Mark Steel: It's not about great men, but those who put them there

Millions now believe that their actions can change the world

Share
Related Topics

The most common view of history is that it's created by the personalities of a handful of important figures. So world events can be explained by the fact that Churchill was strong, or Henry VIII wanted a divorce, or Napoleon had a complex about being short; as if an era of revolution and war was a result of him stretching in his kitchen, grumbling: "I can't reach the top shelf. I know, I'll invade Italy, that'll sort that out."

Or that the English Civil War happened because Charles I was weak, and Parliament would have been put in its rightful place if only he'd called on Supernanny, who would quickly have taught him to set Oliver Cromwell firm boundaries, and issue punishments he was prepared to follow through, such as sitting the New Model Army on the naughty step.

One of the flaws in this approach is that it can't explain how the same leaders can appear strong, but then suddenly seem pathetically weak. For example, four years ago the commanders of the Project for the New American Century seemed invincible. They'd had their invasion, won a second election and it felt as if Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were sat on a settee flicking through travel brochures, trying to decide where to obliterate next, with Wolfowitz peering over Bush's shoulder to say: "Iran looks nice," while Richard Perle would add: "Then if all goes well we can have an extra short-break family weekend bombing Syria."

Now they're all discredited and disgraced, to the extent that the next time we see Donald Rumsfeld he'll probably be making his comeback on Celebrity Big Brother playing blind man's buff with Kerry Katona. George Bush will be presenting a late night phone-in quiz show on ITV, and Dick Cheney will commit suicide after discovering no one picked him out as the ex-Vice-President in the line-up on Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

But this transformation, culminating in the election of a President who made a virtue out of not supporting the war, can't just be due to a sudden collapse in self-esteem among the warmongers. Maybe it's a result of an entirely different atmosphere, created by millions of tiny invaluable actions by countless people.

From mass marches to letters in local papers, poetry nights against the war to statements from soldiers and their relatives, a feeling has been created globally that means anyone associated with the war in Iraq has been damaged beyond repair.

But for those who are old enough to remember the civil rights movement, Barack Obama's election must be even more extraordinary. Malcolm X wrote that one of the moments that shaped him was when he told his teacher he wanted to be a lawyer, and was told he was being ridiculous because: "No nigger can become a lawyer." If he was still around he'd probably regret not saying: "Alright then, I'll have to take my second choice and become President."

Just as it seemed at times that the anti-war protests were having no effect, there must have been times in the Sixties when to imagine there would ever be an end to segregation seemed hopelessly utopian. But it happened, not just because of a strong or charismatic leader, but because millions of people, with tiny and apparently futile actions, defied that logic.

Maybe that's why, in a reversal of most American elections, the poorer and blacker that people were, the more enthusiasm they crackled with as they queued to vote. Those who see history as conducted by a handful of the powerful are obsessed now with the actions of Obama himself. But just as important is the excitement and vigour created by the millions who now believe, at least a little bit, that their actions can change the world.

For the final battle in the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln insisted the slave-dealing town of Charleston was occupied by a black regiment. Lincoln marched alongside the black soldiers, and it was reported that a freed slave knelt before him to give his thanks, to which Lincoln replied: "No. You must stand up. Your days of kneeling are over."

Similarly, it's the actions of those who are usually denied a place in history that have made this week possible, and they should recognise their potential, whatever sort of President Obama turns out to be.

ASSUMING McCAIN HAS WON...

Right. Who's got the telephone number for the President of North Korea? We've got to persuade him to nuke the place.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss