Thursday, March 5, 2009

The mythical "French temptation"

Roger Cohen in today's NYT is worried about the pendulum in the U.S. swinging too far in the direction of big government. We need change, according to Cohen, but we don't need to emulate the European "nanny states" which make it more "attractive" to be unemployed than employed. As if that were the problem right now -- people who have lost their jobs finding it more "attractive" to be unemployed! I'm not sure what parallel universe Roger Cohen is inhabiting, but it's a weird one.

Obama, Mr. Cohen says, must be careful to avoid his "French temptation" by not moving too much in the direction of étatisme. Mr. Cohen's historical clock seems to have stopped in 1983 or thereabouts, when capital flight "forced" François Mitterand to make a U-turn in his economic policies, thereby abandoning the platform on which he won the 1981 French presidential elections. Obama, for better or worse, is not Mitterand, and the differences in national versions of capitalism are rooted in structural factors that, again for better or worse, will not and cannot be changed by any U.S. president's actions and proposals, no matter how far-reaching. Well, let me amend that: by the actions of any U.S. president who actually is able to get elected. If Dennis Kucinich were president rather than Barack Obama, then perhaps -- perhaps -- the NYT could publish a column like this and not wind up embarrassed. However, Kucinich is not president, and the column is, for the most part, rather embarrassing.

Cohen waxes eloquent about the U.S. national mythology of boundless opportunity and the capacity for re-invention and innovation. "Americans are always, in their imaginations, at the new frontier." Cohen does not seem to realize that this is a mythology; to be sure, it has some (rather tenuous) basis in fact, but basically it is a creed rather than a roadmap to effective governing, especially in the midst of an economic crisis. National myths are important, but they should never be confused with accurate pictures of (or guides to dealing with) reality, which is always more messy. There really is no "French temptation" worth speaking of. It's a figment of Mr. Cohen's imagination and of the far more overheated imaginations of Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh, and their epigones.


bro said...

Exactly right. Cohen has always struck me as someone who travels the world and reports back but doesn't see anything except cliches.

LFC said...

There's a passage in Naipaul's Guerrillas where one character says to another something like: "You have the whole world in front of you, and your mind prints out comic strips all day long."