General Musings Politics

Living Through History

November 8, 2020
a globe on a desk showing parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe

Like most of the world, I’ve been anxiously watching the US Election results for the past week, waiting to see what the outcome would be. It feels like such a monumental moment in history, like so many things that have happened over the past few years, and yet it feels so different too. Because for the first time in a very long time there is hope for so many people who have been trampled on for far too long. And I’ve been struck by just how relieved and elated I feel, even as a non-US citizen, by this result. After years of living through what has felt like humanity’s fall into darkness, there is finally a bright chink of light on the horizon. And as a writer I want to take a few moments to reflect on this, so that when my grandchildren ask me what it was like living through this period of history I can look back and say this is what it felt like.

What do I mean by “living through history”?

You might be wondering why I’ve titled this post “living through history”. Surely that’s what we do each and every day. And it is. But when we learn about history in school it is usually the bigger things that impacted large swathes of people that we are taught, rather than the day-to-day happenings (unless you happen to be a social historian like my sister). I remember learning about both World Wars, at a time when there were still living veterans from the First World War, and I was able to record an interview I did with my own Grandma about what it was like growing up during the Second World War. Incidentally, I think I still have that cassette tape somewhere, I must see if I can find it.

As I grew older and realised how little I knew about history and began to try to rectify that, I also began to wonder what it must have been like to live through things like the Civil Rights Movement or Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is one of the first major news pieces I remember. I was 5 at the time and didn’t understand what was going on, but I could tell it was very significant nonetheless. I also failed to fully understand just why people were so divided over whether Margaret Thatcher was good or bad for our country, because I was too young to grasp the impact her government had on individual lives. And when 9/11 happened, and everything else that followed, I had no context from which to understand it either, and I still feel like I’m trying to wrap my head around the complexities of it all.

None of this is to say that you can’t understand these things from an educated point of view, because you can and it’s really important that we all try to be as informed as possible. But my point is that living through history as it happens brings with it a whole different level of understanding. You experience the uncertainty and fear and pain and anger when things go wrong in a way that you can never fully grasp when looking back at something with hindsight that everything worked out okay in the end. And you experience the absolute joy and relief and elation when, after the darkest moments you could ever imagine, something positive happens. That’s what it feels like to me right now, and that is why I am writing this post.

Learning to use my voice

I’ve been blogging in some capacity or another since 2006, when I was a 22 year old graduate. But it is only since 2015 that I have been writing about the bigger things happening in the world around me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been writing about various health issues for far longer than that, and my support for various charities began in the early 2010s. But the General Election here in the UK in 2015 was a tipping point for me, when I began to realise how important it was to use my voice in whatever way I could, especially when it came to sharing the things I was learning about the state of our world. Because that’s the thing – there is so much I still have to learn, but I cannot stay quiet just because I feel ill-equipped for the battles we may all face ahead. Staying silent on the important matters is not an option, and whilst it is vital that we listen to the experts and those with lived experiences we must also stand up and share the things we are learning with humility and as much grace as we can muster. Sure, we’ll get it wrong from time-to-time, possibly more than we get it right, but a large part of growth is making mistakes and learning from them.

I’m no longer ashamed to admit that there is so much I do not know about so many things. There was a time when I felt like I had to know and understand everything before I spoke up. But all that did was perpetuate the silence that is so deafening to those who desperately want people to stand beside them and fight for justice. Of course, part of using our voice is first listening to those with something to say and amplifying their voices as much, if not more than, our own. When you come from a place of privilege, which we all do in some way, it’s important to recognise that privilege for what it is and refuse to perpetuate the noise that silences the disadvantaged and oppressed. There is a balance to be found between remaining silent and drowning out the voices of others, and it’s one we all need to work on constantly. And for me that means learning to raise my voice wherever I see injustice, by sharing the things I am learning and experiencing, even when that means admitting that I have messed up or was blissfully ignorant for far too long.

The wake-up call(s) I needed

So why did I suddenly start talking and writing about all these things around the year 2015? Why, after years of quietly watching the world pass by did I feel the need to speak up? What brought about the change that must have thrown so many who knew me in my teens and twenties as the quiet, passive type? Well, have you seen the past 5-6 years?

I feel like I’m being a bit unfair, because actually my wake-up call began right back in the financial crisis of 2008. I was just two years out of university, moving in with my then-boyfriend, and struggling to make ends meet. Roll on another 2 years to 2010 and we had a hung Parliament in the UK which led to the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition (which I feel partially responsible for, having voted Lib Dem in that election). Tim and I started our married life at the beginning of the years of Tory Austerity that would deeply damage this country, and a year later we began raising a child in that same system. There was little to no funding for support for young families like ours (for instance, the last time Little Man saw a Health Visitor for an assessment was at 8 months old). I was working 2 jobs at one point in order to make ends meet, whilst raising a toddler, and my husband was working shifts at the hospital. But even at that point I still naively thought we just had to get to the next General Election for things to change. How wrong I was…

I think 2014 was the first point in which I really sat up and thought, “oh shit, what’s happening in the world?” It was the year in which Russia annexed The Crimea, and when the world (myself included) started to wake up to the awful reality of the Syrian Refugee Crisis. And here in the UK we had the Scottish Independence Referendum, signalling just how fractured things were becoming over here. It shouldn’t have taken these things to wake me up, but it did. And suddenly the 2015 General Election felt so much more important to me than any other election I had ever voted in. I had hopes of a change in leadership, an end to the Austerity that was destroying our country, and a hope for more collaborative working. I remember thinking that we’d have another hung parliament, because I had no illusions that the Labour Party would win outright. What I didn’t realise was just how much extra support the Conservative Party had managed to gain. So I stood behind the counter in the shop I worked at the day after the Election watching the results come in with shock and not a small amount of horror. What would the next 5 years bring, and would we survive it?

