As a historian and a follower of momentous political changes, I happen to think that President Obama did a pretty deft job in his public reactions, at least as far we know now, dancing on the shifting sands of the people-powered uprising and revolution in Egypt, over the recent 18 days from January 25th to Feb. 11th. However, there was an item in his prepared remarks after the resignation of Mubarak, on Feb. 11th, which was completely stupid and misleading, setting a very bad example for any young people who may have been trying to learn something from the occasion.
The President really should have known better than to make the silly statement he made; for charity’s sake, I will assume that this was a case of an unimaginative speech writer just trying to get something out quickly (and I’ve been in that position enough times in my business writing career).
In opening his remarks, Mr. Obama voiced the following words “There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. This is one of those moments. This is one of those times (source here).”
This idea that history only takes place at certain specific moments is a big part of a false world view, propagated in millions of old and new sources, that helps keep the average American (and every global citizen) stupid and powerless. “History is not about You!,” this false world view shouts. “History is only about kings and queens and powerful politicians. History is serious stuff, and it’s not for you, and it only happens at certain times when we say so!”
Well, I for one am here to say that’s not how life works, that’s not the way it is. And the Egyptian uprising is one of the best proofs that History is indeed about every one of us, it’s about every one of our seconds and minutes in real time in our real lives as ordinary inhabitants of this marvelously spinning globe we find ourselves living on. History is not just Hosni Mubarak, finally realizing after sundown local time on Friday February 11th that he needed to no longer be the President of Egypt.
History is, and must be, all about all the lives of all the 80 million-plus Egyptian people, every day over the last three decades, all of their thoughts and experiences, all the sights and sounds they experienced, all their joys and sorrows and indifferences, and how the totality of those experiences were present on the evening of January 24th, creating a mood which most palpably existed in the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people even though on Jan. 24th it had not yet expressed itself in any tangible “political events” that outside reporters might have latched onto and written about. History was taking place that afternoon and evening of Jan. 24th, no less than it was 24 hours later on Jan. 25th when the mood of the Egyptian people did express itself in tangible events that could be reported, and every single one of the thoughts and actions of every one of the Egyptian people over the next 18 days made its small but vital contribution to the outcome that finally occurred on Feb. 11th, when Hosni Mubarak resigned the Presidency.
Now if Obama’s hurried speech writer had said something like, “there are very few moments in our lives when we have the privilege of witnessing Sudden Large Changes in Historical Patterns Which Are Immediately Obvious as Big Significant Changes,” I might be a bit more inclined to go along with that – yet again, President Obama’s own life and our recent times show that this is still an exaggeration that misleads us about the nature of History. And Obama of all people, should know that the choices of average citizens are crucial to the results of History.
Just to tick off a few of the Sudden Large Changes that have occurred to all of us over the recent years, there were the Republican gains in the 2010 elections, when tens of millions of average citizens in 2008 failed to turn out in 2010. These Republican Party gains were also aided by the moral travesty of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, which may have been the revenge of the politically-biased Supreme Court faction for the election of President Obama in November 2008, which was based on Obama’s remarkable success in enlisting the average intelligent citizen to his cause. As Obama should know, his ability to accomplish this was indirectly fueled by the disaster of the Iraqi insurgency of 2004-6, which of course arose from the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. That American invasion was sold to Americans as a response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which almost certainly were the result of George Bush and Condi Rice ignoring the many warnings of this coming attack, and that incompetent administration was only in place because of the Supreme Court’s intervention and dubious decision in awarding the 2000 Presidential elections to Bush instead of Gore. As time goes by, the things that we thought were Sudden Large Changes in the 1990’s are looking a bit less meaningful, yet nevertheless these kind of sudden, highly visible and obviously momentous happenings that we think of as History are not, and never have been, “very few” moments in our lives, as President Obama’s harried speech writer would have us believe.
History is the story of us – all of us. Like any good story, it often works better as a convincing narrative if it is skillfully edited and condensed and presented by a creative storyteller. But even the dull bits of your ordinary life are part of the story – they are influencing your life, your ideas, your choices and your future actions. Even if you really are the dullest, most apathetic, disconnected, unmotivated consumer, your consumer choices are affecting our cultural and economic history, and your bad example is motivating someone else to take actions that will have an effect.
I’ll get off my hobby horse now, and let us both get back to work, if you’d like to hear more about how History really is the story of all human beings and what that means for each of us, I’ve got the condensed version of that story here. As long as you understand: History is not some big rare thing that happens to someone else, that we can witness History every moment of every day if our eyes and ears are open (even if we don’t always understand what we’re seeing and hearing), and President Obama, of all people, should know better than to repeat some speech writer’s prattle about the “few moments” of “history taking place.”
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