Every December, my colleagues ask, “Helen. Who do you fancy for Crikey Person of the Year?” and every December, I fail to answer my colleagues with anything but “no one” or “Malala, if I must”. This is due far less to a lack of team spirit than it is to a lack of belief in the power of persons to transform a year.
If we do not count the fact of my generally disagreeable nature, this is for two disagreeable reasons.
First, every year-end list demands already recognisable honourees. My view here is that the honouree generally has become recognisable precisely because they do not threaten to transform much at all. We diners get only what is already on the menu.
There has been, of course, one ongoing exception: Malala. Yousafzai became recognisable, loved and a darling of year-end lists before anyone thought that a woman from Pakistan might be cross enough about all the drones she’d seen land on her fellows to ask Obama to quit ordering them. Even after this, she still managed to get away with attending Marxist conferences, denouncing global poverty and Australian refugee policy and not appear like the genuinely transformative force she is.
Although now 21, Yousafzai is depicted still by Western media as adorably helpless or “The Bravest Girl in the World”. That this Muslim woman who needs no saving doesn’t slap anyone is to her credit, and it is to my unending amazement that anything Yousafzai says that is negative about the West or anything Yousafzai does to end Western economic dominance is routinely overlooked. May Western paternalism long admit this “girl” to its lists of honourees; she is the rare voice who speaks outside what Chomsky called the “bounds of the expressible”.
Second, the idea that social evolution of 2018 or any other year could be meaningfully ascribed to this television star, that bureaucrat or such-and-such a journalist makes about as much sense as ascribing evolution itself to a supreme being. Even a quiet rebellion of the Yousafzai sort only becomes possible through history — a fact, I’d wager, to which the young scholar herself would attest.
The “Great Man”, or, more lately, “Great Woman”, view of history is pants. Yes, there may be individuals who embody their time. In her use of trauma as her defining characteristic, Hannah Gadsby is one such woman suitable to an age in which the truly heroic are those, unlike Malala, who define individuality in terms of offences against it.
A person, such as a king or a political leader or a stand-up comedian who tells no jokes, may be said to embody some part of an era. But, they cannot be said to create it. History is not a matter of individual personal feats of greatness, nor is it simply “one damn thing after another”. History has a mechanism bigger than people and more complex than mere chance. History, in great part, is a matter of ensuring our means for material survival.
The historiography of the present, which informs the year-end list, is peculiar to me. As the world and its methods of organisation become more complex, our popular Western view of the individual becomes more devout. If we are not looking for technocrats, commissioners and TV stars to save us, we are shrugging and attributing power to history itself, as though we had no say in it. It’s just one damn thing after another and we need the inspiration of a star or a “good” politician to save us.
The idea that history befalls us and is written by fate, God or Great Women and Men is, in my view, pessimistic. The idea that we hold the power in our hands to transform it is not. We need not wait for inspiring words about surviving trauma or the election of apparently decent people and, certainly, we should not have faith that such people could transform the political economies that an “adorable” “girl” like Malala critiques.
If we’re not permitted the answers “Malala” or “no one” for inclusion in our 2018 year-end lists, then we must return to those speaking of history beyond expressible bounds.
In 2018, Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance organised some of the largest demonstrations for Aboriginal self-determination in the past 230 years. This group of people elaborating the language of the Black Power movement and indigeneity struggles worldwide get a gong. As do the Yellow Vests, who are not, as described in Murdoch press, a group of climate denialists but a mobilisation of ordinary working people showing the world that Macron cannot “make the planet great again” with his accelerated program of neoliberalism. As do the women of the Fight for 15 campaigns in the US who did not give their names or their moving stories of trauma when they walked out of McDonald’s restaurants in the name of Me Too.
These people with names we will never know will not be elevated to politics and will not have Netflix specials are the ones to remember in 2018.