Tag Archives: Liberal Democracy

The Constancy of the Modern

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If we can learn anything from history, it is that our story has always been acted out and subsequently recorded by people, not unlike us. Each successive generation has done their part to immortalise their greatest tales through stories, both oral and written, into the collective memory of society. As time has passed, each generation of historians has endeavoured to best tell these stories of their predecessors in a way which their own generation can well understand. To the historians of the Renaissance, the millennium immediately proceeding their own time quickly gained the pejorative name the Dark Ages, while its architecture was equally appallingly disparaged as Gothic.

To the Renaissance and subsequent Enlightenment historians, the time to hearken back to with all glory was that of Classical Antiquity, of Greece and Rome. The intervening millennium in between the Fall of Rome in 476 CE and the rebirth of classical learning in the Italian city-states in the late fifteenth century was merely a setback in the onward march of human progress. It was a setback defined by religious fervour and superstition, when science was equated to wizardry and the light of literacy confined to only a select class of clerics and aristocrats.

Each generation of historians has strived to understand the past both in the light of their own times and in the understanding of how those in the past understood themselves. Yet for the analytical nature of the study of history in our present scientifically-centred age to be properly propped up, contemporary historians must continue to classify and divide history into particular periods, places, and categories. Political history must remain distinct from cultural history and social history, while the aforementioned Renaissance must somehow be understood as different from the Medieval period that came before it.

What is most striking is the division of the discipline into broad spans of time, particularly concerning European history. One has a choice of diving deep into the past with Ancient history, a concentration primarily focused upon the Mediterranean world from the earliest communities to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE. Or perhaps one would prefer to study Medieval History, focusing on Europe during the ten centuries between the aforementioned fall of the Western Roman Empire and the eventual fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453.

Or, if that does not suit one’s fancy, one could try one’s hand at Early Modern History, covering the period of time between the turn of the sixteenth century to the French Revolution. While modern, this period still has its fair share of the medieval about it to make it more remote. Then there are the modernists, those whose focus is squarely on recent European history, the stuff that has happened since the fall of the Ancien Régime in 1792 and the rise of modern European liberal democracy through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

What this model of understanding European history is founded on is the old Renaissance understanding that Europe will always be dominated by the legacy of Rome; therefore all European history must be understood in relation to the glories of the Roman Empire. The medieval is a giant leap backwards in the ruins of the once great imperial edifice, while the rise of modernity marks the return of European society to its former Roman glory. The other thing that this model is focused on is we modern man. Since it was first devised in the seventeenth century, this understanding of history has always held modernity as the pinnacle of human achievement, at least to that point.

The term modern itself comes from the Late Latin modernus, an adjectival modification of the Classical Latin adverb modo, meaning “just now.” Modernus in turn developed into the Middle French moderne by the fourteenth century, indicating that something similar to our understanding of the present time as modern was in use as early as what we would now call the Late Middle Ages. True, to my generation devices like the digital tablet, electric car, or the ability to make videocalls are decidedly modern, our grandparents could equally have said the same fifty years ago for the television, jet airplane, and IBM 7080 computer were equally modern to their own time. Likewise for our great-grandparents the very idea of a subway, car, or airplane on its own was incredibly modern.

The way I see it, the term modern is the hour hand on the clock of time; it is the pointer that marks where we are on the cycle that is human history. Just as Edward III was a modern monarch for his own time so too Elizabeth II is for ours. Likewise, while Geoffrey Chaucer may well have been seen as a modern writer for his day and age, working into the late hours of the night in his rooms within the edifice of London’s Aldgate, so too someone like me is all too modern for my own time. Though I write so often about the past, and do my best to draw connections between what has been and what is present, I cannot help but understand the people, places, and things that have already come and gone through the lens of my own times, of my modernity.

Therefore to define ourselves as modern is not to make us anymore unique than our predecessors. Rather, to do so we not only continue on the legacies of their respective modernities, and write our own story, always utilising this most constant of chronological labels.

“We care for our own kind.”

IsolationismWith a rise in nationalism worldwide, we have also seen a rise in isolationism from both the extreme right and extreme left. In my view, nationalism and isolationism are blood brothers, and will always go hand-in-hand. In fact, the only way in which an isolationist nationalist government would ever consider interacting with its neighbours would be either through coercion or full force of arms. This is the world that was seemingly far better known in a time now past, a time when it was far more likely for the likes of Germany, France, and Britain to go to war with each other rather than sit around the negotiating table and work out their differences peacefully. Today, in Western Europe and North America we have known this sort of negotiated peace since 1945. It is a peace that has led to my father and I never having had to go to war, unlike the generations before us.

While the political structure established in the wake of the Second World War and expanded with the fall of the communist states in Eastern Europe, has led to unforeseen stability, prosperity, and international goodwill amongst its participants, the trials of the 2000s and 2010s have shaken that stability to its core. From the War on Terror launched by the United States in response to the Attacks of September 11th to the Great Recession, faith in liberal democracy and in capitalism are at an all time low.

I can’t blame those who do not trust the current political and economic systems, after all at least economically capitalism is structured to benefit most those with the most capital, leaving the rest to try and catch up. But when catching up to the wealthy is increasingly nigh impossible, it is understandable that some would be left dissatisfied with the system.

There is one effect of all this pain and negativity being felt around the world that can only have disastrous consequences for us all. I was reminded recently of an old saying, “We take care of our own kind” that one might have heard in generations past. With this comes the idea that we should stick to the social, political, religious, and ethnic groups to which we belong, that I as a middle class Irish American Catholic Democrat should not have anything to do with anyone who is not like me.

This is isolationism in its purest form, isolationism not on a national level but on a local house-by-house level. It means that I should sever all ties with my best friends, who are from Bulgaria, Finland, Venezuela, and Ecuador. It means that my neighbourhood, which is pretty well mixed between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews ought to be sorted out, and that each of us be given our own couple of streets to live on. It means that as a Democrat I should stay as far away from any Republicans, and that we should keep to ourselves so as to ensure we do not step on each other’s toes and cause any trouble.

I’ll be frank; I can’t possibly do any of that. I respect, admire, and in a way love my friends too much to send them packing, and my neighbourhood is better off because of its religious diversity. Furthermore, having seen the divisiveness of the 2016 election, I know all to well that if we Democrats do not talk with our Republican relatives, friends, and neighbours that we will not be able to heal the wounds of division that have wrecked our country so horribly.

But considering those words, “We take care of our own kind,” I am left thinking even more; and you know what, I think I can actually agree with this. It’s best to only care for people like you; it’s best to only be friends with people like yourself. The most optimal way to live one’s life is to solely live it with likeminded people around. After all, that way there won’t be nearly as much conflict within social groups. So yes, I’ll take care of my own kind, after all I’m human, and it is my duty as a human to care for the rest of humanity.

Isolation, and its bedfellow nationalism, serve no real purpose, and in the end are self-cannibalising; because isolationists forget that we do share that one common bond, our humanity, through which we can never fully cast each other asunder. So, let’s take better care of each other and get over that idea that our differences are bigger than what brings us together.