Loss of idealism

Published: May 17, 2010
The writer is professor of political science at LUMS (rasul.rais@tribune.com.pk)

The writer is professor of political science at LUMS (rasul.rais@tribune.com.pk)

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.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • May 18, 2010 - 4:02AM

    Pakistani tea houses are alive and thriving. Maybe the tea houses on M.M. Alam Road or Defence are not filled with political debate and relevant discussion, however, go to any truck hotel or chai wala on the side of the road and people are involved, discussing the nations affairs and local issues. In many respects they are more in tune with what happens in their community and the country.

    We have embraced the romantic notions of idealism. The archetype is painted in the mould of the Western revolutionary or thinker. Which is all fine, if you are targeting that 3% of society for who such archetypes are relevant.

    For those who can offered coffee and tea at the price which is greater than a common labourers daily wage talking about their utopian vision of the future, their art, alternative worlds is all well and good.

    However, we should recognize that the country is not as intellectually barren as this article seems to paint it. Its just that for people such as myself and perhaps the author if he would agree, we are unable to recognize local, community based, grass root exchanges of ideas. We are in search for idealism in the Western form. Perhaps an ear closer to the ground? Recommend

  • Shahd
    May 18, 2010 - 4:40AM

    I finished reading K K Aziz’s “The Coffee House of Lahore” last week. One feels having missed an era in which the intelligentsia, the scholars and the intellectuals gathered for meaningful social and political debate. The loss of literary enthusiasm has surely spelt disaster for our youth. As people today like to watch rather than read, two thirty minute conspiracy laden documentaries on Youtube make the youth feel competent enough to write on complex historical, cultural, social and economic issues. Adding to this problem is the fact upwardly mobile urban middle class that tries to project itself as a solution is apolitical, apathetic, selfish and generally does not care about social harmony and communal prosperity anymore. Debate and dissent indeed are at the heart of a flourishing democracy, idealism is at the core of progressive human thought.Recommend

  • Saad
    May 18, 2010 - 11:33AM

    A very important message given very effectively!

    We need a certain level of acceptance and tolerance for art (be it in any form) and need to be open to new-er ideas!Recommend

  • Mudassar
    May 18, 2010 - 12:54PM

    Although there is no Lahore Coffee House or Pak Tea House anymore but its not hard to find the likes of Lakota Coffee Point. This city is still offering a wider social space but what we are missing are the “consumers of ideas” who can ‘dream and play with ideas’. The coffee house culture in lahore is booming higher than ever and it is largely the result of much cursed globalization. I am in favour of reviving the old Pak Tea House but the same culture can also be revived and re-lived in the contemporary coffee shops and cafes.Recommend

  • Ammara Khan
    May 18, 2010 - 1:07PM


  • Mohsin Ali Syed
    May 18, 2010 - 3:23PM

    Professor I salute you!

    Finally someone has stood up and explained the actual concept of a coffee house in the midst of all young people or families who just visit coffee shops to be seen, follow a particular trend and indulge in mindless pseudo discussions. Recommend

  • May 18, 2010 - 9:08PM

    “..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!Recommend

  • Rasul Bakhsh Rais
    May 18, 2010 - 10:08PM

    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.Recommend

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