Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

28 April 2018

¡Vive la France!

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For nations as for people, it’s good to have friends. There are no friends like old friends. There is no substitute for the comfort, confidence and courage you can derive from a friend who has known you and stood by your side since birth.

So it was this Wednesday, when French President Emmanuel Macron spoke before a joint session of the United States Congress. It took the leader of an old friend to remind us Americans who we are as a nation, what we stand for, and the many challenges we have surmounted to get where we are today. It took an old friend to recall, gently and with amity, how others, including the French, had stood by our side and we by theirs.

President Macron did all that, and more, in his speech in accented English. It’s well worth the hour to view it in full. It could restore your faith in our nation, its allies, and our species. It could even revive your soul.

What has made the last year so dreary and depressing is not just our sharp turn toward the hard right. It’s not just pols’ complete capitulation to lobbyists and the power of money. It’s not even the steady deconstruction of the regulations that protect the safety of our workplaces and the cleanliness of our air, water, lakes and streams. Nor is it the day-to-day bickering over every cheap political gotcha.

It’s the pervasive pettiness, smallness and meanness of everything in our public life that’s so depressing. It’s the cumulative effect of 536 representatives of the people (including our president)—nearly all of whom have college educations, and most of whom are lawyers—spending their days justifying their most thoughtless words and most corrupt and useless actions while vilifying whatever their rivals have said or done.

It’s Donald Trump acting as if everything that happens on our globe is about him. It’s our helpless feeling that the nation of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy and Obama has descended to the level of junior-high-school kids bragging about penis size.

Perhaps on a celestial plane, Macron’s speech was not so remarkable. But compared to all that, listening to him speak was like bathing in a pure, cold mountain stream.

Macron began with the long and special relationship between France and our nation. He recalled Lafayette’s support of our Revolution and our supporting Europe in the two World Wars and the more recent War against Terror. He thanked our soldiers for their aid.

But most of all, Macron reminded us of the common values that lie behind our shared sacrifice. Liberty, democracy, cooperation, peace, mutual respect, and that commodity most lacking in America today: equality. Step by step, Macron sketched the long history of our two peoples, in which we built these values on a global scale, together and with others.

From an analytical standpoint, most of Macron’s speech was just common sense. Of course we can fight terrorists and tyrants better together than separately. Of course we can restore economic equality and contain financial panics in a globalized world better together than in isolation. Of course we can find our way out of a maze of problems spawned by technology and science, including vast credence in “fake news,” better through science, technology, and government regulation than through name calling, superstition, ideology or authoritarianism. Of course “there is no Planet B,” so all our species must cooperate to preserve our planet and its climate and diversity, relying on Science and Reason. Of course it’s better to build on the Iran deal, which delays Iran’s becoming a nuclear power for at least ten years, than to tear it up and start over, giving Iran’s hard liners a fine excuse to start the centrifuges spinning again ASAP.

But the gist of Macron’s speech was not its analytical substance. It was a leader conveying the love and confidence of the French people to ours. It was him begging us to come to our senses, to get a grip, and to continue our contribution to global order and human progress, if not our leadership.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Macron’s speech was the reaction of his audience. There were many standing ovations. Surprisingly few of them involved only one side of the aisle; most involved the entire audience. The applause before the speech, after Macron’s introduction, seemed interminable. So did the applause after it. Our cynical pols seemed entranced by the young, charismatic French leader.

Sometimes it seemed as if they were jealous or in awe of him. How many of the 535 would have liked to be able to deliver a speech like his, acknowledging the common values that undergrid Western Civilization and how much danger they are in? How many would have liked to rise above the daily bickering, bigotry and bragging that today pass for our public life?

Donald Trump claims to have come to Washington to “drain the swamp.” But of course he has only made it deeper, slimier and stinkier. He couldn’t really help himself: his character, intelligence, experience, competence and attention span are simply inadequate to the task.

So good men and women, caught in the quicksand, are retiring by the dozens. They despair that, despite their winning elections and all their efforts, they could ever do anything meaningful in Congress as it is today. And Paul Ryan, himself retiring, fires the House Chaplain, reportedly for insisting too earnestly on the Christian values of equality and aid to the poor.

No, in this atmosphere, even a speech by as good and wise a friend as Emmanuel Macron can only go so far. Our pols are stuck in a web of money disguised as policy and self-serving nonsense like “trickle down” hardened into dogma. There is nowhere for them to go but down, so many are getting out.

It will take far more than one speech by a well-wishing ally to rouse us from our stupor. It will take as great a change in Congress as ever a midterm election has produced.

We will have to elect people of character and courage, who understand our values as well as Macron does. We will have to vote for the best, in both primaries and the general election, no matter how young, female, black, brown or Muslim the best might be. We will have to elect people who will not just stand there and be jealous of Macron’s ability to speak truth, support justice, and apply common sense, but who can emulate it. So our response to Macron’s friendly Call to Reason will have to wait until November.

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