Good Witnesses

As the end of the semester comes up, I am reflecting on what the role of witnesses are in the grand scheme of history. It seems to me that there are many different ways to be observers of history without even knowing it. Of course, there are plenty of people who seem to have awareness of the gravity of things around them. However, this is often the role of the radicals. People like Eamonn McCann, Huey Newton, Daniel Berrigan, and others know the importance of the situation at hand. They would not be taking such serious action if they believed it was not a historic moment. Revolutionaries certainly seem to ascribe to Lenin’s, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” The question is whether or not this sentiment is shared with the general public. The critical factor for remembering these events is that many of these “radicals” are the ones writing about it, at least in popular history. Did the rest of the population actually see the late 60s as a time of historic importance the same way the radicals did? Truthfully, I don’t think we can answer that question with any confidence. When asked if the late 60s were significant, almost everyone who experienced them said that they were and that they knew it. However, this is probably largely influenced by their memories changing based on what the narrative was. Someone who watched the riots at the DNC on TV is going to say it was a big deal to them at the time, but how much is that simply what they are supposed to remember? Do we truly understand the significance of what is going on right now in 2020? I don’t think so, mainly because our memories of this year 30 years from now are not going to be the same as our experiences. How can we be good witnesses if we are told what to remember?

4 Replies to “Good Witnesses”

  1. In my personal opinion, I don’t think we can truly understand the gravity and importance of the time we live in until there is some reflection, no matter how long. That being said, I think everyone can agree that this pandemic has been a unique, historical era, and I agree. However, for each unique event that has occurred, each day where another daily record is broken, there cannot be a declaration of historical importance without truly understanding and taking into account the context overall. That is true of “normal” times when we are not in a pandemic, but even more true of these trying times when every single day seems significant. I think as witnesses that we all are, we should remember this when considering what transpires each day.

  2. What makes a year significant? Usually when we talk about the significance of a year, we think of the big events that happened that year. In 1968 this would be the protests and violence around the world. In 2020 this could be the COVID pandemic, the BLM movement, or the US presidential election. But how much influence do these events really have on the general public? We saw in Vinen that in fact conservative protests were the ones that had the most participants. There was also a conservative backlash after 68′, which rendered 68′ pretty much a failure in many people’s opinion. If 1968 did not cause a historically significant turn, is it still significant as a year?

    I think yes. Even though the protests may not have made as much impact as intended, the mere presence of such widespread and intense emotions makes 1968 significant. It was the year that long-term systematic oppression was exposed and articulated, in an explosive manner not seen in many years, and that is significant. Even though the vast majority of people may not think 68′ was significant in their lives, the few that do should qualify the year as significant, because it was truly different from other years.

  3. I love your perspective on this moment in time and I think you grasp the situation incredibly well. I think that you are right, we do not realize the historical significance of this moment, and this year in history because we are living through it, it is simply the present and what we are living through. I do believe that our use of social media will give us insight into our lives and the feelings of the world at this time and will be invaluable for those looking back and considering this period in history.

  4. Do you think, though, that due to technological change the way we look back at history will be different in the future? What I mean by that is now we have a technological footprint and access to the public’s opinions on current events based on their posts on different social media. While I am sure there will be literature about 2020 that people will focus on, they will also have a better view of diverse perspectives because of internet archives. Perhaps instead of just studying presidential speeches, students will be studying Facebook and Twitter posts as well. We will have access to our own internet history as well and we will be able to see what our perspectives were at the time. How will the way we talk about history change due to this?
    It is hard to understand the significance of 2020 right now because we aren’t able to see into the future and see the effects it will have. Yet, due to the movements being had and history being made with different things such as the highest participation in a presidential election in history and the first African American, South Asian, and female Vice President being elected, I think people are more than aware of how important 2020 has been.

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