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ANALYSIS | How historic was 2011?

12/29/2011 07:12 EST | Updated 02/28/2012 05:12 EST

You know it's an unusual year when Time magazine's coveted Person of the Year award goes not to one individual, but to millions of people — "the protesters" who took to the streets in 2011 and dominated news coverage.

It was arguably the most unconventional choice Time has made since its 2006 selection of an undifferentiated "you" as the year's leading newsmaker.

That award was in recognition of the growing importance of social media, and the years since have demonstrated that Time's editors made a prescient call. Facebook has grown to more than 800 million users, and Twitter has become a potent political force.

How big a role social media played in the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement, not to mention the Greek and Spanish protests and the anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia, is still the subject of some debate.

But, clearly, without "you" on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, the protesters of 2011 would not have brought out the numbers or commanded the attention that they did.

But will Time's decision this year seem equally astute five or 10 years from now?

Will those protesters succeed in bringing about real, transformative change, what Kurt Andersen described in his Time magazine essay as "an epochal turn of history's wheel."

That's the tricky part about looking back at a year from the perspective of late December. You just never know how things will turn out, or even how the year itself will stack up against other notable years (see sidebar).

At first glance, it would be hard to argue against the proposition that based on the sheer volume of big stories, from the Arab Spring to Japan's tsunami and the killing of Osama bin Laden, 2011 was one extraordinary year.

But what if we look more closely?

Sorry, Canada

Let's start with our own country.

A federal election resulted in a majority Conservative government, the near-death of the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois, and the elevation of the NDP to Official Opposition status for the first time. This would be followed a few months later by the sudden death of the party's popular leader, Jack Layton.

The year also saw our combat mission in Afghanistan end, our leading technology company hit the skids and a young, newly married royal couple come to visit.

There were also three big hockey-related stories: riots after the Stanley Cup finals in Vancouver, the return of the NHL to Winnipeg, and growing concerns about what's happening to the battered brains of hockey players, especially fighters.

These were big stories that devoured considerable ink and airtime, but in terms of historic significance, 2011 was no 1970 (October crisis), or 1980 or 1995 (Quebec referendums) or even 1967 (Centennial Year, Expo '67).

The word "historic" was heard often on election night, May 2, mind you. But seven months later, the jury is still out.

In his book, Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership and the Making of Canada, published in 2002, political strategist John Duffy argued that truly historic elections must meet three criteria: they must involve a close fight between strong competitors, revolve around some "nation-shaking question," and represent a milestone in the development of our political process.

Duffy concluded that only five elections in our history qualify as "great," the last one being the free trade election of 1988. The 2011 election met none of these criteria. Its only real claim to historical fame was the supplanting of the Liberals by the NDP as the government-in-waiting. But it will likely take another election or two before we know if that was a blip, or a true game changer.

Sorry Canada, you generated lots of noise in 2011, but not much that turned history's wheel.

World on the streets

The rest of the world was a different story.

Let's begin with those protesters. From the Arab street to the streets (and city parks) of Europe, Russia and much of North America, they were everywhere in 2011.

Their presence helped topple four dictators (in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen) as well as the leaders of four European countries (Ireland, Spain, Greece and Italy), and left a bunch of others reeling.

In short, they reconfigured the world in ways that seemed unimaginable 12 months ago, and they put the issue of economic inequality on the political map to a degree not seen since the 1930s.

Add in one of the greatest natural disasters of all time — and a near-nuclear meltdown in Japan — as well as the debilitating financial crisis in Europe, the death of the world's most wanted man and North Korea's Kim Jong-il, and, oh yes, a royal wedding.

Whew!

1848 and 1989

But how does 2011stack up among the great historic years?

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman declared that 2011 belongs on a list with only two other years in modern history, 1989 and 1848.

The pace of change in 1989 was indeed dizzying. Within the space of just a few months, communist regimes in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania crumbled, and so too did the Berlin Wall, effectively ending the Cold War.

By comparison, this year's upheavals in the Middle East seem positively modest.

But in his Time essay, Kurt Andersen looks at 1989, and concludes that 2011 was "more extraordinary, more global, more democratic, since in '89 the regime disintegrations were all the result of a single disintegration at headquarters, one big switch pulled in Moscow that cut off power throughout the whole system."

The events in the Arab world were of a different quality altogether, and also considerably more dangerous for those taking part.

Spring of Nations

There was no master switch behind the wave of protest that swept through most of Europe and even parts of Latin America in 1848.

The so-called Spring of Nations was an extraordinary, uncoordinated challenge to ruling elites that was fuelled by the emergence of ideas about nationalism, democracy, liberalism and socialism.

The revolts began in Sicily in January and spread to France a month later, where the constitutional monarchy of King Louis Phillipe was replaced by the Second French Republic under Louis-Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.

But by 1852, the monarchy was back. Louis-Napoleon crowned himself Emperor Napoleon III, and the democratic dream of 1848 was crushed, not just in France, but throughout Europe.

Indeed, apart from the abolition of serfdom in Austria and Hungary, it is hard to point to a single concrete achievement in any of the countries involved in the Spring of Nations.

Except, of course, liberal democracy did eventually come to Europe. The forces of reaction may have triumphed in the short term in the years following 1848, but the revolts set the stage for important changes to come.

And that's a critical lesson for ultimately evaluating the significance of 2011. At year's end, repression continues in Syria, the Egyptian army remains in the catbird seat, the fate of Libya is a big question mark, and the Occupiers are no longer occupying public spaces.

Many of the gains realized by 2011's people of the year could still be reversed, but then the setbacks may only be temporary. Epochal turns of history's wheels are rarely accomplished in 365 days. But once those wheels start rolling, they are very hard to stop.

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