5.28.2010

The Modern World: La Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!

"Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road." - Francois-Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire (1694-1778)


Political scientists often credit our modern-day world with the outward signs associated with Americanization. Let's face it, where there is a McDonald's there is bound to be freedom, equality, and justice! But is this necessarily true? How do we account for the lack of women's rights in the Middle East that boast a McDonalds in the streets of Bahrain or Cairo? Or present-day Communism in China, where KFC and Pizza Hut appear in big cities like Hong Kong or Beijing? In order to trace the modernization of the world, historians take a look back at a time of timultuousness, huge economic disparity, and desperate voices turned silent from below. We refer to the French Revolution, a movement that first appeared in the early American colonies in the 'Spirit of '76', but solidified change once lines of French peasants stormed the Bastille in 1789. The French Revolution begged the question, who said the poor have no voice?

Bernard Lewis, author of What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, attributes modernity in the Ottoman Empire with the French Revolution. This revolution had no religious identity,and according to Lewis, it was not identified with the Christian West, and was therefore influential to the eastern world. The Ottomans idealized the French for their ability to change their government, grant people rights, and secure those rights through a modern constitution. The result was what the Ottomans referred to as Tanzimat, or the 'reordering' of their society--bringing rights to women, equality among Muslims and non-Muslims, and constitutions that protected the people regardless of social class and economic standing. How revolutionary indeed!

What the French did do, differently than other colonial powers, is allow the local indigenous practices throughout the Ottoman Empire to continue. Unlike the British, for example, who sought to Anglicize their colonies in the hopes of 'civilizing' them, the French rather permitted the locals to modernize without completely westernizing themselves. Christianity was not forced onto the natives of the Ottoman Empire, but rather granted equal status with Islam. Britain, on the other hand, sought to impose Christian beliefs on colonial natives through missionary practices--often associating Christianity with modernization in places like China and India. France's model gave eastern countries little reason to oppose modernizing themselves and eventually opened them up to adopting western practices.

The French Revolution was not a revolution that threatened a major colonial power like the American Revolution did. It was rather a revolution for change, remodeling its own government along enlightenment principles such as adhering to the 'people's will' and not the will of the aristocrats and nobles. It personified Rousseau's social contract theory that argued the virtue of man was not the power of his purse, but the moral standard to which he lived. Although Rousseau is known as the founder of socialism, he came at a time in French and European history when bread was scarce to the majority and women like the Austrian Marie Antoinette would rise to power in France at the pure young age of 15 for having 'French connections'.

The French Revolution was a societal reordering for economic equality and although it did not successfully bring permanent stability to France, it enumerated the necessity for the people to be heard over the ineptitude of their elitist government. From 1789 onward, independence movements spawned the Atlantic through Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Far East. Do we attribute the growing modernization of the world to 20th century America's 'big guns' and military paternalism? Perhaps slightly. But what really marks the long-lived creative histories among nations thirsty for economic stability and individual rights is the year 1789. France's revolution had no religion associated with it, it sought to change government from within, and grant power to the poor through social discourse. Rousseau said it best in his book, The Social Contract, when he wrote, "All men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains".