Big Softies

Can buzzwords tell one everything one needs to know? Generalisations in the use of language can certainly create handy mental shortcuts, but what if one ends up speaking and thinking only in terms of generalisations, like a fool in search of “a theory of everything”? The historian in me says that this is a pitfall of sociologists although historical research projects often adopt similar terminologies. For instance, the concepts of Harvard sociologist Joseph Nye of trans-nationalism and soft power can now be found “everywhere”, serving as the glue that binds the discourse of the latest history book with the latest media opinion columns with the same uniformity as the smartphone user friendly interfaces that now form the front-page of every government office, university and business. Is the business of business turning us all into “big softies”, where market forces determine everything and become the reality of “soft power”?

Every politician has a Twitter account for the exact same reason as every rock band eager for money and power: the power of advertising. In the face of this business reality of the media, the voice of an individual is supposedly as meaningless as the operations of a dysfunctional family where antagonistic attitudes of a mother towards her own children ends up being reciprocated and everyone is locked into their own mental isolation chamber. Who, therefore, needs writers, let alone the old concept that an individual can serve as “a sword of light”, highlighting a clearer mental path towards progress? Let us make our Twitter account feeds our mediators of reality instead, where the open-armed, priestly, pose for photographers of a speaker at a World Economic Conference and the latest photo-shoot of a teen pop star or movie trailer are but manifestations of the same reality. The banking operations of a world economy is making all our lives inherently better and all we have to do let our minds be taken along on the same mental trip by believing that pristine interfaces of a satellite TV channel and a company’s web presence must point to a brighter reality where all surfaces are bright and shiny. If it looks good, go with the flow and feed the greed in your heart to fill another’s pockets in the hope that you will be rewarded with a return.

To be perfectly honest, these are the type of thoughts that I have never been inclined to either adopt or entertain. I remember coming to the conclusion nearly twenty years ago on examining Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes that old “Marxist intellectual” historians like Hobsbawm were victims of this brand of mental confusion in a manner akin to no other. This indicated to me that if a historian is what I was then my defining trait as a historian would be that the root of my thought would never rest upon the same form of obscurantism as the likes of Hobsbawm, even if the latter was the most famous and celebrated historian of the day and I was but a kid who, despite his best efforts, was practically being told that I was unemployable by being contrary: as a historian, you cannot go around expressing the opinion that Hobsbawm and his kin within Anglophone academia had their heads up their own arse without being told by your employers that you are the culprit instead. So, “whoop de do” and hope for the best…

Now that I am turning my mind towards addressing the question of international relations, I am inclined, however, to speculate whether or not there is a danger that I end up cultivating my own brand of “Hobsbawmitis”. Without letting the cat entirely out of the bag, let me say that I have found good reason for believing that one cannot reasonably address the question of Ireland’s place in international relations historically without also attempting to find an answer to the question of what relevance expatriate Irish people had, if any, to Ireland’s history. On a “soft power” level today, this is evident in the field of the tourism industry and the uses made of history within the same. But, in the past, before it became a practical matter of business, it was a question that was directly related to the idea that Irish nationalists were, in effect, living and thinking like the inhabitants of a ship in a bottle whenever they imagined that an expatriate Irish population and the Irish population itself were inhabitants of the same political world. Were they or were they not? An answer to that question will be suggested in my next book, I believe, amongst other things to suggest that geopolitics can have surprising meanings that are not inherently related to military power. Are they then related to the world of business and notions of a world economy that, contrary to a frequent consensus, were perhaps alive and kicking for about as long as individuals first inclined to conceive of the existence of a world in itself? Perhaps the existence of that idea is the ultimate expression of soft power: whether it is expressed in the 1860s language of Karl Marx or the 2010s language of Mark Zuckerberg it amounts to the same thing. Regardless, of course, the writings of another penniless writer will have no greater consequence than to very slightly enhance the profit margins of another book publisher. And so… “Life goes on, as usual”, he said, while telling himself that if there is any victim of soft power out there it is surely not I. But is there an “I”? And is it career suicide to say “Aye”? The outline of the circle disappears before your very eyes and the haunting spectre of a blank page shall be filled. Amen.

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