Friday, March 17, 2017

Realism, Art and Politics. Politics

If you're into European art history, you know that Realism was one of the earlier 'isms' (on the heels of Romanticism) and that it was displaced by Symbolism.  Well, before Realism there was also Neoclassicism, and afterwards there were also Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and so on.  Afterwards, some of the 'ism's' reek of marketing hype, but undeniably the time line, the waves of ism's, gets a bit confused.  Candidly, I'm not sure how useful the groupings are,  particularly when you have artists who over themselves won't stay put--this guy goes from his Blue Period to Cubism, that one from Dada to Neue Sachlichkeit.  All that said, and keeping in mind that even the most realistic of realists worked to convey a message or a meaning, and that even the most symbolic of symbolist paintings had some moorings in a shared language of reality, it's meaningful to say that realism gave way to symbolism.  Enough about art.

I'll cheerfully confess that I did not anticipate Donald Trump.  A year before the 2016 presidential election, when Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush were the respective Democratic and Republican frontrunners for their respective party's presidential nominations, I told someone that the party that did not nominate the legacy would win the presidency.  The public's accumulating bile and desire to reject the political status quo was pretty easy to sense.  But I never dreamed that observation would hold with a candidate like Trump as the nominee of one of the major parties.  The fact that he is now the American president says more (bad) about the United States than I would ever have been willing to concede before it happened.  And now that it has happened, there is no going back, no putting the pieces back together, no do over.  The way forward may be salvageable, but, make no mistake, there is no turning the clock back, no Making America Great Again as in some past period, for the Trumpistas, and no return to the status quo ante Trump, for the rest of the country.  Whatever comes will be new.

So, I've got this little problem.  Even with the daily unraveling of the federal government for diversion, I feel a need to figure out why I was wrong about how we got here.  No matter how right I may be about where we are and no matter how good my premonitions about where this is heading.

I think the key to the answer may lie in the transition from realism to symbolism.  After the end of the Second World War the survivors (winners and losers) were, by and large, realistic, cautious and pragmatic.  Sure, the Americans might fear the global spread of communism and the Soviets might dream 'we will bury you,' but at the end of the day, everyone is a position of power or authority or even influence had lived through one, or possibly two world wars.  The Americans might have Joe McCarthy, the French might have their Algerian (and Indochina) problem, the Soviets might fabricate a Doctor's Plot, the British were standing down from Empire, and the entire world was stunned to find itself in a world order underpinned by mutually assured destruction.  But nobody was prattling on about a global war on terrorism, or Islamo-fascism, or terrorist attacks that killed by the dozens or hundreds.  The stakes were a bit more serious.  The casualties were more terrible.  And the potential casualties were unimaginable.

Well, the guys who were present at the creation (to use Dean Acheson's phrase) are long gone.  The following generation, modestly calling itself the Greatest Generation, are checking out.  Even the boomers are giving way to nextgen.  I guess it's time for a new ism.  Caution, Realism and Pragmatism are a bit shopworn.  So what do we morph to?  Symbolism, of course.

In the United States, the Culture Wars have been a training ground for a transition in politics from realism to symbolism.  What kind of limp dick idiot gets excited about Gun Rights, for God's sake?  Funerals for aborted foetuses, anyone?  Let's deal with the problem of where effeminate teenage boys can go pee without getting beat up in the john by invoking the spectre of a rapist in every women's restroom in the country.  And that's just in the last twelve month (well, the Second Amendment hot button has been around for longer, but foetus funerals and transgender bathroom policies were among the 2016 issues de jour).

You cannot pander to creationists, for instance, without descending in a symbolic quagmire and spitting on science, basically.  You cannot propose to build a wall between your country and a neighbor without triggering an equal and opposite reaction from the neighbor you are insulting.  And once you commence trafficking in symbolism instead of policy, the step to alternative facts is pretty easy.  And once you start creating alternative facts, to the extent your propaganda operation gains traction, you are in some pretty bad 20th century company.  Not to mention becoming unmoored yourself.

The symbolism assumes a life of its own, and the sloganeering (which tends to be extreme and divisive) displaces the policy making (which tends to require compromise and coming together).  And the dialectic of politics tends to become self-fulfilling.  Who in their right mind would attempt to negotiate with the Freedom Caucus?  It's their way or the highway.  They are locked into a mindset that means you can't 'do business' with them.