Of course, now we all know what those 5 years brought with them. In 2016 the Brexit Referendum fractured our nation in never before seen ways. We would go on to have two further General Elections in 2017 and 2019, as a result of the mess that the Brexit vote brought about. 2016 also saw Donald Trump become the president of the United States, bringing with him 4 years of increasingly damaging and problematic situations. There have been investigations into the way social media impacts elections, and allegations cast by both sides. The Labour Party has struggled to come to terms with the antisemitism that has become rife within its midst, we have a Conservative Prime Minister who has repeatedly been openly racist and homophobic, and a government that has caused untold misery to thousands of people through pay freezes and benefit cuts. And that’s all before we get to the year that has been 2020.

2020, the year the stakes flew high

So, now we get to 2020, hey? What can I possibly say about this year that you don’t already know? We’ve had a global pandemic that both the UK and US have responded to appallingly. We’ve just gone into a second lockdown here in England, but just as with the first lockdown we could have gone into it far sooner to protect more lives. We’ve had people refusing to wear masks, even claiming that it isn’t that big of a deal or some kind of hoax. We’ve had to campaign repeatedly for the UK government to extend funding to cover food costs for those children eligible for free school meals during the school holidays (and if you didn’t already know, go check out just how low of an income you need to be eligible for this and then tell me those families don’t deserve all the help they can get). Funding has been given for some employees and businesses, but not all, and it’s small businesses that have been hit the hardest, whilst those with connections to the Conservative Party have been handed huge contracts for things like Track and Trace, which have spectacularly fucked up. Excuse my language, I don’t tend to swear here on the blog, but this year really does deserve it.

Beyond Covid-19 we’ve seen police violence towards Black, Brown, Indigenous, and People of Colour in the US in a way that hasn’t hit the mainstream media before. Let’s be clear here, such violence has been happening for generations, and it happens here in the UK too. It isn’t new, it’s just so many of us are only just waking up to the reality of systemic racism and the part we play in it. The same is true for so many forms of oppression and hatred in our world, including homophobia, transphobia, sexism, islamophobia, antisemitism, ableism… the list goes on. So many of us (and I include myself in this, as always) have been unaware of the many internalised -isms that make up our lives and the way we see the world. I’ve written before about the need to acknowledge our own privilege, which is something I wasn’t even aware just a couple of years ago. You can be oppressed and have privilege at the same time, the two are not exclusive. For instance, as a disabled woman I am disadvantaged compared to my male counterparts or my healthy friends. However as a cis-gendered, white woman, who identifies as a Christian and comes from a family that has financially been able to support her through the hard times, I am hugely privileged compared to so many others. For me 2020 has been hard, but it has been so much harder for so many others.

Documenting the darkness and the light

Which is why I found myself anxiously awaiting the results of the US Elections this week. You may think that as a non-US citizen it shouldn’t affect me this much, but it really has. The world needed some good news after the year we’ve had. And many of us in the UK really needed to see that the tides could turn and that those in power aren’t completely immune to the effects of their actions. Because that is what it has felt like these past 5 years or so. And I wasn’t alone in this. Watching social media these past few days, which took me onto Twitter for the first time in months, I was struck by just how many people around the world were watching and waiting with bated breath. We all knew just how important this election was, and the ramifications go far beyond the US.

So when the news finally broke last night that the Democrats had done it, that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were the President and Vice President Elect, we whooped for joy. Even Little Man was excited with the news, having learned about it at school and watching the updates as they came in along with us. We shared all the wonderful memes and videos of people celebrating across the US, and we took note of the demographics that showed that it was Black votes that swung the election. We cheered along with them that their voices were heard, and we listened with a heavy heart at the news that so many white, particularly white women and white Christians, had voted to keep Donald Trump in power. And we took time to truly reflect on the significance of Kamala Harris being the first woman Vice President, and the first Black, South Asian, biracial Vice President of the United States. This is huge and must not be forgotten.

But, just as we saw when Barack Obama was elected as the first Black President of the United States, this is far from the end of the fight for equality. Let’s never forget that Donald Trump came right after Obama’s time in power. And here in the UK we’ve had 2 female Prime Ministers, but all of our leaders have been white. This is not the end, it is just the beginning. We have so much work left to do, and we must commit ourselves to it. Because, after all, when our grandchildren come and ask us what is was like living through this period in history, do we want to be able to say “it was so different to today” or do we want to be left saying, “well, sadly, not much has changed”?

I know what I hope to be able to say. I want to be able to tell them that life was hard, so hard, but we worked even harder to heal the division that has fractured our society so much. I want to be able to look back at this time and know that we did our absolute best to create a kinder, more equal and fair society for our children and our grandchildren to grow up in. I want to know that even though it took until my 30s to really wake up to the reality of injustice and cruelty in our world, I dedicated the rest of my life to fighting to change that. And I want to look back and know that the US Election of 2020 was the turning point in which the world began to change and we all began to heal.

It’s going to be tough, I’m under no illusions about that. I remember the absolutely gut-wrenching feeling that came with the results of the 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2019 Elections here in the UK and the US. I remember waking up and feeling devastated that the only changes being made were those which were going to cause more havoc on the world in the form of both Brexit and the Trump Administration. And I know that, without a doubt, those who wanted the exact opposite result from the 2020 Election will be feeling just as gutted right now. And my heart truly goes out to them, because nobody deserves to feel that sense of despair. But, when it comes to looking back at history, I truly believe that this will become a moment in time when things shifted. And that, my friends, makes it worth the fight.

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