Projecting Liberalism Backwards…

An article in the Economist, objecting to the Alt-Right’s appropriation of medieval history, implies that European societies were multicultural…

Academics are placing a new emphasis on the ways in which medieval societies differed from the homogeneous world imagined by the alt-right. Art historians document the appearances of dark-skinned migrants in northern Europe to show that medieval populations, if not quite as mobile as today, were still pretty mobile.

“Not quite as mobile”? “Still pretty mobile”? What cowardly qualifiers. How many “dark-skinned migrants” do you think there were in northern Europe? A handful of traders. A few diplomats. A smattering of sailors from the East India Company. Who else? This is in no way comparable to modern trends in migration and completely irrelevant to the questions that we face.

What is ironic is that this article on the alt-right’s appropriation of history is symptomatic of th more widespread, influential progressive appropriation of the past. While left-wingers often attempt to demonise the past some commentators try to project liberalism backwards; to suggest, perhaps, that it is natural and traditional.

There is nothing wrong with being interested in the multicultural aspects of European history, which existed and are interesting. What I object to is the endemic exaggeration their significance as a means of normalising the exceptional, unprecedented changes we are now experiencing. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, for example, promoting her book Exotic England in 2015,  started by insisting that St George “had skin as brown as mine”. Given that his parents are generally agreed to have been Greek I rather doubt that this was true.

Alibhai-Brown recounted the strange and interesting intersections of “Western” and “Eastern” history (with, one sighingly notes, scant references to war and slavery) before finishing with the claim…

England stirs and is trying to redefine itself. It is defensive, jingoistic, Ukippy. But, this nation has always been vibrant, curious, receptive and open. It cannot now turn inwards and monocultural.

Britain could leave the EU, end all immigration and insist that Chinese and Indian restaurants serve boiled chicken, mushy peas and Yorkshire pudding and it would still be far more multicultural than it has been for all but a few years of its history. This is a completely disingenuous conclusion.

History is always seen through tinted sunglasses. Yet ransacking the past to find justification for your views tends to result in obscurantist propaganda, whether it is from a liberal or a white nationalist.

Advertisements

About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
This entry was posted in History, Ideology, Liberalism, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Projecting Liberalism Backwards…

  1. cwsexton16 says:

    A younger relative was doing a History course a couple of years ago and the main textbook was A History of World Societies (https://www.amazon.com/History-World-Societies-John-McKay/dp/0230394361) which is this big, heavy encyclopedia-like overview of world history that they use an intro for GCSE, A Level and some foundation courses. I was leafing through it curiously and a couple of things stood out. One was the introduction, where the authors were at pains to assert that race was a social construct. I thought that was a bit of an odd and funny non sequitur for a history textbook. I mean, sure, I could see how the subject might be considered relevant, in the bigger picture, to WORLD history, but to have it up front in the introduction, and with such a clear, confident judgment on one side of a question that surely belongs to scientists rather than historians, struck me as absurd.

    Then as I continued reading I noticed a pattern emerging. The book seemed to have an explicit thesis which was being pushed in every chapter: namely, that what we call globalisation is a process that has been underway since the beginning of human history. The world has always been growing gradually more connected, integrated, united: new economic and political ties being forged all the time, the commerce between the Babylonian city states and north Africa, the Greeks taking their ships out around the Mediterranean, the Viking mercenaries going off to fight in Byzantium and so on. To which I could only think, “Yeah, sure, no argument from me.” It’s actually impressive and a little surprising just how mobile some people were during the High Middle Ages, for example. Harald Hardrada certainly seemed to get about before he attempted his invasion of England.

    But it seemed obvious to me that the authors, in their enthusiasm to ram their point down the reader’s throat, were suffering from a terrible and convenient lack of relative context. Every non-Christian society and civilization was a beacon of liberal, progressive values, if you believe them. Whether it was, say, Muslim Spain, or Timbuktu, or Tenochtitlan, it was always “a thriving commercial centre”, “liberal”, “tolerant”, “a technological marvel”, “a centre of science and learning”, “multicultural”. A young impressionable reader would honestly get the idea that these places were all Manhattan. And sure, to be charitable to the authors you know what they mean: relative to the time and place. But they ought to exercise caution when applying their very modern terms of Liberal approval on medieval city states: and they don’t exercise that caution because it suits their agenda.

    Sure, if you take the long, long view – the God’s eye perspective – then “globalisation” is probably the permanent condition of human life on earth. But from that God’s eye view I’d be very surprised if the picture hadn’t seemed to start moving an awful lot faster, like someone had pressed fast forward on a giant remote, around the middle of the 20th Century. And now a lot of people are saying, or thinking, “woah, not so fast”. And that’s fair, and understandable.

