If everything's 'revolutionary,' nothing is
From corn chips to deodorants, marketers tout new products as 'revolutionary.' But real revolutions are rare. And revolutions that endure depend on a secret ingredient: democracy
Revolution is an extremely overused word.Skip to next paragraph
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Marketers tout a new flavor of corn chip (cool ranch! honey crunch!) as revolutionary. A video game, a cellphone calling plan, a flamboyant outfit worn by a Paris runway model routinely get the same designation. If you search Google for the term “a revolutionary new,” you’ll be presented with 8.7 million possibilities, ranging from “glorious one-pot meals” to a compartmentalized pet feeder to a report on Estonian Air’s financial strategy.
More believable revolutions occur in politics, economics, and culture. The scientific revolution, the sexual revolution, the digital revolution, and the green revolution have better claim to the name than, say, the skin-care revolution. History changed, old assumptions crumbled, life is different as a result, and not just in the world of facial moisturization.
A real revolution is a moment of revelation and transformation. The word means to change things completely. A revolution occurs when a group of people concludes that present conditions are untenable and that the future is in their hands. Tradition and deference fly out the window.
Often, as historian James Billington noted in his 1980 book on the revolutionary spirit, “Fire in the Minds of Men,” things can go too far. Revolutionaries promise heaven on earth, with tragic and absurd results.
In the case of the French in 1789, the new order became so drunk on power that they embarked on a basic rebooting of everything, including the calendar – which was not a popular move. Despite revolutionary new month names (Thermidor! Germinal!), it turned out that working folks were not keen on 10-day weeks and the old Gregorian calendar was just fine with them as well.
For a real revolution to occur, it helps to have an out-of-touch despot like George III, Louis XVI, or Czar Nicholas II. Popular yearning has to be building as well. And something has to be in the air – a powerful idea like democracy (“Hey, why shouldn’t we have a say?”) or a galvanizing incident like the storming of the Bastille.