Not to be too even-handed here, but it's worth remembering that the granddaddy of all the post WW2 American single issue movements was the civil rights movements.  And that environmentalists, advocates of gay rights, feminists, etc., can be just as focused on a single issue as the gun nuts and right-to-lifers.  The issues of Culture Liberalism for the last two generations have lent themselves to slogans and symbolism just as much as any right wing crusade for national redemption and Christian purity.  What I'm talking about in the tenor of the times, generally.

That said, there is a huge difference.  Feminists haven't burned any synagogues, that I'm aware of (or fraternity houses, for that matter).  Environmentalists don't run around killing people to limit population growth.  Global warming activists are generally accepting of the science of the issue (though they can get prissy about 'climate change deniers'--viz. abusing Freeman Dyson a decade ago).  In a nutshell, symbolic tendency can be expressed within and coexist with, an overall realistic world view.  The issue is what happens when the slogans and symbolism themselves displace policies and realism.

Even beyond the domestic consequences of the move into the politics of symbolism, a huge problem with such a transition is that, in something like the global order, the sovereign state players tend to share a common set of physical facts.  Not so much ideology and culture.  But the oil is there.  The manufacturing muscle is there.  The demographics of the population are such and such.  The Armed Forces of Nation X have the following known capacities.  And so on.   This is not, of course, entirely the case, and all the different players have different pressure points, priorities, ideologies, and so on but if there is a common focus on what might be called objective reality, there is an opportunity for give and take, communication, compromise, trading (the art of the deal? Ugh.).

But when the symbolism of the situation becomes paramount, when matters are distilled to their essence, become absolutes, and assume a symbolic importance far beyond any rational weight that can be assigned to them, well, you are setting yourself up for a clash of civilizations.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

We Are Not All In This Together

For an American of a certain age, that realization is perhaps the most distressing take away from American electoral politics since the turn of the century.  Once the realization sinks in, the immediate response is, 'hey, what happened?'  Fortunately for most Americans, the realization hasn't sunk in yet.  Unfortunately, it's only a matter of time before it does.  And, when it does, the country will require luck of heroic magnitude for that to happen without excruciating political trauma, social upheaval, economic suffering and physical violence.

Look at the basics.  Politically.  Two of the last three presidents (Bush and Trump) have been inaugurated after losing the popular election.  Both of them have been the preferred candidate of the 'one percent.'  In the last four congressional elections, the party (the Democrats) that has won millions more votes that its opponent has been in the minority, and that opponent (the Republicans) has controlled the national legislature.  Again, the Republicans are the party of the oligarchy.  Whatever you want to call these outcomes, don't call the result a representative democracy governed by its elected political leaders.  Economically.  Look at the skewing of incomes and wealth in favor the extremely wealthy (quantifiable), the destruction of unionized labor (historical fact) and the erosion of the economic security of the middle classes (real and perceived).  To put it gently, a rising tide (if it's even still rising) is no longer lifting all the boats.  Socially.  I won't dwell on that one, because Americans get all itchy and uncomfortable thinking about social class (the fact that dare not speak its name, rather like homosexuality in Oscar Wilde's day), but by virtually all measures, social mobility in the United States has collapsed, and, compared to other advanced countries, American society is stratified to an extent comparable to Britain at the height of the Empire (without the safety valve of emigration to the White Dominions).

What does this mean?  It means that a politics premised on cooperation, migration towards the middle, moderation, compromise and shared, mutually agreed goals, is a politics based on hypocrisy or a misunderstanding of the realities of the situation.  It means a politics that will be successfully manipulated and controlled by subsets within the culture that have a better understanding of those realities and exploit them for their benefits or agendas.  It means that the tools of consensus building, expertise based policies for technically complex issues, and assumptions about the ultimate good will and reasonableness of one's political adversaries will be abused, dulled and eventually discarded.

In short, it means we are not all in this together anymore.

Note--a man named William Kitteridge wrote short stories collected in a book titled We Are Not in This Together, published back in the 1980s.  Cumulatively, the stories are bleak, austere and depressing.  I think he was ahead of his time.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Realism, Art, Politics. Art

Art.  Art is a mirror.  Well, art is a lot of things.  And a mirror of what?  But, the very idea of art is a quicksilver concept, and once upon a time quicksilver was what made a mirror.  So, we'll stick with that mirror idea, but, instead of prattling on about artists in the avante garde, showing the way, illuminating all that is worthy of examination in their surroundings, let's turn it around, and look at art through a glass darkly, from the backside of the mirror, as it were.

