My own private Idaho
The Age of Enlightenment belongs to us, as American as apple pie, meaning that we borrowed the good parts from Europe.
The philosophy of reason over superstition, starting with Locke, Newton and Voltaire, was appropriated by such American saints as Jefferson and Franklin, and became the driving intellectual force behind the beginnings of our country.
The Enlightenment Era lasted about 150 years, by the way, followed by Romanticism, which was followed by a new sitcom starring Matthew Perry, although I may have been watching too much TV lately.
Ben Franklin is my favorite and always has been. He’s been called “the first American” for good reason, practicing the pursuit of virtue and knowledge, doing well on both fronts, if far from perfect.
And it was Franklin who put Enlightenment thinking into practice when it came to churches and lightning. It was widely accepted in the 18th century that churches were struck by lightning so often because God was mad. Franklin suggested another hypothesis, which was that churches were usually the tallest buildings in town.
He also pretty much invented the lightning rod, which saved a lot of churches. God’s mood, of course, is still up in the air.
I thought about Franklin a few weeks ago, when my wife sent me a text message from Texas, where she was visiting her parents. “I think we’ve just been struck by lightning!” it said, and she was right, although everyone was fine. The TV got fried, but otherwise OK.
I also think Franklin would have found text messaging fun and useful, as I do. Quick messages, short and to the point, which are often about picking up milk.
I’m less sure about how he would feel about Twitter, though.
Twitter has been around long enough to be integrated into our society, although it still feels like a niche to me, more marketing than social media. And my initial reaction to this technology, a few years ago, this micro-blogging about trivial things, was almost visceral. It was like the feeling many adults have when they spot a young man wearing pants that sag to the knees, a fashion choice that professional clowns would be embarrassed by. We don’t know these people, what they wear has nothing to do with us, and still we have to fight our natural instinct to run them over.
So I resisted and resented, until I took a cross-country trip three years ago. I started a Twitter account, as it seemed a good way to share details of my trip with a large number of people. I promised to stop when I got home.
And I did, for the most part, although my account is still active. I have a handful of followers, most of them local businesses or young women who seem to think I will be very interested in their love lives. Marketing, as I say.
But a couple of weeks ago I got a new follower, one that amused me, just by wackiness of the algorithm. Why would a fast food restaurant franchise, based in Dallas, end up following the Twitter feed of some guy in the Pacific Northwest who never had anything to say?
So I passed this along to my daughter, thinking she’d think it was funny too. “Chick-fil-A is now following me on Twitter,” I said, and that’s when she told me that they were evil.
My daughter has a highly developed sense of social justice, by the way.
The point here – which I’m trying to find just as hard as you are – is that I’ve spent a couple of weeks following the news, being told that I’m supposed to have strong feelings about Chick-fil-A, which is hard because until recently I didn’t know what a Chick-fil-A was.
Maybe you share this. The nearest Chick-fil-A restaurant to us is in Boise, Idaho, meaning that in order to take a stand, I would have to drive more than 400 miles in order to not buy a chicken sandwich. I’ve done dumber things, but I think I’ll pass.
I understand the passion. I understand the issues. I understand why people would choose to not buy from a company that supported causes they believe are wrong, and vice-versa. I understand the appeal of a good chicken sandwich. I’m an understanding guy.
But it’s hard for me to feel passion when I lack the references, and this is where I found myself. There, and wondering if there was something else I should be focusing on, like filling out my ballot, or getting a lightning rod just in case, or staying away from fried food. Developing more of an open mind about sagging pants, something. Something in which I can make a difference.
Maybe working harder on virtue, like Mr. Franklin, or maybe just searching for enlightenment in general. I could use some of that right about now.