When History Happens

It can be difficult to keep track of everything that’s happening in the news these days. While often media is dedicated to filling space and time and creating content to keep us watching, over the past number of weeks events around the world have kept the media on their toes and overwhelmed the viewer and reader of news in a manner that makes it difficult to keep up with what’s going on.

First there was the revolution in Tunisia, which spread to Egypt leaving Tunisia relegated in the news stakes, then it spread to Libya and Egypt was forgotten. And then Japan was hit by an earthquake, followed by a Tsunami, followed by an impending nuclear catastrophe. Libya was forgotten for a few days until a bit of sabre rattling by Western powers pushed it back to the forefront. In between all of this were popular revolts in Yemen, Bahrain and numerous other countries. This is of course all happening against the backdrop of a protracted global economic crisis which has seen governments in Europe transfer the burden of bank debt on to the ordinary people. The global economy, already volatile has begun panicking as it watches events in Japan and Libya and ‘The Markets’ (all the hail The Markets) are busy ensuring that everyone apart from them bears the brunt of what’s happening.

While North Africa was in turmoil Ireland quietly disposed of its traditional ruling party not long after it surrendered control of the Irish Economy to the IMF and ECB. The country, whose elites arrogantly labelled it the Celtic Tiger, now finds itself once again relegated to the role of banana republic as the new government continue to impose horrendous austerity on its people in order to pay off the debts accumulated by private financial institutions. This very recent period of turmoil takes place not long after Southern Sudan voted to secede without anybody apart from Northern Sudan taking much notice. Clashes along the border between Northern and Southern Sudan are taking place frequently and once again Sudan finds itself in the midst of a forgotten crisis. Also, lest we forget, the war in Afghanistan has been raging for the best part of a decade and there is a similar situation in Iraq which, nearly eight years after George W. Bush declared Mission Accomplished, still knows neither peace nor stability.

For anybody following events in any way the logical response is to wonder what the hell is going on. The simple but decidedly unreassuring answer is that History, or what we will later call History, is in top gear. Richard J. Evans in his 1997 book In Defence of History, rebuked postmodernist criticism of history as following a preordained linear time. He points out that history has a tendency to speed up and slow down at various times and that historians realise this and don’t study every day, week, month or year as equally significant to every other. Take an example of a period when history is moving fast as the end of the eighteenth century when the French and American Revolutions took place and traditional understandings of politics and power were turned on their heads, or the 1910s when a particular set of circumstances lead to the outbreak of World War I which completely rearranged the map of Europe and also proved a catalyst to the Russian Revolution and the 1916 Rising here in Ireland.

The assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand led to the outbreak of world war I and the world's maps being redrawn

If we look at History macroscopically the events since the beginning of the Economic crash of 2008 can be taken as one chunk of fast history. However, for those who examine this period in two centuries time, world events as they are happening now will probably be taken as continuing on from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the shifting of global power that took place at that time. I remember as a child seeing images of the Berlin Wall coming down and people crossing from East to West Germany and I remember especially well the day Nelson Mandela was released. Not because as a ten year old I had an idea of the significance of this event, but because my Mother insisted we watch it. At this time I was developing an interest in music and on Sunday Afternoons Ian Dempsey presented the Beatbox on RTE2 where one could be assured of all the U2 and Sinead O’Connor you could handle. However on this particular Sunday The Beatbox was interrupted by footage of the outside of a Prison in South Africa, for a very long time. I have an image of thousands of people standing on either side of a dusty road under a blue sky and a man singing and dancing in front of some of them. I couldn’t get over the terrible cruelty of the apartheid regime that they would keep me from the only music show on Irish terrestrial television with poor timekeeping. A few years later the world was similarly enthralled with the Death of princess Diana but this was hardly an important event in terms of how our world was run. At the time I had an extreme teenage hatred of Monarchy, which has more or less now turned into apathy and sympathy for anybody who would want to watch a royal wedding or funeral.

Four years after this I was in the shower in my parents house when my brother shouted up the stares, ‘A plane is after crashing into one of the towers of the world trade centre and it’s on fire.’ I didn’t believe him at first, it was my day off from the bookshop I worked in and my thoughts were at that time more less obsessed with the upcoming college year and how to get out of my parents house at the next available opportunity. I went down stairs in time to see the second plane crash into the second tower. I don’t think there were many people who the momentousness of this occasion escaped. Like the fall of the Berlin wall or the release of Nelson Mandela it is burned into my mind. Now we are being given multiple new memories to store in a period where events happening far away and remarkably near by that seem apart from us are going to having massive repercussions on our lives.

When we see History being made we would do well to remember why History matters. We live in a rapidly changing world, we live in a time our grandchildren and their grandchildren will study. History sets precedents, it is a vast repository of what has gone before and lessons we can take from events. However these lessons are all too often ignored and politicians and vested interests are always busy shaping the world in their own corrupt image. It is easy to be cynical or, as it is now called postmodern, and decry our own lack of agency. There are forces at work in the world but if History teaches us anything it is that immense change is possible. The world is changing and now is the time for us to have our say. In a Western world where hard won rights are being stolen from us to support a parasitic market system and an Eastern world where old orders are being shaken now more than ever the opportunity exists for ordinary people to speak up and strike the first blow. Sooner or later this time will we be History and every one of us has a duty to be part of it.


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