July is a month celebrating two very important revolutions. First, here in America we have the Fourth of July and the Declaration of Independence. Second (in a chronological sense only) is July 14th, Bastille Day, the first event in the formation of the first French Republic.About a year ago I read an article about these two revolutions and the differing meaning of what we now call “human rights” coming out of these events of a couple of hundred years ago http://www.spectrezine.org/reviews/Waasenaar.htm.
Of course there are lots of surface similarities. France and America will abound in fireworks and parades. Red, white and blue cockades will appear everywhere. We will share common platitudes regarding the virtues of elected representative government. We will avoid reference to uncouth excesses such as burning George III in effigy or playing soccer with the head of Louis XVI. But while the forms look the same, the revolutionary foundations of these two nations have some very profound differences.
In a nutshell, the differences in the French and American traditions of democracy and human rights come down to some very important differences in the relationship between the individual and society (please note that I am using the word “society” quite specifically, as opposed to “state”), the meaning of liberty, and indeed the differing justifications of revolutionary actions behind the two traditions.The Individual and Society
Us folks on the left have a tradition of addressing each other as "comrade"; I like this tradition. The antecedent of this tradition goes back to the French Revolution when titles of nobility, authority, rank and hierarchy were abolished and replaced with the simple and egalitarian form of address, "citoyen".
This concept of “citoyen” carries loads of meaning. For one thing, such a form of address places the individual (indeed all individuals) within the context of society as a whole. Such a form of address describes a relationship where the individual maintains rights within the social whole and where the individual owes certain obligations and responsibilities to society as a whole. In short, the relationship between society and the individual is integrated and holistic. This is for instance quite a bit different from our American (and Anglo-Saxon) tradition of a balanced antagonism between the individual and the state (Here I use “state” quite specifically, as opposed to “society”).
The integration of the individual and society within the whole has quite specific consequences. While the individual has rights of freedom of thought and expression, assembly, participation, due process and all the rest, there is also an individual responsibility to exercise such rights in the development and evolution of one’s society and culture. The French Revolution (indeed maybe all revolutions) was not meant as a spectator event. Indeed the conception of the individual and society originating during the French Revolution does not hold a large place for those wishing to maintain a distanced neutrality regarding social and political events.
And then there is the American (and Anglo Saxon) tradition.
First, when we talk about human rights, we often seem to talk about our freedoms in opposition to "The State". Our freedoms which also include rights to freedom of thought and expression, assembly, due process, etc. are almost always described as freedoms from interference from state and governmental power only. Rarely in America do we talk about society, or culture, or the collective activity of citizens. In this context we have also created a freedom which doesn’t exist within the French revolutionary tradition; that being the right to privacy, to a chosen isolation, to be left alone.
A great deal of the American tradition of human rights emanates from the notion that yes indeed, man is an island, living in isolation and in antagonism with other individuals. Here the role of the state is to mediate whose rights take precedence over others’ rights.
I could go on about the wide-open west, the doctrine of Jacksonian Democracy which offered freedom to all who were white and spoke English, and freedom to everything that could be seized as long as it wasn’t from a fellow American, but enough of the history lesson.
Instead, I would like to look at the legacy of the French and American notions of democracy and human rights. History does spawn consequences that often become the foundation of individuals’ day to day thinking and reacting.
So, I was reading this article about an American teaching English in France. This particular guy was active with the French Left Communist Party while working as a teacher of English. So, this guy would take the train to work that was on the route to the business district and the French Defense Ministry. The Defense Ministry and the Bourse are hardly bastions of leftist thought, yet, this American frequently engaged in open and reasonably civil conversations with his fellow passengers regarding social and political events with each participant being quite clear on their perspective and political point of view. Evidently, in France (and most of Europe) this is quite common.
This summer, I have a French student of 16 living with us for a month. My wife asked her flat out, "did your parents vote for Segolene Royal or Sarkozy?" Without blinking an eye, Eva said, “Segolene”. I asked, “Both times? She answered “Yes, both times, first and second” (referring here to the run-off system France uses for its Presidential election).
If you are an American however, try asking a co-worker, acquaintance or a chance met stranger who they voted for President. Chances are around 90% that the response will be, "none of your business", or, "don’t tell me how to vote, I’ll make up my own mind", or, "why do you want to know?" The comment almost 100% of the time comes with a sneer often accompanied with some type of violent gesture.
This past autumn I damned near gagged when one of my fellow schoolteachers started lecturing the students about, “What a great privilege it is that we are allowed to vote in the USA!” I damned near fell out of my chair. I wanted to say, “So, if voting is a privilege, who has the right to grant the privilege?” “Do these same people have the right to take the privilege of voting away?” “Geez I thought voting was an inalienable right that comes with a democratic society, what do you think?”
But I didn’t; most of my students are autistic whose thoughts go in other directions. They wouldn’t get the discussion anyway.Liberty and License
The word “liberty” is used a lot in the USA. Look at the inscription on any coin. Or, how about “Sweet land of liberty/Of thee I sing”? All the same, as a society I don’t think we have a clue as to the real meaning of liberty.Here’s my running definition of liberty:
Liberty is the freedom to think, to engage and to act. Yet liberty also includes our taking responsibility for our thoughts, engagements and actions. A necessary pre-requisite of the notion of liberty is that our actions do have consequences and these consequences are of our doing and are our responsibility. What ever it was we did, we did it.
