Jul 2004 Journal

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The Fourth and Fourteenth of July (editorial)

The present issue appears in July, a month distinguished by two world-historical national days. This involves something of a paradox. July was named for Julius Caesar, model for all subsequent dictators, but the USA's Fourth of July and France's Quatorze Juillet denote red-letter days in mankind's progress towards democracy.

Both these seminal events had remote roots in English history. Visiting England in the 1730s, Voltaire witnessed a greater degree of liberty than that which obtained in his native country; likewise the American colonists' cry 'No taxation without representation' echoed John Hampden's refusal to pay ship-money before the English Civil War a century earlier.

Though eighteenth-century France had stagnated to a degree that ultimately provoked revolution, she still enjoyed hegemonial status in every sphere except power politics. In fashion, etiquette, cuisine and art the entire civilised world took its cue from Paris. As to language, even the Prussian King Frederick the Great - not to mention the entire Russian aristocracy - preferred French to their native tongue.

After Bastille Day 1789 France became an example of a different sort - of liberty and equality - to the rest of Europe. When Napoleon assumed power he curtailed the former, while expanding the latter, by, for instance, promoting the ex-pastry cook Jean Bernadotte to the rank of marshal. The spread of equality also benefited the hitherto discriminated Jews and turned Heine into a lifelong Francophile.

After Napoleon's downfall a reaction set in, and France spent the best part of the nineteenth century oscillating between two poles: the aristocratic-clerical tradition and bourgeois-secularist innovation. The Jews, in the person of Captain Dreyfus, became the unwitting symbol of that clash, which ended around 1900 in the victory of the innovators.

Or so it seemed at the time. However, 40 years later the German occupiers levered the superannuated elites of state and church into power, and the old anti-Dreyfusards enjoyed their final bloody triumph.

Since liberation, France has been unambiguously wedded to republican, democratic values but in foreign affairs its hankering after past greatness has not entirely abated. Gaullism is a throwback to the 'glory days' when France, despite having been the leading crusader nation, cosied up to Turkey to harm the Catholic Habsburgs. In its anti-Anglo-Saxon stance, Paris has been greatly helped by the fact that the Germans' bad conscience over the Second World War compels them to act as France's junior partner. Even so - and whatever misgivings we might have over the deplorable statistics of anti-Jewish incidents in France - the Gaullist Chirac practically guarantees the country's long-term immunity to the racist demagoguery of Le Pen.

If 14 July sounded a clarion call to Europe's disenfranchised masses, the Fourth of July had a different significance. It was not primarily a call to revolution but an offer of asylum and a fresh start to all those fleeing Europe in search of political - and more often economic - freedom.

A century after the Declaration of Independence the invitation 'Give me your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free' was incised into the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island. At the time, the statement was a godsend to the pogrom-haunted, impoverished Jews from the Russian Pale of Settlement. The country they came to was in many ways the freest in the world. It enjoyed the full panoply of law inherited from England, but lacked a hereditary aristocracy as well as an established church.

Even so, it had only recently emerged from a bitter Civil War that led to the abolition of slavery. Slave descendants formed an underclass with whom poor European newcomers had to compete, but could also feel superior to. They (the Jews, Irish, Poles and Italians) in turn were socially inferior to the Wasps, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Wasp rule was to have important consequences when after the Great War the US Congress limited immigration via a quota system and the countries of Eastern Europe (where the bulk of world Jewry still lived) received a lower quota than the Western ones.

This throttling of immigration was accompanied by America turning in on itself and abandoning the idealistic vision that inspired President Woodrow Wilson to walk out of the newly constituted League of Nations. The isolationists' grip on the Congress could not even be substantially loosened by President Roosevelt for all that he was the winner of four consecutive elections.

FDR first moved into the White House at the height of the Depression that had seen the world's richest country display symptoms of abject deprivation. The abiding memory of this inspired him as a wartime president to enunciate the Four Freedoms, including Freedom from Want - in other words, an acceptance of the state's responsibility for social provision.

Nonetheless, over half a century later the USA still lagged behind Western Europe in the sphere of public health care and environmental protection.

In other respects though the country has made eye-catching progress since the segregationist fifties. Today two members of the highest decision-making body in the land - Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice - are of Afro-American descent. Another once derogated minority, the Jews, have advanced by leaps and bounds.

Above all, the USA has recoiled from the isolationist role she played in the interwar years when she critically weakened the League and helped trigger the worldwide depression. As early as 1945 the US provided houseroom for the UN. In 1946 her Marshal Plan placed devastated Europe on the road to recovery. In 1949 she substantially helped found Nato as a hugely effective instrument for the preservation of peace. By the 1950s she had had a major share in re-educating the populations of occupied Germany and Japan in democratic practices.

There were also failures along the way. Since US officials were so eager to enlist Germany in the Cold War against Russia they turned a blind eye to the past crimes of their chosen instruments. The Cold War mindset also infected American attitudes to unsavoury right-wing regimes in Greece and South America. But even in Chile, where this was most obvious, the end result has been the restoration of democracy. Even in this very year, when the USA is bogged down abroad in Iraq and threatened internally by terrorists, elections are going ahead - as happened in 1944. In consequence, the current government may well be replaced. If that happens half the world will rejoice, and the other half will gnash its teeth. That's democracy for you!

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