    Like

    • bsixsmith says:

      Splendid comment. Thank you. Yes, globalisation is a fact of life but its scale is another matter.

      Like

      • spottedtoad says:

        The BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects was similar- using real objects and real events to focus on global connection and similarity across societies at all costs. I learned a lot from the series, but they weighed the scales so far in the direction of endorsing our current globalist order as the inevitable outcome of history rather than a largely fortunate and surprising result of particular developments in particular parts of the world.

        Like

  2. Asteri says:

    Immigration into England had always been almost entirely from Europe until the 20th century. Flemish weavers, Huguenots, Eastern European Jews, Germans, Italians, Russian emigres, Poles and Cypriots (to name a few). An interesting history now lost in the obsession with racial-diversity stemming from post-1948, mass immigration, from the empire.

    Its called “the soft bigotry of low expectations”, a middle class, leftist, trait, where non-white minorities need to be constantly coddled, made to feel included and have their self-esteem boosted, even with revisionist history. i.e “the only roman emperor to die in England was african” and Ancient Egypt was a ‘black civilisation’.

    And yes, block head, white nationalists get all worked up about St. George and the flag as being the embodiment of Englishness even though neither has anything to do with England.

    Like

    • Mook says:

      Septimus Severus and Constantius 1 both died in Britain…both at York as it goes. I wish I just happened to know this. Fact is: I do just happen to know this but only because I read it in a leaflet I happened to pick up while I had a coffee and a fag at Weatherby services on Sunday…the wife won’t let me smoke in the car.

      Like

    • bsixsmith says:

      Certainly the most pathetic event of the century was Richard Spencer and Roland Martin arguing about whether the Ancient Egyptians were white or black.

      Like

  3. Whyaxye says:

    What do these people make of Whig historiography? This is an odd species of atemporal liberalism, and one wonders whether they can be termed “progressives” if they don’t have a strong sense of their views and ideas being the result of, erm, progress.

    Mind you, such views are extremely useful for those who like to raise banners for the still-born cause of reparations. If a liberal, multicultural attitude could be accessed at any point since 1215 or so, then that makes slave traders so much more guilty than we previously thought. I’m so shamed, my hand is already reaching for the cheque book…

    Happy New Year, by the way, and thanks again for these thought-provoking and insightful posts.

    Like

    • Simon says:

      When I first saw that Economist article, my first thought went something like “Whigs gonna Whig History”.

      Then there’s the fact that Thomas Jefferson, Maximilien Robespierre and Benito Mussolini all admired Greco-Roman antiquity and each saw themselves as the embodiment of its classical virtues. Everyone gets the idyllic past their own ideology requires…

      Like

    • Mook says:

      I’m always puzzled by this. There’s a Guardian trope which posits the Middle Ages as a period of progressive and colour blind tolerance based on the occasional presence of an Ottoman ambassador or trader or a single example of a woman engaged in a traditionally male dominated occupation. Feudal serfdom for the majority, murderous antisemitism, treatment of women as chattels and a willingness to fuck everything in order to travel half way around the world to kill Muslims are artfully body swerved. It’s a historiography founded on exceptions and outliers.
      You are right. It’s hard to know where ‘progressives’ find the strength to go on knowing that it’s been downhill all the way from the 16th Century in terms of social liberation.

      There is of course another theory. That which sees a golden age precisely up to the point at which white men decided to invent racism and misogyny as tools to further their mission to despoil the planet and oppress the flower children. If only MTV had been making videos 600 years ago.

      Like

    • bsixsmith says:

      Happy New Year! Thank you for the kind words and the always interesting comments.

      Like

  4. Mook says:

    Best example I saw was Joseph Harker, during one of his old Black History Month pieces, claiming Britain had been pacified and ruled by a ‘black man’ based on the exploits of the emperor Septimus Severus…son of a colonist living in Leptis Magna. He has yet to opine on the guilt or otherwise of Oscar Pretorius who, by the same logic is also black. I’m sure he went on to claim Pushkin as a literary genius of the black diaspora.
    I’m always equally astounded by the efforts of BBC drama who will often spend thousands on recreating authentic period settings then it turns out the local 17th century rural doctor is a black guy. I don’t mind them casting a black actor…especially if they’re any good but if the overall aim is verisimilitude, why go to such lengths to strive for authenticity elsewhere.

    Like

  5. Pete says:

    Art historians document the appearances of dark-skinned migrants in northern Europe to show that medieval populations, if not quite as mobile as today, were still pretty mobile.

    Is it not just saying that southern Europeans made it to northern Europe quite a bit, even in medieval times?

