Today marks the 100th anniversary one of the most important dates in modern European history. On the Monday after Easter in 1916, a group of young heavily-armed men dressed in military uniforms stood outside the front doors of the General Post Office in central Dublin. There, one of their number, a young poet named Podraigh Pearse (the name is often Anglicized as Patrick Pearse), read a document called “The Proclamation of the Irish Republic”. In front of a curious and ever-growing crowd, he called for full and complete independence from British rule, which had existed in Ireland since the Middle Ages. Then, taking up defensive positions within the post office and elsewhere in the city, Pearse and his fellow rebels awaited the inevitable British military response. What happened next has become a core part of Irish history and cultural legend.
In its immediate sense, the Easter Rising was a failure – all of the defensive positions were taken by British forces and the ringleaders were executed. However, it marked a sea change in Irish nationalism. Previous Irish rebellions had been essentially one-offs, flaring up and then being supressed, with many decades of down-time taking place between each independence attempt. In one circumstance, a whole century went by without any hostilities. However, after 1916, many Irish now made a concerted effort to drive the British out of Ireland for good. This resulted in the rebellion which finally culminated in Irish independence in 1922. I’m certain that the 100th anniversary of Irish independence in 2022 will result in massive celebrations seen throughout the country.
Since the Easter Rising of 1916 is clearly seen by many as the initial spark that led to Ireland becoming free after nearly 800 years of British rule, the 100th anniversary of this event is being marked with great celebration within Ireland itself and amongst Irish populations elsewhere. PBS has regularly been airing programs about this event, a play was created commemorating it, and Irish and British news media have been crackling with item pieces on this event and how it has effected modern Anglo-Irish politics. Both the Easter Rising and its anniversary are important historical and cultural milestones, especially for the people of the British Isles, and I’m happy to see that there has been a lot of conscious media attention on it.
I wish that I could say that there was more, especially in the United States, where the mainstream media don’t seem all that interested in such things. I remember that the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 2013 received minimal media attention. The 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War in 2015 received hardly any attention at all, and the 250th anniversary of the passing of the Stamp Act of 1765, also in 2015, which many people see as one of the defining moments in the move towards American independence from Britain, received absolutely NO RECOGNITION WHATSOEVER! To a historian like myself, this is nothing short of deliberate historical and cultural extermination, a detestable process in which the hallmarks of people’s history are ignored or discarded in favor of other things which we are brainwashed into thinking are more important. The reason for this is disturbingly simple – nobody in the US really gives a damn about such things anymore. In today’s fast-paced tech-obsessed reality TV-obsessed society, things like history are seen as boring and irrelevant. I once worked with someone who hated history because, in her words, “it’s of no use to me now”. I can’t stand it when people have this mindset of “if it doesn’t benefit me personally, I don’t need it”. In a way, I can understand this way of thinking. Really, are all of those names and dates really important to your normal day-to-day affairs? Probably not. However, as the old saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. When people lose sight of their own cultural heritage, it makes it all the easier for them to be manipulated and molded by those who are in power, either at home or abroad. I’ve been seeing this for years with the emergence of so-called “sheeple”.
In Europe, including Britain and Ireland, history is a living breathing thing. It’s a palatable thing in the air and earth. In America, I don’t see this. I see people who are only concerned with the present and the future, and give little to no thought about the past. No wonder that college and university history programs are dying all across this country. No wonder that having a history degree is considered useless when looking for a job. What will happen in 2025 when America has the 250th anniversary of the beginning of the Revolutionary War? Or in 2041 with the 100th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Sure, there will probably be a handful of quick news items on it, and maybe a few special edition magazines seen on news stands, but aside from that, I dare say that these upcoming important anniversaries will be acknowledged by a collective shrug. People in the US will take a quick note of this, say something like “Oh, that’s interesting”, and then move on to what they were doing before and give no thought to it for the rest of the day.
For me, this is sad. I place great value on history and historical memory. I’m sure a lot of other people in the United States do too, but for the most part, I don’t see it. I see people who are losing sight of their historical heritage more and more with every passing year. Is it any wonder why we’ve been seeing platitude-spouting demagogues taking center stage in American politics? When history is forgotten, history can get twisted around to suit other people’s ends. American historical memory is being constantly re-written so that people here imagine that things played out differently than they actually did. Incorrect facts are being constantly touted as cold hard truth. Historical characters are cast in exclusive good/bad, black/white relationships to each other with no gray area in between. TV channels, such as “The History Channel” of all things, have replaced informative programming with, well let’s be frank, bullshit. The History Channel, which by the way is no longer called that, is now dominated with programs on aliens, rednecks, Alaska, the Bible, doomsday, and Nostra-fucking-damus.
I look at all of this for what it is – the gradual eroding of history, the altering of historical memory, and by extension the manipulation of culture. In Europe, history is alive and well. In America, it’s dying.