Every generation has its nostalgia. Some of them have their year. For the boomers it’s the summer of ’67. For Bryan Adams it was the summer of ’69. For people born between 1965 and 1980, I will bet the summer of 1999 is that special summer. It was near the end of the long boom of the 1990s, and the United States of America was the hyperpower. We hadn’t gotten mired in wars, and terrorism seemed like a nuisance.
Just spent some time with a friend. He lives in a safe neighborhood, so I asked if there were any kids for his kids (they’re young) to play with. Apparently not really.
In this country today we have problems with racial and wealth inequality. There are huge debates about how we address these issues. And they don’t seem like they are going away any time soon.
But huge numbers of Americans adults grew up on the mean streets of the 1980s. We know there is a solution to childhood social isolation, because many of us grew up playing on streets, rather than being shepherded on ‘play dates.’ This is also an issue which most people agree on as a problem. We can solve this.
Some right-wing intellectuals are wont to say that multicultural and multiracial empires do not last. This is not true. Historically there are plenty which lasted for quite a long time. Rome, Byzantium, and the Ottomans, to name just a few of the longest. But, though they were diverse polities modern liberal democratic sensibilities would have been offended by them. That is because these empires were ordered and centered around a hegemonic culture, with other cultures accepted and tolerated on the condition of submission and subordination.
The Ottoman example is the most stark because it was formally explicit under the millet system by the end of its history, though it naturally evolved out of Islamic conceptions of the roles of dhimmis under Muslim hegemony. For 500 years the Ottomans ruled a multicultural empire. Yes, it decayed and collapsed, but 500 years is a good run.
I bring up the Ottoman example because I was having a discussion with a friend of mine, an academic, and he brought up the idea that the seeming immiseration of the middle to lower classes in developed societies will lead to redistributive economic policies. Both of us agree that immiseration seems on the horizon, and that no contemporary political movement has a good response. But I pointed out that traditionally redistributive socialism seems most successful in relatively homogeneous societies, and the United States is not that. American society is diverse. Descriptively multicultural. There would be another likely solution.
Eleven years ago Amartya Sen wrote a piece for The New Republic which could never get published in the journal today, The Uses and Abuses of Multiculturalism. In it he looked dimly upon the emergence of plural monoculturalism. Today plural monoculturalism is the dominant ideal of the identity politics Left, with cultural appropriation in vogue, and separatism reminiscent of the 1970s starting to come back into fashion. Against plural monoculturalism he contrasted genuine multiculturalism. I think a better word for it is cosmopolitanism.
The Ottoman ruling elite was Sunni Muslim, but it was cosmopolitan. The Sultan himself often had a Christian mother, while during the apex of the empire the shock troops were janissary forces drawn from the dhimmi peoples of the Balkans. This was a common feature of the Islamic, and before them Byzantine and Roman empires. The ruling elites exhibited a common ethos, but their origins were variegated.
Many of the Byzantine emperors were not from ethnic Greek Chalcedonian Christian backgrounds (before the loss of the Anatolian territories many were of Armenian, and therefore non-Chalcedonian, origin). But the culture they assimilated to, and promoted, as the core identity of the empire was Greek-speaking and Chalcedonian, with a self-conscious connection to ancient Rome. I can give similar examples from South Asia or China. Diverse peoples can be bound together in a sociopolitical order, but it is invariably one of domination, subordination, and specialization.
But subordinate peoples had their own hierarchies, and these hierarchies interacted with the Ottoman Sultan in an almost feudal fashion. Toleration for the folkways of these subordinate populations was a given, so long as they paid their tax and were sufficiently submissive. The leaders of the subordinate populations had their own power, albeit under the penumbra of the ruling class, which espoused the hegemonic ethos.
How does any of this apply to today? Perhaps this time it’s different, but it seems implausible to me that our multicultural future is going to involve equality between the different peoples. Rather, there will be accommodation and understandings. Much of the population will be subject to immiseration of subsistence but not flourishing. They may have some universal basic income, but they will be lack the dignity of work. Identity, religious and otherwise, will become necessary opiums of the people. The people will have their tribunes, who represent their interests, and give them the illusion or semi-reality of a modicum agency.
