Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Multiculturalism and Nationalism

          As I prepare to teach my students about the Late Roman Empire and the reasons for its transformation (or fall, depending on whom one asks) into the various Germanic kingdoms of Western Europe, I just found a scholarly article, "Late Antiquity and the Concept of Decline," from a class I took in college. The author, J.H.W.G. Liebeschutz, points out that many historians today approach the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire from a multicultural outlook in which harmony and continuity are considered more important than turning points. Of the consequences of this multiculturalism, Liebeschutz notes:

          "An important consequence of multiculturalism is the devaluation of the nation state. The right of nation states to uphold their territorial integrity, their independence and their peculiar national culture is given low priority. I quote from a recent political analysis by G. Mulgan: Nations that cling to the values of nationalism 'live in their boxes, are most of all concerned with the integrity of those boxes, whether they come from invasion or succession. These are the states that often initiate wars, partly to shore up their national unity, partly to win territory, partly to sharpen their own reflexes.' Such nationalism is outmoded in a world order 'which rests on interference, and transparency and pooling of powers. Borders no longer count for much. Few economies are national in any meaningful way at all. Changing your borders is less necessary and less important than accumulating economic and cultural power.' If you see the world like this, the disintegration of political and administrative structures such as that of the Roman Empire is no longer interesting. Disintegration is no longer problematic. It is inevitable, and in any case, to be welcomed. 
     If the break up of the state is no longer to be feared, and therefore no longer interesting, the same is naturally true of a state's administrative and political institutions, including the details of parliamentary democracy. To quote Mulgan once more: 'Paradoxically, more countries engage in democratic politics than ever before yet this is a profoundly anti-political age ... With widespread access to global media, databases and multiple opinions, today's politicians have lost their edge ... the res publica, or the public realm, is no longer primarily organized in parliaments and party conventions.' This feeling too has influenced the direction of research in Late Antiquity. Compared with earlier times, there has been little interest in constitutions and laws, which tend to be seen as camouflage for the selfish maneuvers of interest groups. 
     The underlying assumption is that the present is so different that the past is no longer relevant. In the words of A. Giddens: 'At at time of thoroughgoing detraditionalization, those who hold to traditions have to ask themselves, and are asked by others, why.' 'Traditions have lost the capacity to make claims on people because in multicultural societies they no longer have any special status.' What has broken historical continuity is the revolution in communications, wireless, television and above all the internet. As a result we now live in a post-modern, post-traditional society which must build up its own rules with global scope. Traditions will not have to be invariably abandoned, but traditional behavior can no longer be justified on the ground that it is traditional."