Monday, February 25, 2008

Sister Republics

Roger Cohen, who but for Bill Kristol would probably be the top contender for the title of New York Times' least interesting columnist, opines that the French have become prudish while Americans have "grown up (or at least, that's the way the French might put it)" in their tolerance of high hanky-panky and executive misdemeanors. Schadenfreude hasn't enjoyed such a field day since the 2005 riots in the banlieues afforded American opiniators an irresistible opportunity to pay French opiniators back for their transformation of Katrina into a morality tale. "So that's where neoliberalism leads," said the latter, only to be answered by the former with gleeful variations on the theme of, "High taxes and a bloated welfare state give you social exclusion that ends in flames." Now we have moved on from the economic to the psychoanalytic, which leads Cohen to deliver himself of this gem of depth psychology:

As for Americans, the experience of eight years with a teetotaler president, consistent only in his disciplined mediocrity, has apparently filled them with a thirst for humanity above all.

Forgive me for not subscribing immediately to the Cohen thesis. Before running the regression, I'd like to control for such confounding variables as "divorce in the White House" and "precipitous remarriage to a bewitching vixen whose nude photos embellish the Internet." I suspect that the coefficient on the "thirst for humanity" variable might decrease considerably if these elementary precautions were observed.

But since Franco-American comparisons are in the air and always diverting, let me venture one of my own. It used to be said that the left and the right in the United States were tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee, whereas an abyss divided the left and the right in France. But look at where we are today: on economic matters the French left and right have converged (if we confine our attention to the mainstream parties grouped to either side of center), with the only difference being that the left is reluctant to admit it. There is broad agreement on the need to reduce payroll taxes, liberalize and activate the labor market, reform pensions, control medical costs, increase retail competition, invest more in education and research, etc. Hence les frasques présidentielles assume a greater importance in differentiating the parties than might otherwise be the case. Meanwhile, in the United States, tweedle-dum has so far divorced itself from tweedle-dee--with permanent tax cuts, permanent warfare, permanent shrinkage of government coupled with permanent expansion of the national security state, and permanent denunciation of the sin but not the sinner (or, more accurately, of certain sins but not certain [other] sinners)--that we now have red states and blue states and live in Two Americas, divided not as John Edwards would have it by economics but rather by politics.

Yes, I know, the comparison is perhaps a little glib, but I'm setting aside my scholarly hat this morning and pretending to be a New York Times columnist--a job that apparently requires no more preparation than a strong cup of coffee.

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