First, apologies for the appalling post title. Hopefully, the temptation to make jokes which are both bad and in bad taste will be explained and even vindicated by the actual content of the post. Probably, though, this will remain just a hope.
More substantively, I went to see an excellent presentation on early twentieth century British liberalism, and particularly Hobhouse - about whom I know basically nothing apart from what I learnt from the presentation - yesterday. Part of the point of the presentation was to suggest that the approach which Hobhouse and other so-called 'New Liberals' took to issues of disagreement are potentially fruitful resources for contemporary liberals to draw on in thinking about how to deal with disagreement now. One of the questions suggested that this was a mistake because the context in which the disagreement which Hobhouse et al. were concerned with was quite different, in particular that it didn't involve widespread, visible, ethnic difference.
I'm not sure the British Edwardian society was actually any more internally cohesive - party politics was conducted on significantly religious lines, with the temperance movement an integral part of one political party's appeal, and that's without even mentioning the Irish problem - or any less worried about immigrants - I understand that contemporary debates about asylum seekers are not very dissimilar to early twentieth century ones about Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe - than we seem to be, so I'm dubious about the historical claim. I'm also dubious about looking at contemporary liberal debates about toleration and state neutrality through the lens of the last five or so years: Political Liberalism is a text about dealing with the American Religious Right, I think, rather than Islamists, and even Brian Barry's somewhat hysterical Culture and Equality is at least as much about the Amish as anyone else, neither of which would have necessarily been problems alien in their basic structure to Hobhouse.
It's not just that I am dubious about this specific claim about the difference between contemporary and historical conditions, though. I think I am dubious about most claims that current problems - and I suppose perhaps particularly the problem of Islamist terrorism - are problems which have no documented historical counterparts. I suppose we could put the worry like this: is it Orientalist to think that Islamist terrorism poses a unique problem, without any historical analogies at all? I mean, the past may be a different country, but the basic problems of securing an intelligible and humane political order don't change across national borders - no-one thinks with DeMaistre anymore that there are only Frenchmen, Englishmen, Spaniards and so on.