Guns, Gays, and Eighteenth-Century Rights
As of January 13, 2013, when a million French citizens stormed Paris to stop a bill extending marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples, it became clear that the world is witnessing a compressed, high-speed reprise of the late eighteenth century. As the internet's magnificent social networking hubs became a means of organizing a human rights movement at lightning velocity in France -- for the march on Paris was, it must be noted, primarily a march for the rights of children -- in the United States, a large swath of the citizenry is enraged over threats to take away their guns and tagging Piers Morgan as the modern-day British magistrate retreading the oppressions that led to the Declaration of Independence. The key documents that these two mass movements against gay marriage and gun control cite were authored, coincidentally, at roughly the same time: the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified at the end of 1791, and the French revolutionary civil code, soon to be adapted into the Napoleonic Code, was adopted in August 1793.
In the minds of everyone involved, children are at the root of both countries' jaunt back to the eighteenth century. The Sandy Hook massacre gave an impetus to American proponents of gun control; on January 16, Obama surrounded himself with children as he announced his intent to use executive powers to impose stricter limits on guns. His detractors point out the large number of children who die of gun violence in Obama's own Chicago, many of them black, who seem not to warrant the immediate urgency that the governing party shows when white children in a wealthy Connecticut town die. Similar appeals to familial instincts dominate the French debate about gay marriage. President Hollande and his gay proxies such as Nicolas Gougain insist that gay marriage will protect children already living in same-sex French households -- estimated vaguely around 30,000 -- while the "manifestants" who marched to oppose the gay marriage bill focus on their worries that legalizing gay marriage will only create an underclass of fatherless or motherless children disadvantaged vis-à-vis their peers who have mothers and fathers. As one gay dissenter from gay marriage stated:
It's true that there are 10s of thousands of children now being cared for by people who aren't their legal parents and who do not have legal rights to them. That's a situation we must no longer tolerate. We have to fix the law to prevent it [not encourage it] tomorrow. This law will not fix life for these tens of thousands. It will add tens of thousands more to the tens of thousands already there.
Both France and the United States are led by left-leaning presidents, elected in 2012, who built their careers on criticizing the allegedly harmful policies of former conservative presidents. Both have decided to play the war hawk against popular expectation, with Barack Obama drumming his own glory over the killing of Osama bin Laden and François Hollande deciding to ride into one of the less commonly discussed nations of Africa: a place called Mali that most people in France and the United States have never heard of. Both Obama and Hollande have wandered into tax nightmares, with the Republican House of Representatives locking horns with the Democrats over the sunset of Bush's tax rates, and a high court in France striking down Hollande's plan to tax the income of the wealthiest Frenchmen at 75%.
In recent years, the American Revolution has enjoyed a serious vogue in popular publishing, especially among conservative readers. Biographies of George Washington outsell Harlequin romances, and James Madison's letters are quoted in polemical Facebook posts. In the United States, perhaps owing partly to some reckless claims in Ann Coulter's Demonic, conservatives have been fond of contrasting the French Revolution unfavorably against the American one, repeating in slightly abridged versions the charges laid by Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France. But we must not forget that more than a decade separates the Declaration of Independence and the passage of the United States Constitution; the author of the former was in Paris, watching mobs storm the Bastille, while the latter was authored in Philadelphia. The American "Revolution" was a long and bloody war forged on emotionally charged broadsides that culminated in Thomas Jefferson's brain with the lofty language of the Declaration's first few paragraphs, followed by spiteful ad hominem attacks against King George for the bulk of the document. While some like Ann Coulter have stated that the French Revolution was all about emotion, mob rule, and imagery, the truth is that the 1770s were a time of emotion, ragtag militias, and provocateurs dressed in disguises throwing crates of tea into harbor waters. The two nations are nowhere near as divergent as a casual gloss of the eighteenth century might conclude.
