“Some people say we’ve got to find a British identity. Where? Which one is it? …the British identity is like the British weather.”
Benjamin Zephaniah, poet
It may be a cliché, but the phrase “no man is an island” has in many ways come to represent contemporary modern culture. The image we have of the average person is of a connected, networked, multi-faceted individual who encompasses and combines varying cultural, ethnic, religious and social types.
The temptation is to see this “mosaic individual” as a product of modernity; of an increasingly globalised and franchised world. While the advent of technology, in particular the internet, has enhanced the spread of ideas across the globe, this intermingling and interchanging of these so-called “memes” can be traced back in history to periods that long precede such modern conveniences. Intra-cultural borrowing is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it is part of what makes us uniquely human.
On a recent trip to Andalucia, Southern Spain, I was struck by the influence of Arab and Islamic culture on the architecture, customs and traditions of the people there – vestiges of a Moorish Empire that fell over a thousand years ago. The ornate carvings and delicate pillars of the Al Hambra palace in Seville are a testament to this merging of cultures and civilisations, and a reminder that human history is so much greater and richer than our myopic preoccupations lead us to think.
One of the oft-repeated media tropes of the last year has been to expound the novelty of the “social media revolutions” (I’m looking at you, Paul Mason) – holding up the events of 2011 as evidence of a fundamental social shift that has the power to “change the political mood”. While I don’t want to downplay or discredit the protests and revolutions taking place across the world (and their mostly legitimate aims), I believe this type of thinking misses the bigger picture.
We cannot understand what is happening in our current realities – politically, socially, economically – without understanding the underlying historical and cultural forces behind them. “No man is an island”; and no revolution is either.