Backsides.  Nalgas, tracero, culo.  Lots of different meanings, in any language.  A fair amount of art involves backsides.  There is a MOOC, offered by the University of Melbourne through Coursera, called Sexing the Canvas.  I believe it explores gender, roles, mores and so on, sexual matters in a various cultures, as reflected in the visual arts of those cultures.  I suspect it's an example of feminist art theory, and there is a lot of that out there, but maybe the presenters have transcended that, moved beyond as it were, and don't have an agenda.

Transcending vs. transgressing.  Transgression is a big deal in contemporary art.  Think of it as a fundamental career move.  An exercise in getting attention, breaking into critical consciousness.  Crufixes in urine, Mapplethorpe's in your face homoerotica and all that silliness a generation ago.  Now, featured in art school promotional pieces.  Since so many art students are 'traditional college students' (i.e., in their late teens, early twenties, with no life experience), and that is a group attracted to the idea breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules, part of flexing the muscles of emergent adulthood, what you have to teach is nothing compared to what I have to say, featuring opportunities to be transgressive in a supportive environment (Break the Rules Without Paying the Price), it's a smart marketing move.  But, what about transcending, rather than transgressing?  The nuance between transcending an existential situation while in life crisis and committing a traffic violation to get to class on time does tend to get lost, and I have no idea how an instructor teaches people who are present to break the rules (the elderly teacher's patient admonition to the effect that you have to know the rules to break the rules was old and dusty when I first heard it half a century ago).

So, we have sex and rule breaking.  Gender and transgression, if you prefer, for themes of contemporary art.  Or for Trump and Russia.  Themes are a big deal in contemporary art--they are how textbooks, academic courses and sometimes exhibitions are organized.  The idea of conceptual art has waxed, just as concerns of craft have waned.  No one should be limited by her media, or even tasked to learn how to exploit to maximum advantage her media.  Find something more malleable.  The novelty value make get you your 15 minutes.  Meanwhile, others lament the 'deskilling' of artists.  Hmm . . .  That doesn't just mean the elimination for budgetary reasons of arts education in the public schools.  That means, at the university level, reducing the drawing requirement from a year to semester, replacing the  design course with something called methods of art.  Hmm . . .

I should not be so harsh.  The product of conceptual art may yield Intellectual Property, that can be scaled up to great wealth.  The product of a craftsman-like approach merely yields an object.  No matter how valuable an object it doesn't scale (well, there is 'production art', but that leads back to intellectual property), and people now argue whether the object is even necessary for art.

Performance art.  Absent recording, I'm not sure how performance art can have legs.  I mean, the Sistine Chapel is there for the viewing, but the choirs of castrati who sang in solemn masses are long gone.  And, if you asked the modern performance artist whether he'd like to see himself as a Michelangelo or as one of those castrati, I'm betting the former, not the latter.  But, despite desire for the former, the fate of the latter is the more likely.

Back to the mirror, and from the backside, through a glass darkly.  Not, what does art say about society, but what does society say about art?  Well, if you look at the social context of art, first you must ignore the claims of its participants to be on the cutting edge, in the avante garde, transgressive pioneer visionaries recasting society, ever advancing the boundaries of art and human understanding.  It's a bit like investment bankers claiming to be the engines of job creation and wellsprings of economic growth.  Yeah, they'll finance a project, as long as the ROI is there.

The business of the arts, arts communities, tend to be very conservative places, a tense warren of perches, sinecures and interdependencies, hiding from the reality of their collective situation by grasping at a group think commitment to all the causes of cultural liberalism, especially the cause de jure, as if, wrapped in that, they can delude themselves.  The tenured radical with her oldest in law school becomes a martyr to the patriarchy like her sister riding a cash register at Walmart, husband methed out somewhere while alone she's raising three children, her oldest already in trouble with the law.  Ah, but we so are sensitive to the plight of our transgendered community, suffering the indignity of incorrect gender assignment at birth. (Are we permitted to wonder, as a colleague who teaches industrial design recently confided in me, where all these kids are coming from--I mean, he said, I can see one or two in a hundred, but I've got a seminar, twelve kids, and four of them have adopted the position.  What gives?  I dunno what gives, but I told him, but his mission, should he decide to accept it, was to get his students to stop thinking about what was between their legs and get them to focus on what's between the covers of the books he assigned as course reading.  He rolled his eyes.)

