The Enlightenment of a Nation

02/11/2014 02:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2014

I started this latest essay while I was visiting Paris, France, where I performed three times in 2013 and will likely again in 2014. I love Paris for its art, music, architecture and progressive approach to life, and it occurred to me that were it not for France's assistance in the American Revolution, or for American soldiers on the beaches of Normandy in WWII, I definitely would not be playing music here at all.

I've also been reading quite a bit of American history; it's become a bit of an obsession lately. As they say, history can be more fascinating than any novel, and depending on the author, it can be the best combination of truth, storytelling and intrigue all in one. My latest readings are from the American scholars Howard Zinn and David McCullough, both renowned historians and master storytellers. And, of course, Mark Twain, which I have been reading for years now, and is often more wit and humor than pedantic fact. Eduardo Galeano is in there too, for his eloquent histories on the Latin American experience, because that, too, is America.

Reading all of this means a fair bit of French history as well, since France was colonizing the New World around the same time as the Spanish and British. The United States and France have very deep historical and political ties that have served both nations well over the centuries, even if at times we find ourselves at odds with each other. But the fact remains that the United States and France are much more similar than we may readily admit, especially after 250 years of mutual influence. There is still much we can learn from each other.

As it's well known, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin spent a considerable amount of time in Paris prior to, and during, the American Revolution. They studied French Enlightenment philosophy and probably read Auguste Comte, who predicted a move away from religion and towards the sciences, and of course Voltaire, who used comedy as a way to show the follies of militarism and empire. Many others, I'm sure. At that time, Europe was starting to glimpse the first possibilities of social and economic reform, the wonders of science and the shattering of religious superstitions that had stupefied the population.

Ultimately, the United States was the first to throw off the yokes of the British monarchy and create a new nation, but were it not for those formative years in Paris, Jefferson, Franklin and others of that time may not have developed the progressive ideas that laid the foundation for the young United States. Alternately, were it not for the success of the American Revolution, France may not have risen up as quickly as she did to overthrow her own corrupt monarchy in 1789, allowing a French democracy to emerge. It was just as Thomas Jefferson later wrote in his autobiography, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants", and both nations proved this axiom to be absolutely true.

A couple hundred years later, in the 20th century, the French influence on expatriate artists would be equally immense. The American writers Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemmingway and Henry Miller all came to Paris in the early 1900s, to write what we now consider to be classic works of "American literature." The Parisian art scene would also prove to be a crucible for the newest and most progressive ideas about art in the modern world. The painters Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali were Spanish, Wasilly Kandinsky was Russian and the great sculptor, Constantine Brancusi, was Romanian, but they all found their visions in 20th century Paris. One has only to visit the Museum Of Modern Art in New York and stand in front of Monet's massive wall-length "Water Lilies," or Brancusi's "Bird In Flight," to feel that magical time again. If you can see their works in Paris, it's even more powerful.

In the musical world, France's influence has been equally huge, and most classical composers of this era chose Paris to debut their new works. In 1913, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky debuted his classical experiment, "The Rites of Spring," in Paris. Rioting in the aisles followed in the wake of the premier because Stravinsky's ideas went far beyond the people's ability to understand his music. By the second performance, however, they were swooning with enlightenment. Then came the great American jazz musicians, who were shunned in the United States, but came to Paris where they had roses laid at their feet. Indeed, Paris was the great muse of the political, literary, art and musical worlds for most of the last 300 years. For many of us, she still is.

Politically, the United States and France were both baptized in the blood of revolutions and a desire to overthrow tyranny in its various forms. Both countries still follow that ethos, even though the specter of corporate and financial tyranny has begun to gnaw at both nations' ribs. But as an American, I am reminded that the United States was built upon a liberal, progressive philosophy that the French started a few hundred years before, and it is evidenced in the written words that countless American writers, artists, musicians and statesmen have left for us to contemplate. That liberal, progressive, enlightenment philosophy has also helped us move through some of our nation's most difficult periods.

It was present in the social and political activism that brought about the end of slavery, and it created the fair labor laws that outlawed the use of child labor and indentured servitude. It gave women not only the right to vote, but also the right to work amongst men. It eventually helped alleviate our own racial inequality with the triumphs of the civil rights movement, and it advanced educational and employment opportunities for people of all races and religions. Perhaps most importantly, enlightened thinking is what made us question which laws were just, and which ones were not. Because if there is anything that history can teach us, it's that laws are only as just as the people who create them. Which is exactly why unjust laws must continually be broken, challenged and overturned. It is the enlightened citizen's responsibility to do so.

This progressive momentum has its own magical inertia, and if allowed to flourish, it is entirely possible that we can continue to advance our nation's social progress, regain control of our inept, "bathroom spying" government and, perhaps, even reign in the corporate banking system that has gutted the middle class and created a class of impoverished, debt-ridden workers. This is a physical assault on the American citizenry, and it absolutely must be reversed. A recent OXFAM paper has reported that 85 of the world's richest people have hoarded away more wealth than half of the world's poor population. How did we allow this kind of obscenity to happen? And why aren't the political leaders we elected watching out for economic equality and fairness, at home and abroad? This is exactly where we need enlightened thinking from our citizens -- as well as action.

When I read Howard Zinn's People's History or Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins, I am inspired in the same way as when I hear a John Coltrane melody, a Pete Seeger union labor song or a Stevie Wonder song about love. And when I read the words of France's great philosopher, Michele Foucault, I am reminded that we should never judge anyone, and instead accept that we are, all of us, beings of enormous potential. Let's work towards that potential. Words and music and art matter very much in this world; they inspire and teach people through the abstraction of the art form itself.

Well, if you ever get the chance to go France (and please, find a way to go there at least once in your life), you'll discover some amazing things. Things are a bit slower there, and people do not rush about as briskly or hurriedly as they do in London or New York. They value their labor, their workers and themselves. They also have much stricter laws on what foods are allowed for public consumption, genetically modified foods are strictly regulated there and organic food is more the norm than the exception. The French are some of the most fit, well-educated and polite people you will ever met anywhere in the world. And when the French go on strike to protest their government, it's usually a national event, with farmers and truck drivers driving their tractor-trailers into the streets of Paris. I've seen this twice in my life, when I played in Paris in the 1990s, exactly 100 years after the famous 1890s Belle Epoch. Everything came to a halt until the government started to listen to the people and take notice of their grievances. And that's because in France, the people are not afraid of their government; the government is afraid of the people.

And that's something we could use in the United States right now.