Friday, March 6, 2009

More from the dreaded France

This idea, that Barack Obama is turning the United States into France (quel horreur!), is apparently not just from the fevered mind of Republican operative Mike Murphy (as I wrote about on Monday).  Kevin Drum writes about a New York Times op-ed by Roger Cohen, who at least does some fleshing out as to why he thinks we're going the way of our Gallic neighbors across the sea.

Apparently, in France the government is seen "as all-embracing solution rather than problem," and:
there’s more than a touch of France in the bash-the-rich righteousness with which the new president cast his plans as “a threat to the status quo in Washington.”
This piece goes on, and gives us a glimpse of what Obama's opposition is thinking.  There's the warning against nationalization, which France tried, then rejected about 25 years ago (so the nationalizations were the scary France, and the reversals were, quoi?, the non-France?).

But we get the crux of the argument a little lower down.  "French savoir-faire" offers great pleasures, but in no way matches the joyously chaotic American ambition.  We offer "the ease of American identity and the boundlessness of American horizons."  And then comes this pronouncement:

Churn is the American way. Companies are born, rise, fall and die. Others come along to replace them. The country’s remarkable capacity for innovation, for reinvention, is tied to its acceptance of failure. Or always has been. Without failure, the culture of risk fades. Without risk, creativity withers. Save the zombies and you sabotage the vital.

If America loses sight of these truths, it will cease to be itself.
I'm still not sure why, other than force of habit, the Republicans use France as their model for static, non-innovative, stifling cultures.  But let's move past that.  (Actually, let's not.  Is France, with their restless immigrant population and 80% nuclear power, really the slow ponderous culture Cohen purports it to be?  Seems not.)

One of the major aspects of the American experience has been the conflict between limitless chaos and organized civilization.  We worship the frontier, the men on their horses riding hither and yon, but that's always in support of the town, the stagecoach, the new schoolmarm.  We may need a certain amount of "creative destruction" in order to remain vital, but once we slip past a certain boundary, we have anarchy.

And our current situation has some measure of that, some degree of having left rules behind and thrusting the most vulnerable out into the wilderness.  While the CEOs, who are supposed to be bold visionaries and risk-takers, the John Waynes of the modern-day frontier, protect themselves in their gated communities with their golden parachutes, the walls of the fort are coming down and the average American is getting scalped.

When hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans are being thrown out of their jobs every month, we have moved from "creative destruction" to, simply, destruction.

What Cohen misses is that the glorious "boundlessness" he writes about is not the end, it's the means.  We accept the chaos to get beyond it, because accepting it seems to be the best way to give the greatest number of people a respite from it.

The apotheosis of Cohen's America would be one in which all that we have is thrown into a big drum every year, then reapportioned out to whomever was most deserving.  You could never count on having achieved anything, as it might be taken away from you at any moment.  Is that really the American Dream?

Of course not.  We can argue back and forth as to whether AIG or Chrysler or Citigroup should be propped up or allowed to die, but we shouldn't argue that we want the whole system to die.  Vague warnings about France, which at the very least understands that a safety net is needed for the most vulnerable, doesn't advance the discussion of the specifics.  The contention of Cohen and Murphy that there are two poles, and classic America stands at one, and France at the other, simply doesn't hold up.  It's a subtle matter of degree, and righting the American ship is not the same as setting it on fire.  Republicans need to figure that out, and soon, or they truly will become irrelevant.

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