The Philadelphia correspondent for the Economist’s Democracy in America blog discusses comparisons of the Tea Parties to recent protests in France over retirement reform:

[W]hat’s most remarkable about the French protests is not only that they are partially motivated by hostility to the rich but also that there is a pretty straightforward line of causality from provocation to action: the government proposes to raise the retirement age and workers take to the streets to oppose it because they want the retirement age to remain where it is. First A, then B…. The character of the American tea-party movement is very different, and more complicated….

This means, I think, that the size of government and the details of public budgeting are secondary concerns for the tea-party movement. What it primarily cares about is cultural identity. Taxes and government spending come in because the tea-partiers feel like “their” America is under cultural assault….

So yes, the French and American protesters both want to be heard. But they are saying very different things. Where the French are pushing back against a public policy with which they disagree, the Americans are out to defend one comprehensive cultural vision of the nation against another, largely incompatible vision….

I largely agree with this analysis of the Tea Parties, but I think that, because of some misconceptions about the current protests in France, the Economist blogger might be overstating the differences between the French and American protest movements.

A lot of this is based on anecdotal evidence from my own firsthand observations of the protests and from conversations with French people about the protests, so this isn’t exactly scientific.  But what the heck, this is the internet, so I won’t let that stop me from weighing in.

One thing that was mysterious to me initially about the recent French protests is why people were so incredibly angry and mobilized.  I’d have an easier time understanding a mass movement in response to a war or an obviously unjust policy like racial segregation or something like that.  But retirement reform?  People really see having to work for two more years as an such a grave transgression of justice that they feel compelled to respond like this?

Part of the reason for this is that the French are just different: striking and protesting are huge parts of their political culture.  But part of the reason is also that it’s not really as much about retirement reform as it might seem.

Many people with whom I’ve spoken about the protests have argue that the protests are much more about general opposition to Nicholas Sarkozy and that the retirement reform is really just an occasion to express this feeling of malcontent.  Sarkozy embarrasses the French in the way that George W. Bush embarrassed many Americans.

At the French protests that I’ve witnessed, there are a fair amount of slogans and signs that are in some way related to retirement reform.  But the majority of what I see and here seems to be general denunciations of Sarkozy.  The sign/sticker that I’ve seen the most around town is one that has the insult that Sarkozy’s infamously delivered a couple of years ago to a man who refused to shake is hand: “casse toi, pauvre con”.  I’ve also seen tons of references to an episode where Sarkozy was getting heckled by some young hooligans during a speech and tried to put on a macho display by challenging them to come up to the podium and fight him.

All of this is to say that the French view Sarkozy as a disgrace to the presidency.  He doesn’t carry himself in the dignified way that a President should.  Some protesters are surely well-informed and principled opponents of the reform, but like the Tea Parties, I think that most of the French retirement reform strikers/protesters aren’t driven by a direct causation between reform that they disagree with and taking to the streets, but rather by the vague perception of certain threats to France as they know it: that the government is becoming too pro-American, that the man who represents France to the rest of the world behaves in ways that don’t befit a French president, and that old style French socialism is being left behind for a more modern, liberalization friendly British Labour Party-style left wing party.

The French retirement reform movement isn’t necessarily any more coherent or detail oriented than the Tea Party movement, nor is there obviously a clearer link between concrete policy change and populist uprising.

I’m a little late on the Rand Paul controversy, but since I’ve finished up the last of my work for college and finally have a bit of free time, I’ll give my brief take on the matter.

Rand Paul, the Tea Party-affiliated Republican nominee for one of Kentucky’s US Senate seats, has come under fire for declaring his opposition to the part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits  business owners from turning away customers based on race:

I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners [what to do].  I abhor racism… but at the same time I do believe in private ownership.

After an ugly session with Rachel Maddow, Paul’s alleged racism became a national story.  This is clearly a political disaster for Paul; you know a politician is in trouble when he has to issue a statement saying that he won’t try to overturn the Civil Rights Act.

Some libertarians came to Paul’s defense.  In response to Paul’s assurance that he would not try to repeal the Civil Rights Act, John Stossel wrote, “None of it?  How about the part that denies private citizens the right of free association? I hope Paul stands up to the pressure.  If not, freedom of association is in trouble.”

This position is seriously misguided.  Of course, all else equal, private businesses should be able to discriminate between potential customers.  But in 1964, all else was definitely not equal.  The south had, for hundreds of years, state-sponsored, institutionalized racism.  There’s a difference between uncoordinated, free individuals choosing whom to associate with and an entire culture and social system based on racial oppression.

The principle of free association is a good one, but that doesn’t mean that it should never be violated, if its violation is necessary to combat some greater evil.


There are a few local Vermont blogs I read from time to time to keep up with the news from my home state.  One of them, Integral Psychosis, written by a fascinating guy who describes himself as a radical, left-wing, “libertarian-socialist” (a label that I find contradictory based on my conception of those words, kind of like a “hawkish pacifist”), approvingly cited this Tea Party-ridiculing post from commondreams.org:

You gotta love those zany teabaggers. Now the people who went to D.C. to protest government-run programs – on government-built roads, with government-funded police protection etc – are complaining the government-run subway system didn’t meet their needs, and Texas Rep. Kevin Brady has sent an angry letter to the subway czar. The kicker: Brady voted against stimulus funds to improve the Metro. Cognitive dissonance, thy name is wingnut.

“I will demand answers from Metro,” wrote Brady to whatever socialist tyrant runs the D.C. subway.

I’ve heard this type of argument many times before, often in debates over public school funding (‘you oppose increased funding for x, therefore you have no right to complain about the quality of service that x provides’), and it’s completely foolish.  There is no “cognitive dissonance” involved.  I just spent a summer living in DC, and I used the metro to commute to and from work every day.  From personal experience, I can say that the DC metro has a lot of problems.  Most significantly, there was the crash back in June, which actually resulted in nine deaths.  The investigation that followed the crash lasted for the rest of the time I was living there (about 8 more weeks), and caused massive delays every day for the rest of the summer.

Now, is a lack of government funding to blame for all of DC metro’s problems?  Maybe, but not necessarily.  There’s evidence that the metro system is poorly run: negligent bus drivers keep their jobs, and bus and train operators are overpaid.  More money won’t help if inept management will spend it unwisely.  But let’s not get bogged down in specifics about the DC metro system.  The point is that the specious reasoning exemplified in the commondreams post should be purged from serious debate.  It’s true that the quality of service that an agency provides is somewhat related to the funding it gets, but that there are a lot of other factors as well.  I wonder if commondreams made similar attacks on democratic congressmen who opposed funding for the Iraq War during the Bush administration but criticized the efficacy of US military efforts?

A tangentially related question: shouldn’t supposedly intelligent people be ashamed to habitually use immature smear terms to deride large groups of people (such as “teabagger”)?