history & humiliation

I had an interesting discussion last week about what blogs are about – the context was a challenge about writing about historical issues on my blog (‘losing a baby’). My challenger stated that blogs must be about contemporary matters, not that which is in the past.

I think that she is wrong. The first online definition of a blog that I came across was this: “a personal website or web page on which an individual records opinions, links to other sites, etc. on a regular basis.” The contemporary nature of a blog’s content is unimportant (googling ‘ancient history blogs’ returns 64.4million results!)

However this made me think about whether we can really separate the historical from the contemporary. On the face of it the distinction is simple for those of us who aren’t professional historians; now is now, yesterday is immediate history, last year, last decade, are contemporary history, and then we move into the realms of that which happened before we were born, before our parents were born, and before our grandparents were born. At that point we lose any living connection with the past and to me that seems to become another category altogether.

Today’s BBC news headlines three stories; the introduction of strict controls relating to electronic devices taken onto airplanes, the massive defeat of Brazil by Germany in last night’s World Cup semi final, and the appointment of Lady Butler Sloss to head the newly announced inquiry into the involvement of public bodies in 1980s sex abuse. each of these stories is ‘contemporary’ insofar as being reported by the BBC today. Each is inextricably connected with historical events.

Most obviously the inquiry into sexual abuse alleged to have taken place in the 1980s is historical. However the alleged abusers are not all dead, and it is entirely possible that some are still in public life and in positions of power. It seems equally likely that most of the victims are alive and leading apparently normal lives. Both alleged abusers and victims probably have families who are unaware of the alleged events of the 1980s. Shining a light on the historical events has the capacity to create massive disruption spreading far beyond the individuals immediately concerned. This if course is why the Establishment is alleged to have effectively covered up any possibility of scandal in the past. I have already written about those who dismiss the abusive events of the past as being ‘long ago’, with their assumption that events from decades past no longer affect lives today. Fear of humiliation has enabled silence to be maintained for so long – humiliation for the victims not only because of what they have endured, but also because of how they will be treated if they speak out, and humiliation for men in positions of power if their disgraceful behaviour comes to light.

The US very recently announced that passengers taking mobile phones, tablets etc onto planes entering the US from a variety of countries (including the UK) must ensure that they are charged sufficiently to be turned on when requested by security staff. Passengers unable to comply would be required to leave their phones behind. The UK government has gone one step further today, saying that the edict will apply to all passengers flying in and out of UK airports. Moreover several airlines, including BA, have said that an inability  to turn a phone on will not only result in the phone being confiscated, but the passenger will be stopped from boarding the flight. The reason for this, of course, is intelligence that suggests Muslim extremists  may be developing capability of making bombs that can be hidden inside phones. All of this is directly related to one historical event – September 11th 2001. Before 9/11 it was possible to travel by air without too much hassle. Since then it has become increasingly uncomfortable and stressful. Personally I have avoided flying as much as possible since then, holidaying in mainland Europe using trains or trains and car. Happily the ferries and Eurostar/tunnel have resisted introducing measures that on a rational statistical basis cannot be justified. Clearly it would be a tragedy, and a big  victory for terrorist groups, if a jumbo jet was blown up, carrying possibly 600 passengers. However, I think one has to ask whether the disruption for the hundreds of millions of passengers who fly each year (the BA/ Iberia group alone carries 67 million) is reasonable. The terrorists have been extraordinarily effective in causing disruption and misery across the world by making air travel so difficult. The impact on businesses through time lost at airports as one has to arrive ever earlier before flight departure must be significant. I think that a great deal of the backlash against terrorism has been led by the Americans, who feel humiliated by the events of 9/11. They are outraged, of course, but also humiliated that a handful of men with limited resources can strike at the heart of the most powerful democracy in the world – a nation that likes to think of itself as uniquely chosen and blessed by God.

Lastly, Brazil. Nothing could possibly have prepared Brazil for last night. Host nation of a so far universally acclaimed World Cup, playing in the semi finals, favourites to lift the trophy. A proud footballing nation that is the most successful footballing country in the world. It has won the World Cup more times than any other country, it has produced numerous famous star players, football is in its blood. Last night 200 million Brazilians watched in disbelief as the Germans dismantled the opposition so effectively that there really was no opposition. Four goals in six minutes, a final score of 7-1. The final goal (for Brazil, by Oscar) only happened because Neuer uncharacteristically switched off in the last five minutes. I have never seen football like it, and never seen anything like the scenes that followed. The Brazilian team were inconsolable, openly weeping despite the cameras trained on them. I actually found this disturbing, like filming grieving relatives. Before I am challenged with ‘this was only a football match’ it is worth noting that the Brazilian president sent a letter to the injured Neymar, that Angela Merkel is friends with some of the German players and an avid football fan. The impact on the Brazilian nation is unimaginable – apparently when Brazil lost in the final of 1950 to Uruguay the nation was in virtual mourning and viewed it as a disaster similar to an earthquake. Again history links the present and the past – losing 7-1 is catastrophic for any football team, but in the context of Brazil’s glorious footballing history the impact is magnified many fold. You had to look no further than the images relayed by the television cameras to register the extent of the humiliation that the players were experiencing, and again this extends to some degree to the nation.

So I think that history has a firm place in blogs, certainly in my blog. Today’s events only make sense in the context of what has gone before. Each individual’s behaviour is a complex composite of developmental events. The humiliation that runs like a thread through today’s three stories is often magnified by historical events.

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