Kenan Malik attempts to dissect romantic notions of solidified cultures that hold peoples together. He contends that the idea of an “unchanging spirit of a people” is an unnatural counter-Enlightenment one embraced by conservative nationalists and left-wing multiculturalists. These deny, he states, the human “capacity for change, for progress, and for the creation of universal moral and political forms through reason and dialogue”. It’s a thoughtful essay that’s provoked a fair few thoughts within me so I might return to it again. For the moment, though, here’s a curmudgeonly observation. I believe it’s true that people have such a capacity. For all that we search for a single, coherent notion of “Britishness”, for example, it boggles the mind to think of all the cultural changes people of these Isles have undergone: their history encompassing ages of tribes, shires and nations; feudal kingdoms and parliamentary democracies; Druidism, Catholicism and Protestantism; Romans, Saxons, Normans and Hanoverians et cetera ad nauseum. Peoples have changed beyond recognition and unless governments attempted to go the whole sakoku they’re bound to go on changing by, in part, influencing eachother through our unprecedentedly powerful means of transport and communication.
But I sometimes feel that liberal universalists observe that our identities have been mutable and assume that these transformations can be nigh-on instantaneous. This, in fact, is true of people of many orientations. That something has taken place somewhere in history is held as reason to believe that it might take place here – and by Christmas! So, the fact that we moved from witch hunts to women’s suffrage, say, is evidence that parochial nationalists might be infused with cheerful cosmopolitanism. This inspires the thought of someone claiming that as the human form is also mutable we shouldn’t be surprised if we grow an extra limb. Our societies can progress – somewhat – through reason, dialogue and, indeed, blind chance but everything I know about the course of history suggests this is a process that emerges over years, decades and generations as patterns of thought and behaviour evolve – and, especially when it’s premature, it’s often associated with a lot of conflict. Common experiences and the loyalties, ideas, achievements and grudges bound up with them may not be eternal but neither are they swiftly forgotten or – perhaps more vitally, the latter excepted – replaced. Which, I ‘spose, is one reason why gazing across Europe turns up quite a lot of resentment and disorientation and all too little reason, dialogue and, yeah, progress.