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Friday, April 15, 2011

The French Revolution comes to America

A point that scholars of early American literature and history make is that the revolutions taking place in the world in the late eighteenth century were markedly different in character.  The American Revolution was a battle to gain independence from Britain and to establish a system of government that eschewed any privileges of class.  It is also often said that the American Revolution is a continuing process of making the country conform to the principles underlying our documents of formation, and that process will continue, or America will fail.  Initially, the country was very selective about on whom it bestowed liberty, equality, and justice, but over time events such as the Civil War, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement brought us closer to our ideals.  In the American Revolution, people forged and wrested their rights largely through the exercise of free speech and assembly, and, as a number of historians have pointed out, the real revolution was carried out in the press, in pamphlets by Thomas Paine and the rhetorical exchanges of the Federalist Papers.  No nation, as scholars state, has a more  exhaustive literary record of its conception and founding than America.  The real battles of the American revolution were in the struggle of words, not the confrontation of troops.

The French Revolution differed from the American in profound ways.  America threw off the political bonds of Britain, which tried to rule from across the Atlantic.  It was not a revolt of people against people within the country.  The French revolted against the established, medieval rule by royalty.  The people rose up and made the guillotine, not the press, the emblem of their revolt.  Marie Antoinette is a signal figure in the history of the French Revolution.  When the poor complained about not having bread, she did not, historians stress, say "Let them eat cake."  That contention is a classic case in which people manufacture a justification for their hatred and the violent course it takes in sending Marie to the guillotine.  They make up accusations and charges more indicative of mindless hatred than of actual events and actions of the people they target.

Americans of the liberal persuasion have taken pride in the absence of class hatred in the formulation of its government, although the Indian wars interject another aspect of class-based hatreds.  America does not escape the violence of unthinking hatreds; it redefines them.  It shifts from the animosity between masters and serfs, which has its effect in the overthrow of slavery, and moves the quest for equality into the arena of culture. The culture wars are a conflict between those who want to extend the concepts of liberty, equality, and equal justice and those who oppose that extension.

Taxation is an issue to which combatants in the culture wars apply their mental proclivities and about which they make stuff up.  The current tea party movement tries to associate its motives with the taxation-without-representation action of the protestors in the the original Boston Tea Party.  Britain imposed taxes on its American colony under the assumption that a colony was a venture in commerce which was expected to provide a return to its investors.  The Crown extracted its dividends in the form of taxes.  The tea party movement proceeds as if it has no representation in government because its followers did not get their way.  They had their opportunities to have representatives of their persuasion elected and have, in fact, succeeded.  Their tack has been to insist that anyone who does not agree with their fascist-based politics is un-American.  In their rewriting of history, they contend that liberal  politics has no role in America's founding and is foreign to its development.  

However, they also raise the cry of class warfare in a tacit claim that the political strife in America is, as was the case in France, a conflict between wealthy ruling class and a serfdom.  This claim has credence because 10 percent of the American population controls 70 percent of the nation's wealth.  Since the 1980s, while wealth accrues to this relatively small group, the middle class has seen its earning power stagnate and decline, as more and more of the middle class is being push into poverty, and those productive occupations which make things have been outsourced, leaving Americans to low-pay service jobs.  When it comes to dealing with the sinking wages and the rising cost of everything, and in a coordinated effort to deprive American workers of their collective bargaining rights, the Republican Party has effectively said "Let them eat cake," but in this case the attitude is clearly expressed by the Republican politicians and is detailed in the policies they are imposing on the country.  The dismissal of the working class, which includes all wage earners, as expendable and not worthy of its aspirations for equality and opportunity is not something it has made up to justify revolutionary violence.  It is a reality promoted by the Republican Party.

Taxation is an issue that exposes the real social and political attitudes involved.  Those who charge class warfare insist that the suggestion that the wealthy should bear a larger burden is a matter of class resentment directed at individuals.  However, there is a difference between taxing the wealthy and using the wealth generated by the country as the basis for sustaining its people.  The concept is not to tax the wealthy but to expect a return on the wealth.  It is the fascistic notion that those who have gained control of the nation's wealth deserve special privileges which is an offense to those who find those privileges contrary to the ideas of liberty, equality, and justice.  The Republican schemes of political control are blatant reversions to the feudal concepts that so enraged the French and resulted in the violence of the guillotine as the emblem of their revolution.  

In addition to demanding privileges in holding 80 percent of the country's wealth, executives in the firms who practiced the larceny that caused the Great Recession have continued to reward themselves with absurdly exorbitant salaries and to reward their moral failures with huge bonuses.  They are the ones engaged in vicious class warfare.  

Ben Franklin analyzed the misappropriation of  taxes and the nation's wealth when he examined the practices of Great Britain and described them in the "Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One:"  

Another Way to make your Tax odious, is to misapply the Produce of it. If it was originally appropriated for the _Defence_ of the Provinces and the better Support of Government, and the Administration of Justice where it may be _necessary_, then apply none of it to that _Defence_, but bestow it where it is _not necessary_, in augmented Salaries or Pensions to every Governor who has distinguished himself by his Enmity to the People, and by calumniating them to their Sovereign. This will make them pay it more unwillingly, and be more apt to quarrel with those that collect it, and those that imposed it, who will quarrel again with them, and all shall contribute to your _main Purpose_ of making them _weary of your Government_.
The use of the tax code and the country's wealth to augment the salaries to those would-be rulers who have "distinguished themselves by their enmity to the people" are the offense against all those things that America is alleged to stand for.   A government which persistently subjugates and demeans its workers will not long be tolerated. The Republican Party has officially adopted that attitude attributed to Marie Antoinette and is setting up those conditions through which class warfare descends into violence.  

An absurdity is that the Republican Party still likes to identify itself with Abraham Lincoln but has moved as far way from the principles Lincoln represented as it can get.  In fact, it has embraced those very political and social attitudes that Lincoln detested.

The question is whether the American  or the French form of revolution will prevail.  And whether great America will be reduced to small America.   

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States