10/23/2011

The romance of a Guillotine

I'll admit that in all the years I was groomed to teach history I never really got the French Revolution. Sure, on some intellectual level I understood the forces involved in the greatest upheaval of European society in the history of the world. But, I didn't "get"all the violence. After all, the French Revolution was preceded by the American Revolution and despite a war we didn't tend to have a prolonged period of bloody retribution. Sure, there was a lot of neighbor getting even with neighbor, particularly in the south. But, there was no Reign of Terror and we didn't spend several years lopping the heads off people. I just couldn't fathom all of that.

Of course, it's comparing apples and oranges. The American Revolution was more a philosophical debate that degenerated into violence. There wasn't real oppression involved, more the idea of oppression. People spent a lot of time bellyaching about taxes and what not without ever considering that someone has to pick up the bill for their protection and infrastructure. It didn't matter that Americans paid far less in taxes than their British kin. No, much like today, Americans didn't want to pay for anything but have it magically appear when they needed it. I suppose the more things change the more they stay the same here in the colonies.

In France, though, they had some spectacular oppression. The gap between rich and poor or noble and common was astounding. There were two different worlds in France. In fact, it's a lot like it is today in the United States. We have the super wealthy 1% of the population who control well over 90% of all the money in the nation. Think about that, of all the wealth in the United States 99% of the people share less than 10% of it! One day of work for a CEO at one of the top companies in America (say Johnson & Johnson) equals the annual salary of the average American - $35,000! That's very much like what it was in France before the Revolution. That doesn't even take into account the retained wealth of the top 1% families who work tirelessly to make sure not a penny of their wealth gets diluted or shared with the masses.


The more I read of, see, and experience the horrible income disparities the more I understand the violence of the French Revolution. After all, how much can people be expected to take before they simply cry "Enough!" and start dishing out payback?

Every day I see people on Facebook holding fundraisers so their friends or family can get medical care. Often, it's far too late and a disease has progressed to the point of no return. Yet, a surgery that could have saved a life might have been only a half day's wages for a CEO. Think about that. Let's say you make $15 an hour and work 8 hours a day. Each day you gross about $120. Now, let's say that you ran across someone whose life you could save with $60. Would you do it? Of course you would. It's why the middle class and poor turn out to bake sales and garage sales to contribute to people in need. It's why they sponsor kids through those hunger programs.

As I watch stories and documentaries about the super rich and in particular the super rich who have established dynasties for their families for generations past, present, and to come, I am maddened by what I see. These are people who own corporations but have never worked a day in their lives. They never have to worry about seeing a doctor or whether the car is going to start so they can get the kids to public school. They don't have to decide whether to buy a couple apples or spend their few dollars on the jumbo sized processed bag of chips so their family has something to eat. They don't need to worry where the rent is coming from this month because their baby needed to go the pediatrician or how they'll juggle the mortgage when the roof needs repairing too. No, their big concern is whether to spend the weekend at the house in the Hamptons or the one in Monte Carlo and which senator to buy with a few well placed donations and bribes.

That's why I've finally started "getting" the French Revolution. I understand the anger of the French peasants and shopkeepers who struggled daily to eke out the most eager living while the wealth continued to concentrate in the hands of hereditary nobility. We've established a hereditary nobility in America, too. Our Founders fought to prevent it but the Republicans have been working like mad to dismantle their ideals. You hear it every time one of them waxes on about "death taxes." You hear it every time one of them mocks the idea of the super rich paying enough in taxes to ensure wealth doesn't concentrate in the hands of a few. You hear it pretty much every time a Republican, who to a man, are owned by the super rich opens his mouth!

Yes, I understand the romance of the guillotine. I get it. I get the frustration. I get the horror of watching your nation become a joke and a toy for the super privileged. And I know that I would be hard put, just as many French people in 1789 were, to raise a cry of protest when the scaffolds are erected in the town square.

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