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Our Reactionary Age


Mark Lilla, "Our Reactionary Age", in New York Times, The Opinion Pages, NewYorkTimes.com, 6 November 2016


Hope, said the philosopher Francis Bacon, is a good breakfast, but an ill supper. Only a quarter-century ago, hope was an active force in world politics. The Cold War ended peacefully, and functioning constitutional democracies took root in Eastern Europe. The European Union was formally established, and membership was steadily extended eastward. The Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians were signed, and Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa after spending three decades in prison.

Do we even remember what hope looked like? Today, politics worldwide is being driven instead by anger, despair and resentment. And above all, nostalgia. “Make X Great Again” is the demagogic slogan of our time, and not just with the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump in the United States. What is political Islamism but the violent translation of a fantasy of return, in this case to an imagined era of religious purity and military might? Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India made his career by propagating Hindutva, a fanciful Hindu nationalism that extols Indian civilization before the arrival of Muslims. Far-right parties across Europe traffic in similar imagined pasts.

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30 June 2015
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Contemporary period (1789-…)
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Mark Lilla