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Queen Elizabeth II shook hands with Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness in Belfast. The world, not just Ireland, is undergoing unprecedented change. Photo by: Getty

How far we’ve come - Martin McGuinness’ banquet with Queen

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Queen Elizabeth II shook hands with Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness in Belfast. The world, not just Ireland, is undergoing unprecedented change. Photo by: Getty

Social and political developments that once belonged to the realm of science fiction are everyday occurrences now.

In one recent watershed moment, the Queen of England signed the new law permitting same sex marriage. For most of her long reign the Queen hasn’t condescended to even say the word gay, never mind legislate their equality.

Then last week the Queen met with Pope Francis, who asked her to pray for him, and she assured him she would. For centuries their predecessors were at war, now they talk together like old friends.

This week Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, the North’s Deputy First Minister and a lifelong Irish republican, will be the Queen’s guest at a historic state banquet during Irish President Michael D Higgins’ visit to Britain. War was also in their predecessors' (and even their own) pasts.

With daily occurrences like these, is it any wonder that international conservatism often sounds like it’s in various stages of a complete meltdown?  

In the North the citizens who remain loyal to the Queen mostly view Martin McGuinness with undisguised suspicion or contempt. So what are they to make of his voluntary attendance at a state dinner with the monarch whose authority he has resisted all his life? Where do you draw the line if it keeps moving?

Here in America we’re also through the looking glass on a host of complex issues. In recent years we have watched in astonishment as various long-divided groups found common cause and forged alliances that would have proved unthinkable even a decade ago.

Gay activists stood shoulder to shoulder with African American rights groups and Immigrants rights groups to elect the president, and since then they have formed increasingly powerful voting blocks, turning longstanding political orthodoxy on its head.

Our president is African American and he has presided over unprecedented changes to the fabric of our national life. He is the world’s most visible symbol that we are in a new moment of unprecedented change.

What’s most startling to most of us is the pace of that change. In California just last week famed programmer Brian Eich resigned from his post as CEO of Mozilla because the culture at his workplace (and nationally) found that spending significant amounts of money to ensure other people’s inequality is incompatible with his company’s mission.

Despite what some have claimed, Eich’s resignation was achieved without any major LGBT group publicly calling for it. The nation has simply moved on, and Eich was the latest figurehead to discover that discriminating against gay people gets you isolated and jeered at by the crowd now, rather than the other way around.

But all these changes aren’t happening without pushback. After four decades the state of Mississippi found a shameful new way to reauthorize discrimination against a disfavored minority last week, but it will not stand. It is the reflex of the most conservative among us to hit the reverse pedal on the De Lorean when the future looks inescapable, but their reactionary ride is taking them absolutely nowhere.

Even Vladimir Putin’s ghastly World War Two reenactment follies in Crimea are a symbol of a suddenly rudderless conservatism wedded to a long vanished past, rather than the mature action of a functioning democracy.

So we live in a moment where some leaders like McGuinness have gotten the memo that the future is going to look much more various than we anticipated. He is clearly making plans for it. That’s what leadership looks like.

Contrast his realpolitik that with the diehards (both loyalist and republican) who bemoan his attendance as an insult and an outrage. They are condemned to live in a world of ideological purity that McGuinness has long since recognized does not in fact exist.

The Irish have a saying, we all live in each other’s shadow. McGuinness and others like him have long since learned we have no choice to make peace with each other and the shadows of history.

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