It is easy to be diverted by posturing on the issues of cultural liberalism, and doing so plays into everyone's interests.  The underlying realities of the situation are simple enough.  But they are very hard.  The arts depend on patronage, and artists are only as good as their preparation.  Patronage is an ever shifting fact of life, and dealers, critics and curators have always been a structural parts of the world of art.  But, just as the decorative artists, court painters, and church musicians of the ancient regime were, by and large, faithful servants to the end (with a few highly publicized exceptions), the stakeholders of the current regime will remain faithful to the end.  And, to put it mildly, the art world is struggling to adapt to the enormous concentration of wealth of the last generation and the ongoing loss of public support for the arts.  The little rich and the high income professionals were a great source of support for the arts in past decades.  Not so much anymore.  And there simply aren't enough billionaires to fill the hole.

And, when you look at how artists are prepared, trained, cultivated, the picture is as grim.  Grafting arts education onto of broader liberal arts education makes all the sense in the world if you’re cultivating an appreciative lay public, not so much if you’re trying to train professionals, particularly when you glorify talent and genius, rather than craft and diligence, skill and discipline.  And today even that approach to arts education, in the United States, at least, is in disarray, not because the instructors are weak, the programs defective, or the students lacking potential, but because the social context in which they exist has shifted radically.  Like highly refined niche species, they are incapable of adapting to the new climate.  I'm told that this problem is even worse in the old Soviet Union.  The resources have been withdrawn.  But, of course, the graduates are still churned out, some with debt, some with attitude, some with both.

So the times are hard.  And they are getting worse.  And they will continue to get worse.  Until the players are forced to either leave the field, or walk the walk.

What other field of human endeavor seems to be in similar straits?  Good old  traditional, business as usual politics, anyone?


Monday, March 6, 2017

It's Sinking In . . . or Fellow Travelers, Gullible and Otherwise

The Russian taint.

Slowly, vast swaths of the American public appear to be concluding that the Trump regime is in some spooky sense beholden to the Russian government.  It is a cumulative and piecemeal process, and what is important to some people does not move others.  But, overall, the conclusion is hard to avoid--the Russians successfully 'hacked' the 2016 election, Trumps surrogates, agents, campaign manager, etc., are in pretty routine contact with Russians counterparts, Trump himself and his family have business interests that fatally compromise the independence and autonomy of the American presidency vis-a-vis Russia.  And that's without even getting to lurid hints at filmed sexual depravity or rumors of a half-billion dollar Russian 'investment' in Trump's businesses.

Maybe it will all blow over.  Not likely.  Not with the attorney general getting caught lying under oath about it (excuse me, misremembering in his testimony).  It is kind of funny watching the party of the Benghazi witch hunt balking at looking into a real problem.  The people who wanted to pin personal responsibility for consular security issues on a secretary of state who, I doubt, could have found the consulate if you'd given her a map of Benghazi?

Almost 70 years ago, Republicans in Congress engaged in an earlier witch hunt, seeking Communists and sympathizers in Hollywood, the State Department and elsewhere using as their tool the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the investigative activities of Senator Joe McCarthy (whose subsequently disgraced lawyer was a man named Roy Cohn who, interestingly, years later was the lawyer of a young New York real estate scion named Donald Trump).  The intrepid witch hunters of that era used the term 'fellow travelers' for people who weren't actually Communists, but who were sympathizers, or at least acted in tandem with them, or, at a minimum bumped into them in meetings or whatever.  If they were merely political sentient and on the left, unaware of the Communist affiliations of some of their political allies, they were 'gullible' fellow travelers.  For knowing what was going on, you lost the dismissive but ameliorating modifier 'gullible.'

The concept of 'fellow traveler' made it easier to hold people accountable for things they didn't know they had done.  It would be delightful to apply the same standards to Trump and his minions.   Let's see, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a 'gullible' Russian asset.  Campaign Manager Paul Manafort, well, maybe not so gullible.

Anyway you cut it, it's pretty un-American.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Realism. Art. Politics. Realism.

