Loss of idealism

Rasul Bakhsh Rais May 17, 2010

Sipping espresso at Lakota Coffee Point in Columbia, Missouri with Professor Paul Wallace, a prominent scholar of Punjab studies at the University of Missouri, I thought of the old Pak Tea House in Lahore: its intellectual life and debates on culture, arts, society and politics. The professor was very keen to bring me to Lakota to get the feel of a modern day American coffeehouse.

It is very different from the teahouses of Lahore. The American coffeehouse is a quiet, smoke-free place for those who visit it to read a book or work on their computers. Since this one happens to be at the centre of a university, most are graduate students absorbed in complex research questions and professors who come for a change in scenery.

What purpose do these coffeehouses serve? They are markers of popular culture and in many countries represent the intellectual life of the city. Artist and intellectuals exchange views on important subjects and debate some of the most contemporary ideas in art, culture, philosophy and politics. In our case the famous Pak Tea House – since we are primarily a tea drinking country – was one of those premier points where the literati, poets, artists and social activists regularly congregated. They shared their creative writings and debated ideas, in search of their meaning and current relevance.

Those were times of great idealism, the times of self-exploration for all those engaged in multiple universes of new ideas, ideologies and creative quests. A liberal, social atmosphere and a strong tradition of free expression in almost every creative realm had packed Pak Tea House with men and women who wished to intellectually engage and critically examine every social truth, in free spirit and with an open mind.

But now a pervert understanding of both idealism and pragmatism, which is presented as its opposite, has reduced idealist philosophy to mere concepts that don’t belong to the real world. Idealism is about optimism, hope, and the human capacity to imagine a better world. It is also about celebrating and having great trust in the creative self and the excitement of planting seeds of new ideas.

Idealism is essentially rooted in the brightness of human nature and in having faith in the endless potential of mankind. We tend to forget that modern science and the technological age are not independent of free thinking and imagining the past or present. And as we come up with new ideas, that are incoherent and outlandish, inconsistent with the known, we advance human knowledge and expand the human universe for greater possibilities. It is this idealism, imagining alternative future worlds through new experiences in thought and practice, which I am referring to.

Artists – creative or performing – intellectuals and philosophers share two things in common; dreaming and playing with ideas. They need social space, institutions, respect and recognition to dream and add more colours to the ones we already have. We have not lost idealism entirely but we do need to revive all cultural and social institutions that have shaped our intellectual and cultural identity, particularly at this critical stage when we face culturally effacing globalisation and extremism.

The old Pak Tea House is symbolic of intellectually vibrant places. So let be there be one in every town and city — less for consuming cups of tea; more for consuming ideas.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 18th, 2010.


Rasul Bakhsh Rais | 12 years ago | Reply Nadir: You are right, absolutely right that exchange of ideas is taking place at local levels. I am afraid the subject is often politics, not the arts, culture and ideas. May be I am wrong here in exaggrating the pull of politics, we know the reasons why; frustration of expectations, or exaggerated expectations. I also agree that civil society groups that have proliferated (that is good) debate fresh idea on rights, development and environment. As I indicated at the end. my use of coffee house was metaphorical. Of course all is not lost and will never be. My referece was also to question of heritage and cultural values. Umair Kazi: Yes there are new forums like the one we are using now to exchange ideas, but these are universal, and we can participate in a debate and discussion any where in the world while sitting home in Lahore or any other place in the world. Americans and Europeans in this sense are more wired than we are. Physical presence and one to one or group engagment in exploring and debating ideas has no substitute yet. Much of the civic engagment and social movements also spun out of the coffee house interactions. Actually, those places that I am refering to and we have lost to consumer society of modern day Lahore or Karachi, had mostly young intellectuals who visited to meet great poets, artists and literary figures. And those greats souls inspired the youth and mentored them. Nothing, nothing can compensate that loss. Thanks both of you and other friends for comments.
Umair Kazi | 12 years ago | Reply "..less for consuming cups of tea, more for consuming ideas." Bravo! I wonder, though. In the brave new world with blogs, articles such as these, and instant communication/collaboration tools, perhaps the concept of a physical junction appeals more to our nostalgic chords than it does to the pursuance of new ideas!
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