Barack Obama was nominated last night as the first black presidential candidate for a mainstream US political party. There has been a good deal of comment on what a historical moment this is (BBC, NY Times), and of course that will only increase if he gets elected in November.

This historical moment in American politics is a good time to reflect on the rapidity with which today’s certainties can pass into history. Segregation in the American south was still happening well within living memory, and people who elected the Parliament that decriminalised homosexuality have not yet reached retirement age. Today, we have a black presidential candidate and a gay Conservative as deputy mayor of London.

An appreciation of the scale and rapidity of social change, both now and in the more distant past, blows a fatal hole in political arguments based on some mythical past golden age, or the need for preserving social structures, or holding back the pattern of history. Rationalism and evidence are the only reliable guides.

A Moghul ruler, Emperor Akbar the Great, put it best when he said:

The case for innovation is so brilliantly clear as to be beyond dispute. For if the prophets themselves had not done new things, they would just have followed their ancestral gods.

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