The "family" is a hotly contested unit in republics that have eliminated monarchies. The role of the king and queen, in monarchies past, was to be the father and mother to the nation, to transmit family values by performing their oedipal tragedies in full regalia and by resolving them on a stage for all the nation to see. In a monarchy, the king and queen make all the citizens siblings by virtue of fathering and mothering them all. In a republic with no king, each father and mother must do this onerous social task individually, building an entire mini-republic in the walls of their home. They must pass their own laws, see to their own treasury, and face the consequences of their ill-thought decisions. France and the United States explode, therefore, when the rights and welfare of children are subject to irreconcilable differences of opinion.
Marches, manifestos, photos of dead children, overseas war letters, parades, flag-waving, and vicious invective -- it is truly the making of a watershed. Neither Obama nor Hollande should take opponents lightly or rebuff their objections by condescending to them with hasty counterpoints. It is likely, though, that both, rather than neither, will do just that. Obama issued executive "actions" to limit gun ownership and ration ammunition, while Hollande's attorney general, Christiane Taubira, stood shamelessly in the French parliament and told the deputies who asked for a referendum on gay marriage that, essentially, she didn't care because their party lost the last elections. In both countries, ivory-tower academics prattle against the angry mobs for being angry mobs, not realizing that their intellectual legitimacy has been squandered on their incestuous conferences and nepotistic tenure reviews for so many years that their words carry no weight anymore. American and French universities are the best in the world, and yet professors in both countries have been shoved aside by talk-show hosts quoting the Federalist papers and French yeomanry issuing spontaneous re-interpretations of Montesquieu over Wordpress. When the French marchers in Paris carry signs that say, "We care about sex, not gender," you know that the intellectual elite's theories are being rejected -- not because people are anti-intellectual, but because people are anti-elitist.
The average Yankee and the Gaul of the street no longer care what Paul Krugman says about guns or what columnists in LeMonde tell them about the dignity of gay couples. The great philosophical debate that both guns and gays have opened -- a sweeping fight over who can speak for children and when or how their rights can be championed without creating a totalitarian state -- is a mental war that must be settled through street fighting.
In some ways, it is depressing. One must ask, why did we get to this point? It is easy to blame conservatives in both cases, for one must ask, why do gun owners need so many bullets, and why can't the vast heterosexual majority simply let gays build families with medically assisted procreation? True watersheds happen when these obvious questions give way to deeper, less evident ones: if the Democrats care about children so much, why have they said nothing about abortion, why do they block parents from using vouchers to move their children to safer schools, why do they watch the skyrocketing rates of single-parent households with seeming neutrality, and why do they show so much caution in discussing the children who die at the hands of the impoverished criminals whom they are more likely to protect on socioeconomic grounds? If the French socialists care so much about gay equality, why not focus on policies that affect the vast majority of France's gay men who do not end up in lifelong couples, struggle with the threat of AIDs, and seem to want children to have mothers and fathers the same way they did? The editor of France's Elle magazine, Valerie Toranian, may have said it best in her latest missive, which sent shockwaves through the fashion world:
Among Elle's editors, if yes to marriage seems the majority, the question of insemination, surrogacy, and adoption, how these things affect transient mothers, gives us pause and splits us. One thing brings us together: the conscience that these discussions that affect the female body deserve a long debate, including in the columns of our magazine. Worried about not swelling the ranks of bickerers, the government chose to separate insemination from the issue of marriage. It was a wise choice. But we must go further. We must not above all rush to put these things into law this spring, as was initially called for. There is a range of things to talk about -- ethics, science, law, which needs an open debate among competing viewpoints.
Much of the West's intellectual class was delighted at the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab spring of 2011, which they viewed as parts of the same glorious dawn. Actually, 2011 was still the "darkest" part of that saying "it is always the darkest just before the dawn" -- the dawn is now, in mass movements of ordinary people who feel the eighteenth century because they live its dilemmas, not because they have Ph.D.s. The presidents in both France and the United States must be cautious, lest they become Hanovers and Bourbons in socialist drapery.