Gentle reader, I hope you are not expecting a comfortable middlebrow essay on Realism in the Art of Politics.  There are any number of outstanding media platforms—ranging from The Financial Times to The New York Review of Books from First Things to The Baffler—where there are an astonish profusion of commentaries on that general topic.  Nah.  This is going to be number one in an occasional series of three posts, one of Realism, one on Art and one on Politics.  My challenge will be to tie them all together somehow.  Here goes.  Realism.

Back in the middle of the 19th century Realism was a bona fide movement in painting and sculpture, a controversial departure from Romanticism and a challenging counterpoint to the Academy of the day.  (Like ‘realism’ the ‘academy’ is one of those flexible terms that means different things at different times—today it seems to be a way for the professoriat to comfortably gloss over the unpleasant fact of an institutional pecking order, in other words that a professor with tenure at Standford is one thing, and an adjunct instructor at Southern Oregon State University something else entirely.  But back in the 19th century the 'academy' was, well, the Academy, as in the Academie Francaise, the Royal Society, etc.).  Back to Realism.

Let’s be real, he’s realistic, etc.  In a pragmatic culture that believes that a shared social reality (that word, again) is the foundation of communication, that comfortably relegates the philosophical inquiries into the nature of that shared reality either to history or to contemporary academics no one pays much attention to, the 'real-' terms generally carry a rather boring, positive connotation.  She’s realistic and reliable.  He’s a dreamer and undisciplined.  Which one do you choose for the job of making sure the shipping department is well organized, efficient, and meetings its performance metrics?  The meaning of realistic is so positive, so diffused and so encompassing that is almost empty.  Nowadays, to say a portrait or a landscape is realistic basically means, colloquially, that’s it’s a fair replication of what a photograph of the subject would look like, and little more.

That wasn’t always the case. The basic idea of the mid 19th century art movement known at Realism was that the subject and techniques of art should be the faithful representation of contemporary reality.  No more painting scenes of classical antiquity.  If you haven’t personally witnessed it, you shouldn’t paint it.  And the representation of the contemporary scene should be accurate.  The peasant should look like a peasant, the whore should look like a whore and if the dreary inhabitants of a dreary village have turned on a dreary occasion like a funeral, you got it, the picture should be dreary, not uplifting and spiritual.  If you believe that the mission of Art is to elevate the human spirit and acquaint modern youth with the pious or noble virtues of the illustrious past, that’s pretty revolting (in both senses of the word).  I mean, peasants should be happy arcadians, whores, well, they should be saints following their conversion, and so on.  Let's ride to the sound of the guns, a la Stendahl.  But for the Realists, their work was a matter of  ‘Just the facts, ma’am’ (some echoes of realism down through centuries have been more entertaining than others).

The outstanding proponent of Realism was a Frenchman named Courbet.  Early Manet (more commonly thought of as an Impressionist) and Millet (he of the gleaners) were also good exemplars.  In due course, the Realist movement gave way, and Symbolism surfaced, the Impressionists were more interested in subjective than objective reality, and all the ferment of late 19th century painting and sculpture proceeded to unfold.  But Realism continues to surface in various forms—Surrealism, the Ash Can School, Photorealism and so on (most would argue that the Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union was actually a form of officially sanctioned Romanticism, that’s really getting down in the weeds).

An interesting thing about Realism.  The choice of topic and method of presentation had profound political implications.  If you  really, really, rub people’s noses in the state of contemporary affairs, very few people are satisfied.  Over and out.  Some of them become terrible agitated and want to fix the problems they see, in terms of correcting injustices, righting wrongs, establishing new rights and using the collective resources of society to improve the state of humanity (whether we are talking about Blake’s New Jerusalem or a single payer healthcare system)  Some of them become terribly agitated and to fix the problems they see, in terms of restoring traditional values, ending the corrosion of national prestige, protecting our gun rights,  putting women in their place, keeping our little girls safe from queers who want to assault them in the bathroom, and so on.

The Realists themselves tend to fall into the first camp.  Most decent people do.  It takes a punitive, cowardly or at the very least, rigidly doctrinaire mindset not to. 

Courbet, for example, was an enthusiastic participant in the Paris Commune and spent six months in prison for his role in it (and didn’t get shot probably because towards the end he had a falling out with his fellow Communards when they executed an ally of his, so at the very last he was an alienated former participant in the Commune rather than a fighter going down on the Barricades).  He died in alcoholic Swiss exile, the French government pursuing him with a bill for damages to a monument he ordered pulled down during the Commune.   Much different outcome than a visiting distinguished fellowship at a major university, a perch in a think tank of your particular flavor, a book contract and an arrangement with a speaker’s bureau.  But no matter.

