Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Some Thoughts Prompted by a Visit to that Blessed Plot, that Earth, that Realm, that England

I am now the proud possessor of a sestertius of the reign of Marcus Aurelius.  I acquired it in a shop across from the British Museum.  The Emperor himself appears on one side of the coin.  Minerva, I think, is on the other.

Marcus also appears in the Museum itself, or rather a bust of him does, along with several other fascinating Roman items, the return of which has not as far as I know been demanded by the Italians.  The Greeks, of course, have had the temerity to demand the return of the large portions of the Parthenon also on display in the Museum, brought to England by the enterprising Lord Elgin.  Of course the Roman objects at the Museum may actually have been placed by the Romans themselves in their province of Britannia, which would make their status different from that of the Elgin Marbles.  If the Italians were to demand the return of all Roman works they would have to demand them from most of Europe and North Africa.

The Romans were a remarkable people.  In my little visit across the pond I spent time in London (excuse me, Londinium) and Edinburgh, and the Romans made it up to that part of Scotland, as well.  The English might be said to be the successors of Rome in a sense, and as the busts of English worthies in faux Roman dress we see displayed as well attest, they sometimes invited and made the comparison. 

What struck me most about London, though, was the fact that it seems at least to a visitor to be a very international city.  Walking about its streets and riding its Underground looking dashing in my fedora, I was surprised by the fact that I did not hear the English language spoken much at all.  What I heard seemed mostly to be as best as I can determine languages spoken in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, together with some German, and some Italian.  Italians were actually roaming the streets of the old city in Edinburgh in chattering, rather drunken, groups during my visit; something I found puzzling until I found myself watching a rugby match on TV between Scotland and Italy while sipping some Glenkinchie.

The sites of London remain very English, but it is interesting to consider just how "English" its people may yet be.  The city's newspapers were addressing the issue during my visit.  Complaints were being made about a particular television series, set in rural England, because its characters were all white, while the actual village in which it was set was diverse--multicultural, as some of us like to say.  This bothered some.

Some of the Europeans seem to be experiencing a kind of multicultural fatigue.  Each European country has had an individual character, despite the fact that they are (from an American perspective) rather small and closely packed together in a limited space.  One can understand that the citizens of each country may be proud of their unique character, and wish to preserve their heritage and long history.  

I suspect that we will see more and more taking the position that "multiculturalism is a failure", and not just in Europe.  We see this attitude being taken in America as well.  This presents several interesting and complicated questions.  To what extent must people of one nation, or group, accommodate those of another who choose to live among them.  Is there a duty to accommodate, and if so what is the extent of that duty?

I have a fondness for Roman history, which must be apparent.  For a time, at least--a fairly long time from the human perspective--there existed an empire where different peoples having different languages, cultures and religions managed to live under one government in relative peace and comfort, and some at least of those different peoples were able to thrive and reach positions of prominence despite the fact they were not originally Roman, or even Greek.  The imposition of a uniform rule of law was probably significant in achieving this result, as was the military prowess of the Roman Empire.  Also, however, it seems that Greco-Roman culture was imposed, at least superficially in some cases and profoundly with others. 

I question whether this can be achieved any longer.  There are too many of us, and we are now too different in too many ways.  Those who fear the imposition of a global government and feel there is a conspiracy to create one need not fear much, I think.  As population grows, things grow more complicated, and resources dwindle I think we will be more and more disposed to close ranks and find comfort and security in the familiar and in those similar to ourselves.  We were tribal in the early days of our species, when struggling to survive.  We may be struggling to survive again, though for different reasons, soon enough.  Perhaps we will become tribal once more.

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