From uncovering clues of Renaissance-era globalization to how an anti-totalitarian militant discovered ultranationalism, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
For many, the Renaissance was the revival or “rebirth” of Western classical antiquity, associated with great artists painting the Sistine Chapel and the invention of the printing press in Europe. These local, European phenomena seem rather parochial compared to today’s world, where a hashtag on Instagram connects pictures across the world in an instant and aeroplanes take off every second from airports around the globe. Globalisation means that we can purchase a Starbucks coffee almost anywhere in the world and an enormous amount of goods available in Europe are made in China.
I’m an art historian, and so my interest in all this may not seem all that obvious. What do famous paintings by Italian Renaissance artists have to do with China or global trade? Art of the Italian Renaissance is often seen as the product of one culture — Italy — but in fact Italian art was the result of interactions with cultures from around the world. Our own experience of globalisation has led scholars such as me to look twice at Renaissance paintings – and the objects they depict – to consider whether a global, connected world is indeed a new thing. [continue reading]
On 30 April 2019, 86-year-old Emperor Akihito 明仁made history. He became the first modern emperor to abdicate. Indeed, his was the first abdication since that of Emperor Kōkaku 光格over two centuries before in 1817. By the same token, the succession of Akihito’s 59-year-old son, Crown Prince Naruhito 徳仁on 1 May was an historic moment. For he was the first in modern times to succeed to the throne while his father was alive and well. The trigger for all these firsts was an extraordinary event that took place nearly three years before. On 8 August 2016, Emperor Akihito appeared on NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, to address the nation. He gave an understated but riveting performance. Speaking of his advanced years and the growing burden of his duties, he intimated his desire to abdicate. Abdication rumors had been circulating for some weeks, but his address dispelled all doubt. An address of this sort was quite without precedent. The Constitution requires that succession to the throne accord with the Imperial Household Law of 1946, but that law does not recognize abdication. The emperor was thus challenging the law. The challenge, however circumspect, was a political act, and political acts are not permitted him under the Constitution. It is little wonder that he caused a stir; it is no less than remarkable that he got his way.
The emperor’s TV address, watched by some 12% of the population, triggered a national debate that led to Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s government enacting a special abdication bill, which became law in June 2017.2 It was this bill that enabled Akihito to abdicate, yielding the throne to his son. Emperor Akihito raised fundamental questions about the role of the emperor in 21st Century Japanese society. What are emperors for? What is their place in contemporary Japan, and what are their future prospects? This article sets out to explore precisely these questions. The place to start is that August 2016 address. [continue reading]
Three years after the referendum on Brexit and on the eve of the new European elections, the scepticism about Europe is still as strong, particularly amongst the most disadvantaged sections of society. The problem is deep and long-standing. In all the referendums for the last 25 years the working classes have systematically expressed their disagreement with the Europe presented to them, whereas the richest and the most privileged classes supported it. During the French referendum on the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, we observed that 60% of the voters with the lowest incomes, personal wealth or qualifications voted against, whereas the 40% of the electorate with higher incomes voted in favour; the gap was big enough for the yes vote to win with a small majority (51%). The same thing happened with the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, except that this time only the top 20% were in favour of the yes vote, whereas the lower 80% preferred to vote no, whence a clear victory for the latter (55%). Likewise for the referendum on Brexit in the UK in 2016: this time it was the top 30% who voted enthusiastically to remain in the EU. But, as the bottom 70% preferred to leave, the leave vote won with 52% of the votes.
What is the explanation? Why are votes on the European Union always characterised by such a marked division of social class? This outcome is all the more puzzling as the structure of the vote for the different political parties has long since ceased to be so clearly marked by the class structure, with the three dimensions of social division (qualifications, income, personal wealth) all pulling in the same direction. Since the 1970-1980s; the most highly qualified have swung distinctly towards the left wing parties in both countries, whereas those with the highest incomes and personal wealth continue to tend to support the right-wing parties, which are themselves undergoing change. On the other hand, during the votes concerning Europe in 1992 (French referendum on Maastricht Treaty), 2005 (French referendum on constitutional treaty) and 2016 (UK referendum on Brexit), the intellectual and economic elites in both instances found themselves supporting the EU as it existed, whereas the less privileged categories on the left and on the right rejected it. [continue reading]
People don’t come to Boston Beach – on Jamaica’s north-eastern coast – just for the waves lapping at the sand, or the palm trees swaying in the breeze. What really draws them in is the jerk. Lining the road to nearby Fairy Hill are countless stalls cooking great slabs of chicken, pork or fish on homemade grills made from old oil cans. Part of what makes it so special is the flavour. Unlike in many other parts of Jamaica, the stallholders here have no time for sauces or marinades. Instead, they season the meat liberally with allspice and Scotch bonnets and grill it slowly over a glowing bed of pimento wood, sometimes for as long as six hours.
This not only makes it uncommonly succulent, but also amazingly smoky and hot. Much more important, however, is the link with the past. Though none of the stalls in Boston Beach are more than a few decades old, the recipe they use has remained virtually unchanged for almost 150 years. Handed down from generation to generation, it is not only an artefact of Jamaica’s troubled colonial history – but also a powerful testament to the island’s centuries-long quest for freedom. [continue reading]
We first met almost 30 years ago, right after the Berlin Wall came down, at a meeting of dissidents held in France’s embassy in Budapest. President François Mitterrand had asked me to prepare a report on how France could contribute to the reconstruction of the countries of Central Europe after the lifting of the Communist yoke. At the time, Viktor Orbán was one of the brightest figures in the victorious opposition to the Soviet order. He was the young author of a master’s thesis on the Polish Solidarity movement, which he had written while attending Oxford with the help of a grant from George Soros. He had become famous overnight following a speech he had given in Heroes’ Square in Budapest honoring Imre Nagy, the martyr of the Hungarian uprising of 1956.
And now, April 10, here he is transformed by the intervening 30 years: a pudgy satrap with the physique of a retired wrestler, Vladimir Putin without the muscles, with something sad and somber in his look—all accompanied by an odd reserve, bordering on shyness, that he did not have before. That reserve comes out as he greets my friend Gilles Hertzog, who helps me take notes, extending a tentative hand and murmuring, “Good morning, my name is Viktor Orbán. Welcome to Budapest.” [continue reading]