When apologists for our oligarchy and other conservative hacks bitch that ‘the facts have a liberal bias,’ this is what’s triggering it.  Most decent people, looking at most difficult situations, have a tendency to want to help the people caught in the difficulties.  As was once said of Gerald Ford (the first Republican president to take office without a popular mandate), Ford may be a conservative, but if he met somebody with a problem, he’d give them the shirt off his back.  Literally.  But, if you have, within yourself, repressed and denied that human tendency to give a sufferer the shirt off your back, you are naturally going to object to people dwelling on the difficulties those sufferers face and try to focus on the failings of the victims, their personal responsibility, or the decline in public mores that allowed the situation to develop in the first place (it’s awfully hard to blame small children for having drug addicted parents).  If, instead, the media focus on, continue to dwell on, the situation as it exists, the suffering, the victims, you will find yourself complaining about media bias.  And when you don't win that argument (the main stream media having a penchance for 'just the facts, ma'am' a/k/a objectivity in its coverage) then you complain that facts themselves have a liberal bias.  So, yeah, the facts have a liberal bias.

But only because most people are nice people.


Monday, February 27, 2017

La La Land, Tragedy and Farce--The Electoral College and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

For a brief, embarrassing moment, the movie that got fewer votes was announced as the winner of the 2017 Oscar for Best Motion Picture.  Moonlight got the most votes, La La Land was announced the winner.  The error was quickly corrected, and everybody's having a good time mocking their choice of culprit--Warren Beatty's too old vs. Price Waterhouse can't count.  From the academy's point of view, it sure beats the aftertaste from OscarsSoWhite.

For the next four years, the country is going to endure a president who was inaugurated after losing the popular vote by over 3 million votes.  This is not going to be such a good time.  Now, two out of the last three US presidents took office after losing the popular election.  The first time the guy (Bush) lost by about three hundred thousand votes.  His years in office did not end well.  This time the guy lost by ten times the margin, and the ending of his regime is likely to be an order of magnitude worse.

The immediate reason for this is the Electoral College, an institution of indirect election that weighs the vote of a white skinhead or Aryan Nation follower in Wyoming or Idaho and a bit more than twice as much as the vote of a housewife or engineer in New York or California (the overweighing is far, far grosser in terms of Senate representation, but that's a topic for another day).  Now, the Electoral College was this system devised by the Founding Fathers to protect the republic from demagogues or unqualified rulers when electing a president.  We were all taught in school that the Electoral College is an anachronistic formality.  We were taught wrong, and it is not.  The results speak for themselves.

Unfortunately, unlike last night's farce at the Oscars, no one is going to come forward and admit the mistake.  At least not until some more cards have turned over.  The frog is comfortable in the pot, and the water temperature is getting pleasantly warmer.  Until  the tragedy boils over.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

American Revolution?

Let's get one thing straight.  There has never been an American revolution.  Between 1775 and 1783 that was a rebellion that became a War of Independence.  It used to be called that--the War of Independence.  But for the last three-quarters of a century, for both domestic and international consumption, in pursuit of an eminently sensible, geopolitical agenda, the War of Independence has been recast as the American Revolution.

It's pretty harmless.  We did have a genuine Civil War, of course (which some of your more cerebral unreconstructed rebels used to try to call the Southern War of Independence).  But a revolution, like the Soviet Revolution or the French Revolution.  No.

Was there an ideological component to the American War of Independence?  No doubt.  The Founding Fathers swam in the currents of the European Enlightenment, provincial groupies and followers of various strands of Enlightenment thinking, chiefly the parts concerned with political organization, less so the social analysis.  When Franklin arrived in Paris, he played the hick beautifully because the role was such a good fit. But to turn those guys into the towering intellects of the 18th century is joke.

The colonists started as subjects of a hereditary king, governing with legislature consisting of a hereditary House of Lords and a Parliament elected by a very restricted suffrage.  The new nation emerged with an elected king and a legislature consisting of an upper chamber composed of oligarchs indirectly selected by their fellow oligarchs and a lower chamber elected by a very restricted suffrage.

Some revolution.  But, definitely, a successful war of independence.