When we look back and try to figure out what just happened in this amazing year, we can't avoid the past.
If any year had a history, it was 2011. The year of revolutions – the very word tears us away from the minutiae of daily life and puts us in touch with the powerful concept that gave the United States its independence, overthrew France's ancient regime and brought down the Soviet empire.
Figures as diverse as Indian corruption-fighter Anna Hazare, Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi find common cause in the revolutionary idea: The old leaders have lost touch with the people and society has to be liberated by a different kind of thinking.
When we live through an epoch-making year, or simply watch it via YouTube, we can't help but interpret it th
rough the bits and pieces of history that crowd our mind. The past is always going to be a prelude to the present.
So history matters now. But not because we're supposed to learn from it like dutiful students and avoid the bloody mistakes of the past – yes to democratic reforms, no to reigns of terror. Rather, we use history as an analogue, our best route to understanding something that by its very nature challenges our settled modes of behaviour.
And the problem with the historical analogues we carry around with us – because history isn't a single moral lesson but rather a chaotic universe of clashing ideas – is that they just as easily scramble the inquisitive brain as set it straight.
The idea of revolution is central to contemporary consumer culture: Personal transformation has become immediately accessible through the latest innovation from Apple or Nike, and modernity is about moving on in perpetual progress, not getting stuck in an outmoded past. When we experience revolutions, we can't help but bring this consumer restlessness into play: Change is good, necessary, attractive.
This is the 2011 we wanted to see: Ideas of freedom that had seemed impossible were suddenly on the point of realization.
It was as if the Just Do It approach to life were all that it took. The best sides of human nature, those triumphs of hopes and dreams against all odds epitomized by rare leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, were on display everywhere as old empires began faltering one after another.
If we seek a philosophical grounding for this modern impulse, it's supplied by the Enlightenment thinkers who paved the way for our faith in human progress: Breaking free of narrow-minded, all-controlling authority is what people are meant to do if they want to be happy and free.
It sounded good on paper. It looked good in the American War of Independence, the Enlightenment-sponsored movement that created a country dedicated to the twinning of liberty and happiness, free of all-powerful kings and all-knowing clerics. Then came the seismic change in France, where outmoded aristocrats and priests were slaughtered in the service of an idea, and suddenly the spirit of transformation seemed newly dangerous. The British writer and politician Edmund Burke, a self-declared enemy of oppressors, looked at France with fear: What he saw wasn't the linear progress of Enlightenment thinkers but a bloody-minded chaos that he damned with the word revolution.
The uncertainty about revolution and its claims was now in play, and conservatism found the human examples to justify its devotion to old orders and established authorities – revolutions by their very nature led to murderous strongmen like Lenin and Mao.
You might not like Hosni Mubarak, we're told, but history suggests that the alternative will be so much worse. In consumer-culture terms: The relentless pursuit of new stuff is bound to be dissatisfying and dehumanizing. You can't buy liberty and happiness at the mall and you can't create it wholesale in the streets and squares.
This ambivalence about revolution is constantly at play in 2011, whatever our nobler instincts tell us. How does history inform our perception of the Arab Spring? The name itself conjures up the liberalizing Prague Spring of 1968 when Czechoslovakia's reformists tried to loosen themselves from the grip of hard-line communists and their Moscow overlords. So at the level of historical branding and revolutionary pedigree, it's a good thing – hopeful, optimistic, idealistic but also fragile (Russian tanks eventually crushed Prague's outburst of innocence) and in need of protection from the bad guys if the revolution is going to take root and flourish.
The revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, then, are youthful, well-intentioned innocents, congregating in non-violent marches much like the American civil-rights campaigners in the 1960s. Through their leaders (figures like Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim, who used his social-media savvy to organize demonstrations in Cairo), the protesters look modern, educated, middle-class and unthreatening. “People like us” are in revolt – how could we not be sympathetic and admiring?