This notion of liberty is a key concept in the spirit of the French Revolution. This concept of liberty is the keystone that binds the “citoyen” to society as a whole. I think this same notion of liberty was a part of our American Revolution too. As Ben Franklin put it, “People who would trade liberty for security shall have neither”. But somewhere Ben’s notion of liberty got lost in the shuffle.
Here in America, we would be more honest if we replaced the concept of liberty with the concept of license. License means freedom too, but without the consequences and without the responsibility. License is the freedom to get away with what you can get away without facing the consequences. License is letting a three-year-old have a loaded pistol.Consider how this plays out:
“Sweet Land of Liberty”…. Yet a nation where lynching based on the color of one’s skin is a bona fide long-standing tradition; where we still haven’t worked out the damage caused by 300 years of slavery. We are a nation that has used the most violent force, state and private sponsored, against those who are looking for their little corner of freedom. We routinely punish social and political dissidents by jailing, blacklisting, deporting, and we seem to do so with very little conscious consideration or concern. Am I stretching things? I don’t think so…. I can follow the pattern from slavery, to the Haymarket affair, to the first Red scare, through the Japanese internment camps, through the McCarthy period, to the suppression of the civil rights movement, to Abu Ghraib, through the "extraordinary renditions, to Guantanamo. But this is all the state stuff.
How about license on the personal and economic level? Enron bilked hundreds of thousands out of their hard saved pensions. Yet we have Mrs. Ken Lay publicly “crying the blues” about her personal “crisis of liquidity”; this being the extraordinary hardship of having to downscale one’s life from seven palatial houses to maybe two. And this was with no shame whatsoever
A couple of years ago southern California had a major heat wave. The result was a collapsing electrical utility system. While this crisis as going on, the radio was playing a recorded conversation between two energy brokers, one telling the other to find any excuse to shut a power plant down; to drive the price of electricity up. All without a thought about those getting sick and dying in the 100-degree plus temperatures. You'd think with such brazen theft and manipulation that there would be consequences for those responsible. Think again!
Revolution of the Right, Revolution of the Left
Dr. Ingrid Waasenaar, who wrote the above linked article made a real good point. The political philosophy of the First French Republic had to be thought out; almost as if created from scratch.
Consider the context:
The first French Revolution involved the demise of an entire social and political system. The divine right of the monarchy, the seigniorial privileges of the nobility, the ideological power combined with the great privilege of the French Catholic Church all came tumbling down. As Saint Just put it, the revolution will not be complete until, “The last cleric is hung in the entrails of the last nobleman.”
But what replaced this old system? Here the social discussion that was the revolution moved increasingly in the direction of the “citoyen”. Thus, the responsibility that is part and parcel of liberty came almost automatically. The new society had to be consciously made.
The American Revolution was a whole different ball game. The American tradition exists as one event in a long series of Anglo-Saxon evolutions around placing limitations on absolute power. As such, the American Revolution ought to be seen in the wider context of such events as the Magna Carta, the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
The point of the above historical facts is this: The Anglo-Saxon revolutions were largely in defense of the existing social system where the impetus of the revolt was an encroaching monarchy or state power rather than any desire to create a new social order.Of course, combine the above paragraph with 18th and 19th century classical economics with its notion that the greatest social good would arise through individuals taking maximum advantage of other individuals (the liberty of the marketplace), and, well, this is a much different animal than the French Revolution.
It All Does Still Matter:
I’m real biased here. I feel much closer to the French notion of liberty than I do the American.
Our American Revolution is a dead revolution. We kill it every July 4th, we kill it with endless references to what we think the “founding fathers” (a civic pantheon of the gods?) intended. We kill it when we practice wanton destruction and greed and have no problem calling that “freedom”. We kill our revolution’s ongoing possibilities every day when we drive around with bumper stickers that say “freedom isn’t free” while at the same time practice torture, disappear people and never even noticing that there’s a big contradiction happening here. We kill it every time we define and defend our rights at the expense of those with an even lesser place under the sun.But why think about it? Our motto is, ”In God We Trust”! What kind of a society is capable of looking at itself honestly, engaging in a real social discussion in a really changing world when it is so sure that has always basked and always will in the God’s personal glow and a given divine destiny?A Disclaimer:
The above is not to say that France is some kind of model of a perfect democracy in comparison with a USA as some kind of a 21st century Roman Empire. Things aren’t that black and white. I’d for sure not want to be an immigrant from North Africa in France. France has its racist side too. It’s called the National Front. France and Europe too have their corporate forces looking with envy at the powers of the Enrons, Haliburtons, Bechtels, and the divine rights of capital enjoyed here in American. Yet there is still a fundamental difference.
A Little Hope:
The fundamental difference comes down to this. We in America have no social, economic or political debate happening at any level. We in America have no real opposition to the forces (corporate, legal coercive, etc.) that have been driving this country for the last 35 years. Our democracy is cosmetic and doesn’t thrive beyond 15-second sound bites that uniquely combine simplistic slogans with a string of personal/political insults.
Maybe France and Europe are going the same way we are too. But it ain’t over yet. There is a real opposition that works hard to honestly engage in a meaningful political/social dialogue. It is organized and it succeeds as often as it fails. Its mantra, currently popular across progressive forces in France and Western Europe is the slogan, “A different world is possible!”.
That this European opposition exists and is a live force is a major part of the legacy that is the first French Revolution. We might all gain on both sides of the ocean if we together can live under the mantra, "All power to the Imagination!" A slogan coming out of another French Revolution… And even more relevant than it was in 1968!
P.S. I'll stand by my statement that France is not a perfect democracy, and by the way, the USA sure does look like a 21 century Roman Empire!