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Louis XVI, Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street

One of the more overlooked aspects of our American history–particularly by those Francophobes who revel in pointing out how if it weren’t for the United States “everyone in France would be speaking German”–is the fact that, without support from the French government in 1777 and 1778, the United States would not exist today, and we would all be drinking tea instead of coffee (ahem, sorry, couldn’t help it).

In fact, when the French government first decided to become involved in the ongoing conflict between the British crown and her subjects in the American colonies, it was King Louis XVI (husband of Marie Antoinette, formerly of guillotine fame) who authorized the selling of gunpowder to the revolutionaries.  Of course, this aid was done in secret, mostly because France was worried about igniting a costly open war with her neighbor to the north.  In addition, it is commonly accepted that one downside to aiding commoners rebelling against a neighboring monarchy is the tacit suggestion that, well, it is okay for commoners to rebel against a monarchy.  And since France was itself a monarchy, there was a fear that France was greenlighting rebellion in general, including at home.  Fast-forwarding 15 years to now-Citroyen Louis Capet’s conviction and execution by the National Convention, one wonders if Louis could see how his decision to support rebels who would overthrow their own government, albeit in another country, came back to haunt him.

Which brings us to a discussion of the 2011 Arab Spring, an uprising in north African nations which would lead to the fall of governments in Tunisia, Egypt and, eventually, Libya.  Most Americans who followed this excursion into uncharted political territory probably most closely followed the revolt in Egypt, led by protesters who occupied Tahrir Square in central Cairo, demanded a voice in their own government, relief from stifling economic policies, and an end to the system as it currently existed.  While American news corporations covered the event ad nauseum, questioning the slow commitment by the United States government to intervene on behalf of the protesters, who, after all, were merely crying for democracy, the form of government the United States has always claimed it wished to help foster around the globe, the State Department and White House were exceptionally–and perhaps rightly–cautious in lending their support to the protesters.  Of course, the party line was that support from the United States could cause to delegitimize the protests, since the United States was seen as too closely associated with President Hosni Mubarak and his regime (the U.S. did prop him up for years, after all).  But its fun to consider that, possibly, the career diplomats in Washington understood something that Louis XVI failed to fully appreciate–that support for open revolt against a government who doesn’t allow its people to truly have a say in decision-making, that is controlled by narrow interests who do not have the well-being of the majority of citizens at heart, and who have done little to relieve the suffering of its people in the worst economic crisis of their lifetimes might not be in the long-term interests of the United States, considering that politicians in Washington were essentially guilty of almost everything Mubarak was pilloried for by the people of Egypt.

And now as the Occupy Wall Street protest, and the broader Occupy movement, digs in, entering its second full month, and begins to draw crowds that would make those in Tahrir Square proud (see the recent October 15 march on Times Square), it will be telling to see how American authority and the broader corporate-state complex react.  Reports of 3G networks being taken down to hamper protester communication in Times Square are an eerie reminder of Egypt’s decision last Spring to “shut off the Internet.”  And all of this begs the question: how far is American government, “harbinger of democracy and justice to the globe,” willing to go to suppress the ability of its own people to voice displeasure with the wholly inadequate and completely unacceptable job that it is doing to secure its citizens’ right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”  And if the answer to that question is, “as far as it takes,” then it seems that Americans have another problem entirely.

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