But this view glosses over the protesters and organizers who don't quite fit the 1968 historical parallel, the Islamists who long resisted authoritarians like Hosni Mubarak and now have a leadership role that could distort our understanding of the social-media revolution.
This is a challenge to the Western view of revolutions as strictly secular affairs, but there are analogues.
Pope John Paul II sustained a defiance against the overwhelming forces of Russian communism that inspired liberal Polish revolutionaries. Similarly, in East Germany, the Protestant churches that were heirs to a long tradition of snubbing authority became a centre for dissident gatherings. Democracy advocates in Egypt were making common cause with younger and more progressive members of the Muslim Brotherhood for years before the Arab Spring. Apparently, they didn't get the message that religion was the enemy of liberty.
Or more likely, they knew the revolution couldn't succeed without the active involvement of Brotherhood members: Since they connect with a considerable portion of the population, any democracy movement worth its name has to go through them. And now, like the American founding fathers, both groups will be forced to confront the role of religion head-on in their constitution-building, with whatever real-world consequences that entails.
If you're a Burke follower, this is where you reject the comforts of Prague Spring optimism and point to a harsher lesson from the revolutionary past: the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, another popular uprising against a pro-Western tyrant, yet one that gave way to a medieval theocracy with what pessimists would call historical inevitability.
But it's not good enough to depend on Burke's view of France and accept that revolutions are synonymous with debased mob rule. As historian Simon Schama has pointed out, aristocratic defectors like Lafayette played a key role in overthrowing the monarchy in France, and the hollowed-out reign of Louis XVI has numerous counterparts in the modern world. Leaders don't leave on their own. They're pushed out by former friends and colleagues.
For those who like their revolutionary causation to be quick and direct – the Berlin Wall falls, end of story – history is a distraction. The sudden, spontaneous side of change can't be denied, not when Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation incited Tunisian protests or the revelation that a dead girl's phone had been hacked finally persuaded Britons to stare down Rupert Murdoch's arrogant empire.
But a revolution's time frame needs to be extended far beyond the momentary present to make complete sense. Consider Anna Hazare, whose hunger strikes have galvanized support among the emerging Indian middle class: He's been challenging the way things are supposed to get done in India for decades, honing his skills in tumbledown villages before patiently making his way to the now-receptive multitudes in Delhi.
The Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, a veteran of the protests that brought down Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, has been meeting for years with opposition movements around the world that are fighting for his brand of non-violent regime change. Some look to have succeeded, as in Egypt. Others are very much a work-in-progress, as in Burma, Zimbabwe and Iran. But he's proof, for those who need it, that revolutions are long in coming and depend on disciplined preparation no matter what their untidy outcome.
Before Occupy Wall Street set the new standard for demonstrated discontent, there was Barack Obama. His capacity for believable change is due to be retested in 2012, an election that has the potential to put the political forces of right and left in much starker relief than they've been for years. Which makes proto-revolutionaries on this complacent continent wonder: Why was it so much easier in 2011 to admire far-off revolutions while treating the Occupy movement as a ragtag seasonal sit-in that inconvenienced dog-walkers?
Perhaps it's actually an encouraging sign that things aren't so bad when we can't be bothered to summon the mass anger of 1968, let alone the vengeful bloodlust of 1789. Or else maybe 2011 wasn't 1968, our last, best attempt at bucking the system. Maybe it's the year before, the goofy and self-conscious summer of love, when the coming chaos was still a small-time conspiracy.
Europe is falling apart and facing brutal austerity measures to go with huge youth unemployment. Republicans in the United States are blocking the president of the idealistic young while parading candidates who are trying to outdo each other in fundamentalist purity. Conservatives in Canada are lording it over leaderless opposition parties, savouring their majority swagger even though they represent an aging minority of eligible voters.
You've seen the dress rehearsal in 2011. Now it's time to get ready for opening night.
John Allemang is a senior feature writer for the Globe and Mail.