Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sometimes substance takes time

I was reading a book by a man named Rogers Brubaker this week.  On page one of his book, he begins to discuss the French Revolution and the German intellectual response.  (Yes, I know many of you are already starting to wonder where I'm going with this--I promise I'm going to make this interesting).  What struck me immediately as interesting was that Brubaker notes that "German intellectuals sought to distance themselves from the allegedly shallow rationalism and cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution..."

Whoa.  That's huge.  Contemporaries of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment considered these movements shallow?  Remember what these were...The Enlightenment sought to separate common people from dictatorial monarchs and priests and get them to think for themselves, to read the bible on their own, to make their own political systems, to be valued for their own thoughts and ideas rather than being told what to do.  I mean, it was called the Enlightenment, after all.  And the French Revolution was much of the same--separating from the yoke of an unjust monarchy that limited free thinking and the growth of new social classes.  How and why were these movements considered shallow?

It got me thinking about the things that I think of as shallow in my own day.  Many aspects of pop culture, 'cool' technologies, celebrities, marketing, blogs and the movies they help sell.  Is there any connection here?  Can I possibly compare the Enlightenment and, say, blogs about celebrities?  Let's see...

The Enlightenment and the French Revolution, as much as we might worship them today, were not all they were cracked up to be in their own day.  They changed social and political systems, but often only for white, European men.  At the same time as the French Revolution liberated the 'common man', colonial subjects across the French Empire were being pushed into forced labor, with no nod to any sort of revolution.  The Enlightenment pushed some rulers out the door, but often only so new ones could take their place.  People began to think in different ways, but it would take time before the ideas of philosophers would really take root and encourage the masses to claim political rights for themselves and truly begin to think on their own.  Perhaps in its own day, the French Revolution really did seem shallow--a few men, covetous of the power of a King, using a philosopher's words to justify an overthrow of the current system.

What about today? I often read historical quotes or passages from what, I think, are brilliant thinkers, poets and writers.  It seems as if people in history had more valuable things to say than we do today.  Reading about World War II, for example, is illuminating--the thoughts, fears and insights that many of that age had in the midst of war don't seem to come so readily to those of us comfortably at home on our couches.  But what if I'm wrong...?  What if all these new technologies, blogs, celebrities and other things I consider shallow are really making significant changes.  For example, the foodie movement.  It seems to be a self-indulgent trend overly concerned with the enjoyment and knowledge of food.  Yet, at the same time, this movement is helping to change the face of farming and food consumption in the U.S.  It is getting people to think about what they eat, watch cooking shows, ask for organic and go visit farms.  Perhaps it is shallow.  But perhaps also the effects will be impactful on the relationship between a country and its food--no small thing.

It may not be the Enlightenment, but apparently even in its day, the Enlightenment was not everywhere celebrated.  If something as monumental as the Enlightenment can take time to grow into its full weight, perhaps the verdict is still out on the pop culture I see surround me.

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