A thought came to me as I read about the death of Edward Said. Said's most important contribution to history was establishing the concept of 'orientalism' to explain empire and the way in which the West viewed the East - that is, from the perspective that ours was an inherently superior form of society and we should, therefore, seek to impose our cultures and values on other so-called inferior civilisations. Shades of Bush and Iraq here?
David Cannadine argued instead for a concept of 'ornamentalism', suggesting that what drove the concept of empire was not the imposition of our 'superior' culture, but rather the recognition of similarities leading to reinforcement of mutual structures and embracing learning from different colonies - alliance rather than subjugation.
These two viewpoints resonated with me this week as I met with the Beacon Fellowship, which is shortly to announce its first awards for philanthropy. These awards recognise not just the handing over of money, but the creation of inspiration, ideas, energy, leadership and skills that improve the life of the nation.
The Beacon Foundation started out very small. It had no idea of what the take-up would be but, supported by some major backers like the Daily Telegraph and Regis, it had nearly 800 nominations, ranging from pop stars to singing nuns.
Although in recent years some of the traditional boundaries have been broken, the established honours system has its roots in the same traditions as orientalism. It might be said to create a hierarchy of awards that reinforce the establishment and reward, in a rather less than transparent fashion, people's good works for the nation. What the Beacon Fellowship Awards recognise cuts across this and fits well with the spirit of the times. Just as ornamentalism offers an empowering analysis of imperialism, the Beacon Awards do the same for civic engagement. They recognise the potential for everyone to do extraordinary things, and the need to celebrate that.
These new awards have the potential to energise people by creating a fellowship of torchbearers who can galvanise the way we can contribute to society and be recognised.