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On “Authenticity and Modernity…” but in Britain

On “Authenticity and Modernity…” but in Britain

Wednesday, 14 September, 2022 - 09:15

Arab political thought has extensively dealt with what it called “authenticity and modernity” and reconciling the two. Days ago in Britain, we saw, with the passing of Queen Elizabeth and the ascension of her son Charles to the throne, a remarkable ceremony of “authenticity and modernity:” traditions, customs, rituals, and uniforms that date back to the Middle Ages coexisting with televisions, mobile phones, untraditional faces and fashions, and most importantly, the principles of parliamentary democracy and pluralistic society…

“Modernity” is popular, and so is “authenticity:” the number of those grieving the loss and celebrating the proclamation was far from meager, and no security apparatuses had been ordering them to grieve, rejoice, and come together in public squares. Among those who did so were aristocrats, members of the middle class, and others from the working class. Men, women, and people of various sexual orientations were there, young and old, right and left-wing, whites and people of color.

Far from the fuss made of the empty term in the Arab world, “authenticity” means nothing in Britain but symbols and continuity. This is because societies, all societies, need symbols to converge around. These symbols may be many, and they could have multiple social foundations and contradictory political connotations. It is a human demand that grants us the reassurance we need, especially in times of upheaval and change, like the times we are currently in that threaten every certainty.

In Britain, wars were fought and the empire over which “the sun never sets” disappeared, but the monarchy remained. The country became part of Europe and was then no longer part of it, and the monarchy remained. Scotland may or may not become independent from the United Kingdom as religion declines and the family disintegrates, including the family of the Queen herself, and the monarchy remains. This is not “forever” in the sense that Assadists used the term when referring to Hafez al-Assad: the monarchy does not interfere with the lives of the population, who have every right to reconsider its status. Real power is vested in parliament, that is, the will of the people.

Continuity does not just signify “the interests served by the monarchy.” Neither “hegemony” nor “culture industry” or the “state’s ideological apparatuses” alone can do all that. They cannot shape the consciousness of an entire nation and reshape it generation after generation, that is, dupe one entire generation after another.

In all likelihood, national cohesion requires symbolism and continuity, which also meet the human lack that creates our fear of the unknown. The British experience, which is antithetical to ideas of radical ruptures, is witness to the fact that continuity breeds ritual just as ritual breeds continuity and that national consensus requires traditions, be they “invented’’ or not, exactly like it needs institutions.

In this “modernity,” old-timers and “reactionaries” are not made to feel excluded and repudiated, but on the other hand, they cannot stop the progress and advancement that accommodate them and take them into account. Such “authenticity” can only live in the shadow of democratic “modernity” and its victory, whereby “authenticity” becomes tame, humble, humanized, and sometimes folkloric... qualities “authenticity” can’t offer when it is strong, overwhelming, and militant like it is in Iran, where democratic “modernity” is not be granted any visible existence.

For this reason, the British monarchy has been always obsessed with chasing everything novel and constantly sought to keep up with the times. Adapt or perish… That was their implicit motto. In 1917, the royal family went as far as changing its surname from the German ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ to Windsor. The family did so because the British were irked by the fact that their rulers, as the Brits were fighting Germany in the First World War, had a German family name.

George V was taken to the street and, in a step unprecedented in the history of the monarchy, began mingling with people and talking to them about their everyday lives. His relatives, William II in Germany and Nicholas II in Russia, lost their thrones to the First World War and its ramifications. Unlike them, he remained on his throne. His son, George VI, Elizabeth’s father, did not leave London during World War Two, although Buckingham Palace itself was bombed like the rest of the capital. In 2012, Elizabeth starred in a short clip with Daniel Craig (playing James Bond) that was shown during the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games. In the clip, she is shown parachuting down to greet the audience.

It might seem like a show, and many elements of spectacle are at play. In ‘The Guardian,’ Simon Jinkins wrote that there is something ‘’robotic’’ about the roles played by the royal family. However, British political culture tells us more than that. In contrast to France, the monarchy and religion did not turn into partisan matters that could be opposed by anti-monarchical parties.

This happened in the forties of the seventeenth century, with Cromwell and the Puritans. And after having undergone this experience, they discovered that it did not work and that its costs to human life are immense. It is from this bitter episode that the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were born. Both men were captivated by the burning question: How is civil war averted? They gave two different answers.

A century later, Edmund Burke busied himself, though in his own way, with averting the French Revolution, its violence, and its pains. From Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill and then John Maynard Keynes, dismantling the reasons for extremism and violence remained a powerful motive in Britain’s political culture. In turn, the major political parties demonstrated a similar tendency: Labour drew left-wing extremists like Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn, and the Conservatives drew right-wing extremists like Enoch Powell. And so, the two parties hindered the emergence of extremism on both the left and right, while they brought many of those extremists closer to the center and into parliament and its consensus.

Such an experience with “modernity and authenticity” deserves some Arab attention that it has never received.

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