    Like

    • bsixsmith says:

      Nice to see you back Pete! Hope that all is well. To renew my tradition of picking your brain on all things MMA can Ronda salvage something if she leaves Edmund or is she finished?

      It might be, though I took dark-skinned to refer to Asia and Africa, but I think the wording is disingenuous inasmuch as it seeks to make a comparison – even a loose one – with modern trends when they are (I think) evidently incomparable. No one claims medieval societies were completely homogenous. Just much more so. Granted that is not in itself a compelling argument but it is true.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Pete says:

        Cheers Ben. All is as good good here, and your blog and twitter timeline suggest you’re thriving, so good news.

        At the risk of being a bit cute, homogeneity as conceived here did not appear to lead to greater social harmony. Quite the reverse. But that’s obviously because homogeneity itself was conceived of pretty differently at a time when Europe was constantly at war with itself and travel was so much slower. I think it’s incomparability all the way down – it’s basically meaningless to say that society is now having its homogeneity messed with on an unprecedented scale.

        I also take a little bit of issue with the implicit “plague on both your houses” of your article, though. Breitbart style medieval “history” isn’t really history at all, whereas most of the historical scholarship that emphasises women, minorities etc. just seems to me to be putting the idea that history is written by the victors to the service of liberalism.

        On Rousey: technically, I think the sky would be the limit for Rousey if she was at a camp that could build on that base. She’s a great athlete, punches hard, and has a sprint grappling game that’s really well adapted to MMA. Nunes will always be a horrible match-up for her, though.

        Anyway, she probably won’t leave Taverdyan, and there appear to be psychological reasons for that which make you wonder how many of the other camps she actually could work with if she wanted to.

        Like

      • bsixsmith says:

        At the risk of being a bit cute, homogeneity as conceived here did not appear to lead to greater social harmony.

        Heh. Fair point. In fact, I would argue that Europe, and its different societies, have always been multicultural in the sense that different regions have had cultural differences. That is why ethnonationalism is, ironically, as much preposterous because it’s too inclusive as because it’s too exclusive. Community has always been local.

        But there were majority cultures. (Often controversial, of course, such as when Catholics and Protestants were slaughtering each other but that doesn’t make me much more optimistic about prospects for societal harmony anywhere.)

        Breitbart style medieval “history” isn’t really history at all, whereas most of the historical scholarship that emphasises women, minorities etc. just seems to me to be putting the idea that history is written by the victors to the service of liberalism.

        It is, but I think that phrase forgives too much. It is incumbent on the victors to attempt to be objective. (I think lots of British and American scholars work hard to expose Allied war crimes in World War 2, for example.) And victories can be ephemeral.

        Anyway, she probably won’t leave Taverdyan…

        It’s really sad. The guy is an appalling conman.

        Like

      • Pete says:

        But there were majority cultures. (Often controversial, of course, such as when Catholics and Protestants were slaughtering each other but that doesn’t make me much more optimistic about prospects for societal harmony anywhere.)

        The conclusion I draw is that cultural homogeneity may be a bit of a red herring if we’re interested in societal harmony.

        It is, but I think that phrase forgives too much. It is incumbent on the victors to attempt to be objective. (I think lots of British and American scholars work hard to expose Allied war crimes in World War 2, for example.) And victories can be ephemeral.

        I think I rather mangled my argument here. My idea was that “history is written by a bunch of rich white guys” immediately looks value-laden, but it’s really just a restatement of the truism that history is written by the victors. So there are presumably historical accounts that have been systemically under-reported and it therefore seems likely that you can develop a more objective account of history by looking for them. This is why I don’t see a problem if historians want to try and challenge received historical wisdom about minorities, whiteness etc (well, that and I’m basically sympathetic to the agenda). Obviously there’s a lot of twaddle out there, and the good work will often be appropriated and distorted by people with silly agendas, but I don’t think the project is wrong per se.

        It’s really sad. The guy is an appalling conman.

        I can’t remember who it was who said that there seems to be some strange Svengali thing going on with him and Ronda, but it does seem uncomfortably close to the truth.

        Like

      • bsixsmith says:

        The conclusion I draw is that cultural homogeneity may be a bit of a red herring if we’re interested in societal harmony.

        Homogeneity, yes, but commonalities are an important feature of social trust.

        I think I rather mangled my argument here.

        Ah, right, I misread you. Well, sure, I don’t mind people unearthing obscure history. What I object to is giving it unmerited significance. How pervasive that is, granted, I am not sure.

        I can’t remember who it was who said that there seems to be some strange Svengali thing going on with him and Ronda, but it does seem uncomfortably close to the truth.

        Indeed. If only Ronda had listened to her mum. I remember thinking “where did that come from” but how right she was.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s