The American political expedience – Post-Christmas thoughts

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor,
either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are,
or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.

Stephen Colbert, A Thought For Christmas

chartAt our Christmas dinner (there were seven of us, five American ex-pats and two Mexican nationals, three men and four women), there was much talk of the United States by los estadounidenses. Despite being here, it seems there is always much talk of there. That’s true even among ex-pats who have lived here for more than a dozen years.

I left the United States for México on election day 2012, not to make a political statement, but because I was able to get an inexpensive ticket that day and the apartment in San Miguel was still available. Unlike many conservatives who swore they would leave the U.S. if O’bama won, I was making no such statement should Governor Romney – whom Andy Borowitz has named The Man of the Year for 1912 – have won.  I wonder if any have actually made arrangements to leave?

This was the first presidential election in which I did not vote in quite some time. I could have voted early, could have voted by mail, but my vote is worthless. As a progressive and as a Democrat in California, in the Bay Area, my vote was unimportant in so many races. Perhaps if I lived in North Dakota I might have felt an urgency to vote.

In the Spirit of the French Revolution

While some Americans have a love affair with all things English, especially royalty (Diana, William, Harry, Fergie, etc.) and some are passionate about all things francaise, there is a group that truly dislikes the French whenever they do not parade lockstep with American jingoism. Hence the “freedom fries” foolishness.

But I think behavior by American politicians today much resembles that of late 18th century France.

It is problematic that the American War for Independence (1775-1782) would have resulted in a victory for the colonies if it had not been for the support of the French king. The French crown spent heavily in support of the American cause, and this took place after heavy spending during the Seven Years’ War (France 1754-1763); one result of the Seven Years’ War was that France ceded to Spain part of New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi River and to Great Britain the rest of New France (except St. Pierre and Miquelon).

Notice any similarity to heavy American military spending in Afghanistan (2001-present), Iraq (2001, 2003-2011), Kuwait (1990-91) and covert operations in the Middle East? The latest rumors are that the United States will become more involved in conflicts in Africa, where, due to internal unrest and attacks on U.S. embassies and ships over the past 20 years, a U.S. military presence at times has been dispatched to the Central African Republic, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Sudan,Somalia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, and Yemen. Add U.S. support of U.N. forces in Albania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Macedonia and you have huge sums in foreign military campaigns.

Louis XVI ascended to the throne in 1774 when he was 20 years old. The initial years of his reign were given to efforts to abolish serfdom, remove the taille (a land tax on non-nobles, such as peasants), and increased tolerance toward non-Catholics. None of this made the nobles and clergy happy. When France provided monetary support to the American colonies, it put France in a precarious financial situation. Louis’ marriage to a foreigner (Marie Antoinette, archduchess of Austria) created yet more dissension among the French nobles (the populace generally found favor with her initially).

Not from My Pocket

Charles Alexandre, vicomte de Calonne, as Controller-General of Finances thought he had a solution to the financial crisis. He knew that the Parliament of Paris would never agree to the most sweeping reforms in French history that included abolishing various taxes (including the vingtieme taxes) and replacing them with a universal land tax (the subvention territoriale, to be levied on all property without distinction, to be paid by everyone). The fiscal exemptions of the privileged orders (nobles and clergy, that century’s 1 per cent) would cease.

The new tax was to have been administered by a system of provincial assemblies elected by local property owners. Additional reforms, including free trade in grain and abolition of France’s myriad internal customs barriers, were part of Calonne’s proposal. In summary, Calonne proposed:

  1. Cutting government spending
  2. Reviving free trade methods
  3. Authorizing the sale of church property
  4. Equalizing salt and tobacco taxes
  5. Establishing the subvention territoriale

The key tenet of Calonne’s proposal was not original to him. Previous finance ministers such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot and Jacques Necker had also attempted to impose taxes on the wealthy, and if there is one thing which the wealthy abhor, it is to be treated as everyone else. Calonne mistakenly attributed the failure of Turgot and Necker to the opposition of the parlements. Louis XVI fully supported Calonne’s reform program, seeing it as one way to reduce the suffering of the French people.

The parlements often resisted royal authority in order to assert the traditional privileges of the aristocracy against the centralizing attempts of the crown.

When the Parlement of Paris ruled that it could not vote on the reform proposal, Calonne handpicked an Assembly of Notables in 1787 to approve new taxes. The Assembly refused and Calonne’s reputation plummeted:  he was forced to leave the country. The King seemed at a loss for new solutions and withdrew.

Sound Familiar?

Compare the above to the United States where any discussion – at any government level – of taxing church property or income is met with immediate rebuke (admittedly there are Constitutional issues around freedom of religion because if the government can tax, then it can control – but why should those who do not believe in a religion be forced to support it by paying an unfair portion of tax?). The current stalemate over taxing/not taxing  the wealthy is but an echo of pre-revolutionary France.

And, really, does anyone think that the elite – members of the U.S. Congress or Senate, would vote to tax their benefactors – also members of the elite?

Pillaging the Queen (and Others)

Robert Darnton’s The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleondescribes the 18th century’s gossip and slander mill that was directed at nobles and royalty. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were both victims of the rumor mill, especially the Queen who was the object of many salacious publications.

Louis XVI had two brothers (the Comte de Provence and the Comte d’Artois) who both became kings under the constitutional monarchy in the 19th century. The Comte d’Artois was twelve when he was befriended by Marie Antoinette on her arrival at court (she was 15). Court intrigue was such that Louis Philippe d’Orléans, the future Duke of Orléans, attempted to create a rift between the King and his youngest brother. Louis Philippe introduced the Comte d’Artois to gambling and brothels at the Palais-Royal. Louis Philippe wanted the Comte to catch a venereal disease and either die or become sterile, thereby increasing Louis Philippe’s own chances of gaining the throne.

Pamphleteers accused Marie Antoinette of adultery, lesbianism, pedophilia, treason, and of being the cause of all evil within French society. As Ruth Scurr noted in her review of the book in The Nation:

… there is also a contemporary resonance to consider: as our own voracious yellow press goes from strength to strength and life-writing converges on celebrity biography, the more defamatory the better selling, what can the history of slander and libel teach us?

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