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Reclaiming our word: a revolution

Most people reading this will expect a long-winded response to the gun rights/gun control debate happening in Washington and across the country. After all, what is a Republican to do but defend the Godly, prophetic positions of the NRA and lambast the liberal/socialist/statist/progressive kings who want to take away my rights to buy a weapon with which I can destroy the tank attacking my house?

Alternatively, perhaps I want to buy a weapon with which I can shoot down that hospital helicopter that flies over my residence hall, annoyingly keeping me awake at 10 o’clock every night.

Instead, I have a bigger, more pressing issue to attend to: revolution.

Most Americans balk at that word. What is a revolution? What does it mean? In this country, revolution takes on the connotations of overthrowing the government or other controlling paradigm. History, though, presents a different definition.

Throughout history, we examine such feats as the Industrial Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Sexual Revolution. We study and pore over records of “revolutionary” discoveries in medicine, physics, art, and music. Maybe the more effective definition of the word comes from John Lennon, who once compared a revolution to changing the world.

But therein lies the problem. A revolution is not simply something that changes the world. If that were the case, then every day, in every city, in every country, a revolution occurs. Then some people have the ability to cause massive revolutions, without even realizing it.

Imagine what the world would do if the Procter and Gamble Corporation ceased to produce Pantene. Imagine what the world would say if Twining’s of London changed their tea recipe, or if Zinedine Zidane retired from playing soccer. No, that definition of a revolution does not work either.

During the first few days of classes, I have been subject to lectures on subjects ranging from the development of a children’s literature genre, modern perceptions of mental illness, and the beginnings of population growth after the Black Death.

But out of everything this week, the fact that remained with me was nothing academic: that is, nothing that will help my grade. Instead, it was an assertion that the American Revolution was not a revolution at all.

Read that line again. The American Revolution was not a revolution at all. Curious, is it not? Even more curious is the assertion that accompanied it, that the French Revolution was a true revolution that changed the course of Western civilization.

For the Americans without the desire or time to research the French Revolution, an extremely condensed description is that over the course of 10 years, from 1789 with the fall of the French monarchy to 1799 with the rise of Napoleon, France was in turmoil adapting and testing the newly published ideas of the Enlightenment and Renaissance in different governmental systems. A deeper description would include details of the Reign of Terror, the French Republic, and the political dealings that led to the eventual ascension of a dictator in France.

The difference in the American and French Revolutions comes in the first, simpler definition though. The American Revolution was about self-governance and improper taxation. The French Revolution was concerned with a total reformation of the social and political paradigm in France.

Prior to the Revolution, Napoleon was a French soldier with ambition. After, he was Emperor of France. On the American side, leadership never changed. George Washington, the former British commander and member of the Continental Congress, became the commander of the American forces and later President of the U.S. John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, became Governor of Massachusetts. Leadership never changed hands, only got shifted around.

There will be those who argue that the American Revolution was about important things. Self-determination, representative government, and democracy are chiefly among them. And I could not disagree. But thanks to French thinkers and revolutionaries, we have separation of powers, checks and balances, the “social contract,” and a worldwide movement for peace. If nothing else, the French Revolution inspired the world to pursue a lasting peace, rather than a continual struggle for supremacy.

(The virility of that statement is certainly questionable, vis à vis the Berlin Conference, Prussian Wars, and July Revolution, the latter of which you can learn about, in a rough sense, in “Les Misérables.”) A revolution is not simply world changing, but world altering, ushering in a new era or paradigm – a new model of what “it” means.

The American Revolution will always be just that, a revolution. And the French version is no different. But the thought certainly presupposes something else. It presupposes that we should abandon personal quibbles and unimportant minutia of our daily lives and turn our attention to the larger issues in society.

But what can we do?

Perhaps we should stop bickering over the size of guns in our closet and begin to address the problems that lead individuals to kill one another. Perhaps we could work together to find a solution to the nation’s largest problems; there are many. And maybe, just maybe, we could do something extraordinary: return our country to its position on the world’s stage, the pinnacle of a forever-long hierarchy, a model for the future.

Now that could be revolutionary.

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