January 3, 2012 Leave a comment
You may have learned that “The Protester” is TIME’s 2011 person of the year. This pronouncement strengthens a strange notion stretching as far back as the Wisconsin state capitol protests of February. Back then, sleeping bag-toting proto-Occupiers were the first Americans to insinuate a connection between themselves and Tahrir Square. In so doing, they cast their own struggle in the light of the French Revolution. But why would they trade the glorious vestige of the American Revolution for the deeply troubled tradition of the French?
The twin revolts left such disparate legacies because of the drastically different situations of their respective peoples. We learn from an invaluable resource that the colonial Americans, under decades of relaxed British rule, enjoyed unparalleled prosperity and privilege. On average, they were several inches taller, better fed, and enjoyed greater freedoms than their British counterparts. Their corner of the New World was unencumbered by the class distinctions that hung over Europe. The missteps of Crown and Parliment that soured Americans against the empire were insignificant and brief in comparison to the privations the long-suffering French endured under the direct rule of an inept and illiberal monarch.
The ball of class struggle started to roll with the heads of the French aristocrats over two centuries ago, but a different force was unleashed just a few years earlier in America. That revolution was deeply conservative in nature. The French in their revolt sought something new, unprecedented, and decisive, but the American rebels wanted to preserve the prosperity and privilege they had already gained.
Since those heady days of the late eighteenth century, the French model has been a catalyst for the radicalization of desperate masses. The American project may have been the first decolonization movement, but the class dynamics we see in Old World power struggles are alien and tangential to the American experience. No mind-numbing mantras should ever convince us that downtown Portland, Davis, or Des Moines is anything akin to the dire streets of Cairo or Damascus.