An essential difference between civilization and barbarism is that civilized people conduct politics with words, a precondition of which is that words have objective meanings—they indicate this and not that—and that we are willing to articulate them.
Men squabble as much over symbols as over more tangible realities, and this in itself is a reality of the human condition. It is not surprising, then, that an amendment to the French constitution precipitately proposed by President Hollande in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November should have caused controversy, all the more so as it is admitted on all sides that the amendment is of symbolic rather than of practical significance. The question, then, is what does it symbolize?
Let me begin by saying that I love France. It is a country to which I have traveled often, and whose language I have struggled to learn. I am grieved to see her harmed by these latest murderous attacks.
However, I am also ashamed for her. To see emblazoned in lights on the Arc de Triomphe the words, “Paris est Charlie” and to hear “Je suis Charlie” chanted by large crowds and reproduced on innumerable placards, moves me to say, “Je ne suis pas Charlie.” I would have been happy, by the way, to say, “Je suis Juif,” in solidarity with the French Jews who were executed in the Jewish grocery store on that terrible day. Why not Charlie?
Whenever I despair of the intrusiveness of government in the United States, I cheer myself up by looking at France and recognizing how much worse things could be. President Francois Hollande recently announced he would try to block General Electric bid’s for the energy business of Alstom, a French company. While France itself owns only one percent of the shares of Alstom, Hollande has arrogated to himself the authority to block such a bid because he does not believe the combination as currently structured is in France’s “strategic interest, “whatever that means. One of President Hollande’s ministers even suggested that GE make a different deal with Alstom, combining the railroad-related divisions of the companies as well. An independent analyst concluded that the minister’s idea was “ludicrous,” because GE produced diesel engines for freight trains while Alstom was in the passenger rail business.
One must be grateful for the consensus in the United States that executives and shareholders generally make the decisions about mergers and acquisitions under the laws of property and contract. Government discretion to interfere is limited to antitrust and national security considerations. The bailout of GM and the distortion of bankruptcy law was an unfortunate exception, but it was made at the time of the greatest economic crisis since the depression. In contrast, French intervention is common and constant.
The behavior of the hapless Mr. Hollande and his agents show how wise are the limitations in the United States on government fiat in the marketplace. Politicians possess little comprehension of business in general and no understanding of the details that make particular acquisitions succeed or fail.
Few public figures in the world were so utterly dull and lacking in apparent human interest until recently as the President of France, François Hollande, who even made an electoral virtue of his dullness by comparison with the meretricious firework sparkle of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. He promised to be a ‘normal’ president, though whether a normal person devotes his whole life to politics, as M. Hollande has done, was something I rather doubted from the first. Whenever I read something that he said I could not help but think of Doctor Johnson’s opinion of Thomas Sheridan: ‘Sherry is dull, Sir, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him.’ Indeed, for the psychologist and sociologist, M. Hollande was outwardly so dull that he posed a puzzle: how could so dull a man have become so prominent? He was one of those strange careerists who rise without trace.
There is one group that is not protected from hate-speech: the rich. Of the rich it is permissible, and in some circles de rigueur, to speak disparagingly or hatefully. This, I imagine, is because it is widely supposed that if you hate the rich you must love the poor, and love of the poor, at least in theory, is the highest virtue. Unfortunately hatred is a much stronger political emotion, and vastly more effective in practice, than love was, is or ever will be.
That the rich are not protected from hate-speech proves that the one thing that speech codes are not designed to reduce or prohibit is hatred: for it is a distinctly moot point whether race hatred, or hatred of the rich, has been responsible for the more mass murders in the past century or so. The crimes of egalitarianism have been enormous; and so denigration of the rich is as disreputable, permissible or impermissible, as the denigration of many other groups I could name.
But who are the rich, apart from those shallow and grasping people with more money than I?