A little ways off the curb on the Boulevard Henry IV here in Paris, you can see the memory of the Bastille outlined by a course of masonry in the pavement, in particular one of the bulbous towers of the old fortress-prison. It marks one of those threshold moments in history when things got out-of-hand - in the late afternoon of July 14, 1789 - and by the time a mob had detached the head of Warden Bernard-René de Launey from his shoulders and paraded it around on a pike, everyone in the city knew that they had crossed into the politically unknown frontier of Revolution.
Seeing this residue of history put me in mind of a riddle that one of my college professors presented to us one day years ago: why did Achilles drag Hector around the city of Troy three times? We came up with dozens of reasons ranging from conjectures out of the text of The Iliad to lame bits of Hippie numerology, but nobody could furnish the answer that the prof was looking for, which was eventually revealed: Because he [Achilles] was just that pissed off.
This was the idea that dogged me in the winter twilight of Paris late on Christmas Day as I pondered the fate of my own country back across the cold cold sea. A lot of Americans are beaten down and discouraged these days. They've lost not only jobs, incomes, and houses, but also a sense of purpose, and perhaps faith in the essential fairness of the American venture - as the propane runs out, and families try to subsist on Froot Loops, and the re-po squad turns up to haul away the Ford F-150 Raptor. Meanwhile, in their last remaining refuge from harsh reality, TV, they glimpse the likes of Jamie Dimon, Chloe Kardashian, and Jay-Z emerging from limousines looking hopelessly bored with wealth beyond imagination. When will the folks out there move from shame and despondency to being really pissed off about the disposition of things?
Isn't that a question, though?
The French Revolution arose first from a financial crisis that turned into a political crisis. The rule of law had been vested in a class of pampered imbeciles while the price of bread doubled, and sometimes there was no bread at all for the growing masses, or functioning law to govern the country. This was where the rising middle-class of the dawning industrial-commercial age stepped in to straighten things out - people such as Jean Paul Marat the itinerant physician (ahem), thief, sewer rat, and newspaper columnist, and Maxmilien Robespierre, lawyer. They had the example ten years earlier of the successful American Revolution, which Louis XVI had helped finance, and which helped bankrupt the French Treasury. But the new French political class botched the crucial part: a constitution that actually worked. The whole enterprise sank into a morass of absurd utopianism and, finally, paranoia. The guillotine turned out to be the perfect machine for that dark moment: efficient, elegant, and terrifying. The bloodthirsty competed with the incompetent for the soul of the nation until finally a twenty-eight-year-old artillery officer said (in effect), "Look here, fuckers! This will be quite enough of your shenanigans." After Monsieur General Bonaparte entered the scene, that was all she wrote for the revolution....
Which brings me to the subject of our own financial crisis, soon to mutate into a political crisis. There really is no "solution" to our problem of debt except to become a less affluent society. You can get there via the path of compressive deflationary depression (no money), or hyperinflation (plenty of worthless money), but the destination is the same. In the meantime we're stuck with the extremely uneven distribution of hardship and luxury. Whole classes of formerly working people face the prospect of genuine ruin while an ultra-pampered class of celebrity clowns and professional swindlers fob off with whatever's left on the national buffet table. The real politics of all this are so far from being sorted out that sheer contemplation of what lies ahead leaves the mind harrowed and feeble.
The Jacobins of 1793 France were basically the Left. It took only five hundred or so of them to bully a nation of 30 million. The Jacobins of the USA in 2011 are basically the Right Wing, followers of Senator Jim DeMint, the mind-slaves of Rush Limbaugh and "students" of Prof Glenn Beck, and, of course, the worshippers of Sarah Palin. Their brand of politics might be labeled Nostalgic Sentimental Paranoid Know-Nothingism. They're proud and loud, pious and ignorant, so deeply insecure that they depend on flag lapel pins to remind them to care about their country, full of righteous anger about their own sexual impulses, the religious notions (or not) of other people, and the possible introduction of the rule of law in banking matters. They pretend to represent the folks freezing in their mobile homes who subsist on Froot Loops, but they're really protecting the country clubbers, the corporate poobahs, the fraudsters on Wall Street, and every other racketeer in the land - including their own class of political grifters.
The Obama Democrats, the putative Left Wing, are analogous to the pro-monarchy center of revolutionary France. Their ethical sanctimony is fake while they do everything possible to keep the rule of law out of money matters. They are most of all ineffectual and impotent, capable only of grandstanding hyped up Great Compromises that accomplish nothing, and probably doom the party to be chewed up by the machinations of their bloodthirsty adversaries on the right. It's hard to shed a tear for them, their performance has been so purblind and wimpish.
History has its own momentum and it is carrying the psychotic Right Wing into power. Fear not. After they stomp the moderates and the Left, they will themselves end up in an orgy of political cannibalism before somebody as yet unknown - perhaps some field brigadier just now in Afghanistan - steps up to say, "Look here, fuckers...." Meanwhile, America may have its own Bastille moment when something goes too far, some poor functionary at the Treasury Department gets scalped by a gang of 99ers, or a distressed physician goes after Glenn Beck in the student union of a Bible college, or... Gawd knows what.
Meanwhile, you are sleeping and it's morning here in Paris. I get the feeling that we're at the end of the great era of tourism. Europe has been the world's premiere tourist theme park for half a century. Given Europe's bloody, riotous history, it's been a remarkable period of peace and affluence. Since the 1960s, everything here in Paris got buffed up to perfection. Notre Dame's white stone façade gleams in the winter sunlight. The Louvre, the Opera, the Conciergerie, the Tomb of Napoleon are all fixed, re-pointed, re-gilded. The café and restaurant scene operates like one great gastronomic machine, effortless and masterful. I'm already nostalgic for it.
In the background, Europe's money situation is disintegrating, and with it probably the easy order that has reigned in this period. They are going broke, too, just as surely as America is, and they are responding in pretty much the same way: a game of extend and pretend (with some prayer as the cherry-on-top). Meanwhile, the price of oil has breached the $91 dollar line. If it goes just a little bit higher, and the winter weather stays harsh, you can bet that some airlines will be going down the drain. Combine that with the vanishing disposable incomes of the middle class and you get an ill-fated recipe for the tourism business - with perhaps some home-grown mob action waiting in the wings around Europe, not to mention friction between age-old enemies.
I was fortunate to see Europe at its best in my time, and now we are entering a new time of great uncertainty and travail. I'll be back home next week with the usual gruesome forecast for the new year. And yes, I am aware that the Dow Jones Industrial Average did not settle around 4000 points, as I predicted a year ago. Obviously 2010 was a year of fabulous prosperity in the USA - just ask the people running out of propane with their bowls full of Froot Loops.