The tribunes, who will represent classical ethno-cultural blocs recognizable to us today, will deal with a supra-national global patriciate. Like the Ottoman elite it will not necessarily be ethnically homogeneous. There will be aspects of meritocracy to it, but it will be narrow, delimited, and see itself self-consciously above and beyond local identities and concerns. The patriciate itself may be divided. But their common dynamic will be that they will be supra-national, mobile, and economically liberated as opposed to dependent.
Of course democracy will continue. Augustus claimed he revived the Roman Republic. The tiny city-state of Constantinople in the 15th century claimed it was the Roman Empire. And so on. Outward forms and niceties may be maintained, but death of the nation-state at the hands of identity politics and late stage capitalism will usher in the era of oligarchic multinationalism.
I could be wrong. I hope I am.
In Peter Turchin’s work modeling human historical dynamics he introduces the idea of a “meta-ethnic” identity. Quite often this is synonymous with a world religion. These identities emerged in the last few years as human polities scaled so large as to expand beyond tribal-national boundaries.
These sorts of dynamics are clear when we think about the Crusades, the defense against the Ottomans in the 17th century, or the Iberian “division” of the world between Castile and Portugal. Common ties of civilization and identity allow for ingroup cohesion, as well as heightening hostilities against outgroups.
Of course there many exceptions. When reading The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean I recall being struck by how southern Italian city-states like Amalfi opportunistically allied with Muslim pirates against other Christian powers. Similarly, during the Battle of Vienna Protestant Hungarians marched with the Ottomans against the broader Christian alliance which came to the aid of the Habsburgs.
These are two instances which show short term self-interest or necessity driving choices of group coalitions. Amalfi, like later Italian city-states, found it in their interest to do business with Muslims, even if it was to the detriment of their co-religionists. This did not mean they were no longer Christians. But in many instances they put that identity aside for their own gains. In the case of the Protestant Hungarians there’s was an alliance of necessity.
As recounted in Divided by the Faith the decades leading up to the Battle of Vienna the Hungarians experienced a concerted campaign of conversion and persecution of the part of the Habsburg monarchy in concert withe Roman Catholic Church. The Habsburg’s Austrian lands were brought back fully into Catholicism, as was most of Imperial Hungary. It is no coincidence that Hungarian Reformed Protestantism was strong in the east, which had been under Ottoman influence. The arrival of an expansive Austrian monarchy was an existential threat for them.
The flip side are cases where groups with the same civilizational identity engage in wars over resources or boundaries. The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea would certainly fit into this mold, and to some extent the Great War in the Congo which has flared for two decades now.
This sort of dynamic has been used to argue that Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is not a useful framework. But on the contrary what Turchin and colleagues have shown is that over the long run civilizational fissures tend to result in the most vicious and dehumanizing wars.
In Norse mythology Loki is a trickster frost giant who also plays a god. His relationship to the Aesir is complicated, but at the end of days when the world is nearing its final hours he is fated to stand against his erstwhile companions. I do not know much about the Marvel comics adaptation of Loki, though I have seen the films, and this element of alternating between good and evil is evident onscreen.
Does the fact that Loki is destined to stand against Odin negate all their experiences together? Is the full measure of a life the final act? I don’t think so.
Today we live in an age when he center is not holding. Politics and public life are polarizing. Apocalyptic language is in the air. Barack Obama was a socialist, a Communist, a Muslim. Now Donald J. Trump is the worst, thing, ever. And so on. There are two teams, and if you do not choose a team, you have lost the game before it is played. My pessimism about the possibility for a reinvigoration of a broadly liberal democratic order are for another post.
Recently my friend Heather Mac Donald wrote about her experience with protesters at Claremont McKenna. Her description of the student body’s hysterics are almost anodyne in how predictable they behaved. Rather, I was struck by how much invective Heather directed toward the silent faculty:
…Those professors also maintain that to challenge that claim of ubiquitous bigotry is to engage in “hate speech,” and that such speech is tantamount to a physical assault on minorities and females. As such, it can rightly be suppressed and punished. To those faculty, I am indeed a fascist, and a white supremacist, with the attendant loss of communication rights.
