Leo McGarry, the fictitious White House chief of staff from The West Wing, observed in the episode Five Votes Down, “There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ’em: laws and sausages.” For some reason this quote popped into my head recently, as I was travelling to work and happened to catch a glimpse of the front page of the Metro. I don’t remember what the headline was. It could have been referring to any number of stories that are dominating the news cycle at the moment: the American Presidential election; Brexit; ISIS; the migrant crisis; Syria. Regardless of how I feel about any one of these stories (one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter; one woman’s sexual predator is another woman’s saviour – apparently) I got the feeling that, at the moment, the making of history has become visible.
History is made every day and it is as much a process as an event. It’s in the history of small things and the accumulation of the every day that historians can, with hindsight, piece together the stories of the past, providing a narrative, or more accurately, narratives of what went before and how we ended up where we are now. The people whose present became our past, passed through the every day, so enfolded and enmeshed in the various events, and in the immediacy of their own lives, that history is usually formed unseen. But sometimes there are events so dramatic that they push through the fabric of the present and we become aware of their significance, not just for us but also for the future.
Looking back at the past gives you, with the privilege of hindsight, a bird’s eye view that allows a bigger picture to emerge, but it also hides the grim and gritty reality of the everyday. The trend in recent years for historical recreation programming is still healthily alive if the latest BBC offering, The Victorian Slum, is anything to go by, and while these programmes can be jolly good fun and poignantly revealing, they cannot truly recreate the smelly, noisy, hungry, dangerous and painful reality. Nor should they, because if they did, several centuries of progress, supposedly embodied in legislation and changed social attitudes (hello Health and Safety laws and several anti-discrimination acts), would disappear in a puff of a nineteenth-century coal fires smoke (cue redtop headline: Child forced up chimney for BBC-funded entertainment shock!!)
But right now, it’s not a bird’s eye view we have, it’s that of the worm and with it comes a grim and gritty reality that we can’t avoid. Not only is history being made, but we are witnessing a regression, when old conflicts open up, old attitudes reappear and old ideas are resurgent; reconfigured, but still resurgent.
The results of these events are still unknown. We have no idea what the outcome of the vote by 52 per cent of the British population to leave the European Union will be; if Hillary Clinton will become the first female American President or Donald J. Trump will become one of the most ill qualified. I don’t know when or if we will see peace in Syria; if ISIS will be defeated or will strengthen; if the thousands of displaced men, women and children will ever feel safe enough to return to their homeland, or find peace and acceptance in a new country. For millions of people, their every day has changed forever with the loss of their home, their family and country. For millions more, the consequences of their actions, of exactly in which box they choose place a simple cross, has and will change their future. The accumulation of small things is coinciding with the massive shifts in the geo-politics of nations. In each of these events, history is being visibly made; and like the making of laws and sausages, it ain’t pretty.