Moving steadily across the North Atlantic at the beginning of September, where west of 40 degrees longitude the water is warm enough for swimming and the sea is smooth, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 carries some 3,000 Americans, Filipinos, Britons, Germans, Russians, Eastern Europeans, and Japanese. Unlike in previous times, none of these groups is engaged in a death struggle with another. The passengers’ average age seems quite north of 70—men and women for whom dressing for dinner in tuxedos or gowns, as we do on this voyage, is not as strange as it might be for their grandchildren.

Exactly half a century ago, though it feels like yesterday, I was a 20-year-old deck hand on a British collier plying the same sea lanes. And only half a century before that, the Great War was raging, the fact of which—along with Cunard’s hints of Downton Abbey, and because half-centuries have for me lost their mystery—puts me in mind of the years before the war, which unfortunately have much in common with the present. Europe then was divided into the multiplicity of states and ethnic redoubts into which now, despite efforts to subjugate language, culture, history, and sovereignty to economics, it is reverting. Not only nations are reasserting their autonomy, but Catalans, Basques, Lombards, Scots, Welsh, Flemings, Bosnians, Kosovars, Corsicans, et al.

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