Of course not all faculty have abandoned classical liberal ideals. Nicholas Christakis and Alice Dreger are by any definition progressive liberals, but also adhere stridently to ideals of freedom of thought and speech. But both have been subject to abuse and personal attacks. They clearly fight on not because they are assured of victory, but because they believe in the justness of their cause.
Many of my liberal friends express some exasperation that I identify as conservative. But the fact of the matter is that the far Left writes off much of this country, and many of my friends, and arguably me, as a white supremacist and a fascist. Ours are not thoughts worth having in the eyes of the heirs of repressive tolerance. My liberal friends, being broad minded an of a tolerant bent, do not have sympathy with repression of thought. But at the end of the days when sides are taken what side will they choose?
I think here of an academic who is jaded and contemptuous of the infantile antics of the campus Left. He is worried that their provocations will result in the academy being targeted by the political Right. He does not relish conflict. Like me, he wants to be left alone to explore the topics which interest him. We share a mutual interest in evolutionary genetics. But, when and if the fight comes he does admit he must march with his colleagues, no matter how loony, and defend his side.
We both wish the world were not this polarized. But what we wish is not always what is. But until Ragnarok we can continue to drink beer and fight our battles shoulder to shoulder as friends. Neither of us want the Ragnarok of this liberal democratic republic to come, and I still hope it doesn’t. But we both understand that on that day we’ll be on different sides. And I’m OK with that. Life is not perfect, we do the best we can.
Addendum: Cool trailer:
Sometimes the old gods slowly fade into oblivion. Contrary to popular perception this seems likely the case for ancient paganism. The conversion of Constantine to the Christian religion began the process of a hand-off and the commanding heights of classical culture that took over a century to complete. There were punctuating moments, such as the apostasy of Julian in the 360s, or the mostly symbolic ban on public paganism by Theodosius in the 390s (the Serapeum was destroyed by a vigilante mob). But pagans in the form of the Neoplatonic school persisted into the 6th century, while elite pagans such as Marcellinus maintained power and influence deep into the second half of the 5th century.
Call this “normal” cultural evolution. Antiquity evolved from being predominantly pagan to predominantly Christian (though a small cultured pagan minority persisted even until the Islamic conquest in the Near East, such as the Sabians of Haran).
The Reformation period was different. In a single generation one thousand years of a coherent and unified Western Christian ideology collapsed, and was replaced by something very different.
Note here that I said Western Christian ideology. The reality is that Western Christianity was never as unified or coherent as Western Christians themselves envisaged themselves to be (or aspired to be). There were episodes of hostility between particular kingdoms and the Roman papacy. Heresies such as that of the Cathars, and popular revolts with a religious tinge such as that of the Hussites. And finally, there were periods of multiple popes, which undermined the credibility of the institution of the Church in the medieval period.
But all this pales next to the magnitude and scope of the revolt against the establishment of the Western Christian church that occurred in the 1520s. Martin Luther went from being a Christian cleric within the established Church to declaring the pope the anti-Christian! Previously devout peasants in Switzerland turned on the relics and churches which they had only recently venerated, and engaged in mob iconoclasm. Whereas monarchs, such as Henry IV, ultimately compromised with the clerical estate (or, submitted), Henry VIII of England managed to destroy or subordinate the institutions of the church to his own will and pleasure.
There are many theories for why the Reformation occurred when it did. Some of them are rooted in technology, in particular the printing press. Others point to the development of proto-national identities, such as the rise of German nationalism and its leveraging by Luther against his “Roman” persecutors.
These specific issues are not interesting to me. Rather, what they point out to us that there can be cultural revolutions that occur very rapidly. One can point to the pacific post-World War II Japanese, and contrast them with the militaristic Japanese of the first half of the 20th century. Or the shift of Russia from being a conservative autocracy in the 1910s to a revolutionary society in the 1920s. But these are modern events, and moderns are liable to suggest that our own epoch is sui generis in these sorts of turnovers of values. But the Reformation shows that revolutionary changes in whole societies can occur rather rapidly even in a pre-modern context.
In other words, cultural revolution is not a derived characteristic of our species, but perhaps a very old one. The rapid expansion of the Austronesians. Or the radiation of non-African humanity. These come out of a vacuum, a cultural-demographic analog to the inflationary universe. But given enough time perhaps our species is simply subject to these sorts of explosions of creative change and innovation.