of this phenomenon, but here are some starters.
What about Zhan Qixiong? He is the Chinese trawler captain whose arrest by a Japanese coast guard boat last September transformed the words "rare-earth" from the name of a catalogue and a rock band into a global household panic. Rare-earths are 17 elements used for cutting-edge manufacturing products such as missiles, advanced batteries and windmills. China mines about 97 percent of the rare-earths used around the world, but coinciding with Qixiong's arrest, Beijing began to cut back on exports of them; it cut off Japan entirely. Now, every industrial country from Japan west to the United States is worried whether it has sufficient lanthanum and yttrium. This has caused the price of rare-earths almost to double over the last year. Outside China, we are not happy about this. But the Chinese are, and so is Qixiong, who is a national hero. Hit the link to the jump for a couple of more examples.
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Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.