From that article I was just talking about, a thought-provoking aside:
Definitions of the appropriate time span for “contemporary history” lack precision: surveying various writers, Kristina Spohr of the London School of Economics suggests that the term has generally been employed to signify the history of “one’s own time”. She quotes Geoffrey Barraclough, an exponent in the 1960s: “Contemporary history begins when the problems which are actual in the world today first take visible shape.” When exactly that was will vary from case to case and is a matter of judgement for individual historians, requiring them to construct narratives on the Neustadt-May model but over the longue durée.
To Eric Hobsbawm, a lifelong Marxist, his own time was naturally defined by the rise and fall of the Soviet state and he framed his Age of Extremes around the dates 1914 and 1991. Hobsbawm’s book has become a classic, but in the 20 years since it first appeared our sense of the “contemporary” has moved on from the cold war. In an era preoccupied by globalisation, historians, when trying to discern how today’s problems took visible shape, have looked back to moments and markers that differ from Hobsbawm’s.
Beefy Levinson recently mused
Sometimes I wonder why God called me into being at this point in time when everything is crumbling. Maybe it’s his way of asking us once again to not put our trust in princes.
I don’t know God’s intentions, but one advantage we do have over previous generations of moderns (before things got as bad as they now are) is historical perspective. The owl of Minerva only flies at dusk. In particular, with the core institution of the West, the Roman Catholic Church, having nearly completed Her process of suicide, we can for the first time look back and see the story of Christendom whole. Much that seemed of fundamental importance even to our fathers’ generation we now recognize as ephemeral. Ask yourself how the probable world of 2050 will most differ from the recorded world of 1750, and consider how little the things that seemed important at the time–two world wars, the coming and going of European nationalism, fascism, the contest between communism and capitalism–have to do with these really fundamental things.
- The destruction of patriarchy and its replacement by career as the center of life. At the time, people made fun of feminists and social conservatives, loudmouth atheists and fundamentalist kooks for their culture war antics, saying that that sort of thing distracts from the “serious” issues of economics and foreign policy. Now it is clear that the culture war was the really significant one. The leaders of the sexual revolution will be larger figures in future history books than Lenin and Trotsky. The formers’ changes were far more radical. As the years go by, America’s and Europe’s obsession with Nazis and WWII will get harder and harder to justify–Fascists and Nazis don’t have much to do with the main changes of the past century, and communism had a much larger body count. Already many of us who lived through the Cold War are coming to realize that whether the world is lorded over by Soviet Jacobinism, American Jacobinism, or some combination of the two wasn’t really that important.
- The eclipse of the white race. If it does happen that whites become a minority (realistically: a despised and legally disadvantaged minority) in the countries they once dominated, that will certainly affect how we read the past. It doesn’t matter whether the leaders of the civil rights movement got together behind closed doors to plan how non-whites could take over the West; if non-whites do take over the West, everything having to do with race relations in the past century will have to be read as leading up to this. The basic story is not white supremacy giving way to equality, but white supremacy giving way to colored supremacy. Of course, the former will be be considered iniquitous, both intrinsically and in how it was maintained, while that latter will be thought glorious, but even so, the story feels very different when it isn’t stopped at 1965.
- Mass apostasy of the laity. It’s ridiculous how clerico-centric most Catholic history is. One would get the impression that since the time of Constantine the central drama in the life of the Church has been the corruption of clergy and efforts to reform them. Of course, this has been one issue, although I doubt Christendom’s clergy were any less disciplined than any heathenish priesthood before the modern age of social control. (Some of the manias over clerical morality are amusing in retrospect. For centuries, and until rather recently, Catholic populations seem to have been preoccupied with the worry that priests would attempt to seduce women in the confessional. I suppose this must have happened occasionally, but I can’t think of a worse venue for picking up girls, and it’s funny that more dangerous and plausible abuses like extortion through the confessional didn’t get the same attention.) Preconciliar writings are obsessed with whether native clergy have been promoted often and early enough in mission territories. Postconciliar writings until about 2000 focus on coming priest shortages. None of that crap mattered. Now that we’ve finally noticed that we’re hemorrhaging laity, we can step back and ask them what was it that kept them all those centuries from leaving before. It obviously wasn’t perfect priests.