It was the best of times, NO, it really WAS the worst of times. Revolution was in the air, in America ending in 1783, in France beginning 1789 at the Bastille. The common man was questioning the “divine” rights of kings. The American idea of the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was simple and understandable to the masses. In England relatively fair and healthy hamlet life was replaced by growing manufacturing. Enclosure forced people off the land, and factory life destroyed health and self-reliance. The expanding propertied class multiplied the laws of the Bloody Code with the death penalty for over 350 offenses, mostly against property, for people as young as 9.
In addition, severe volcanic activity in Iceland (1783) probably was the cause for significant agricultural failures. This led to the famous Marie Antoinette story that when told the peasants had no bread, she replied, “Let them eat cake.” Both France and England were suffering financial distress resulting from their involvement in the American Revolution. All this led to increased taxes and The French Revolution, and in England a great maritime mutiny (1797) involving 113 ships and 50,000 men. Their grievance was starvation wages, rotten food, and grossly unfair treatment.
England's Pitt ministry opposed adopting articles of the new French constitution including, “There shall be no tithes.” Everywhere Tom Paine's writings, Common Sense (1776), The Rights of Man (1791), and The Age of Reason (1793), were eagerly debated. The last, a fiery Deist tract caused a scandal. He wrote, “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” There was dramatic growth of technology, self awareness by the masses, and intellectual concern with the irrational in human conduct as expressed in literature and philosophy.
The Papal Index in that period banned Voltaire's Philosophical Letters, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Paine's The Rights of Man, and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason among others. Ultimately the combination of military technology and the awakened masses culminated in the vast warfare and upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars. Intellectuals were a frail reed before that social storm.
Great increases in travel speed were a major feature of the following 100 years in both war and peace. A resurgence of Christianity and Romanticism was a reaction to feelings of uncertainty engendered by this rapid change and mechanization of life. Social development improved in fits and starts over the same period culminating by 1919 with female suffrage in 4 European countries and the US.
Now, another century has passed and once again we are in a period of great international, physical, and mental turmoil. This time a key factor is the communications revolution of the internet and television. We see the Islamic states which have lagged centuries behind the West suddenly coming awake. TV has allowed people with little to see what backward and autocratic policies of their governments have denied them. Facebook, Twitter, and the like have enabled them to criticize, compare and organize around their issues. For the first time women are playing a significant part in the Islamic world.
The war in Iraq helped sow the idea that a vicious dictator could be removed. These seeds are now sprouting and spreading throughout the Muslim world. A parallel factor is the current period of changing and more extreme climate. Given arid conditions in many Islamic countries and their fast growing populations, hunger may rapidly become a critical issue. Especially so as speculation and commodity price increases drive millions of poor into destitution and severe malnutrition.
In this critical time, it is important to hope and work actively to implement those hopes by countering irrational beliefs. These have led to religious warfare, destructive reproductive attitudes, and the mistreatment of woman and we must strive to change them. If the young Islamic rebels with their idealistic focus on economic democracy and secular government can prevail, this change could succeed. A fearsome alternative is the kind of widespread warfare, death, and destruction that could be created by a charismatic new Napoleon-like leader.
Posted for GL Aikin