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Happy Bastille Day!

There are two traditional ways to mark Bastille Day. First, parades. This year’s festivities were noteworthy for the inclusion of 400 Indian troops, to celebrate, as AFP put it, France’s “strategic relationship with the world’s biggest democracy.” Personally, I thought Clive of India pretty much put an end to Franco-Indian ties, but it turns out that AFP is referring to India’s appetite for France’s nuclear reactors and world-beating military technology (insert joke here). Why is it that European “strategic relationships” are mostly about money?

The other way to celebrate is by burning cars and attacking the police. It’s in keeping with the spirit of the original, but is now considered bad form. That doesn’t stop “disaffected youths,” as AFP politely describes them, from going on the rampage to “express their frustration with high unemployment rates and what they see as France’s failure to integrate ethnic minorities”: the eve of Bastille Day alone saw 300 cars burned and 13 police officers wounded.

Of course, it’s in the name of integration — at least, as understood by the traditional French model — that President Sarkozy has on the warpath against the burqa. It’s an approach that would never work in the U.S., but it accords well with the Rousseauian spirit of 1789, the sense that unwelcome elements of the existing social order can and must be remade by the state, acting as the secular embodiment of the popular will. As Gertrude Himmelfarb has pointed out, there were many roads to modernity: France took one, the U.S. took another. France sought to promote social equality by force of the state; the U.S. sought to secure social opportunity by restricting the state’s reach.

As long as each nation is secure in its own history, there is no great problem with this. But the Obama administration’s been getting into the “liberty, equality, and fraternity” spirit. Just today, Judge Sotomayor, in replying to a question by Sen. Kohl on racial discrimination and diversity, argued that “equality requires effort.” If this is simply a way of saying that acting in a way that acknowledges the equality of God-given rights is not easy, then it is a fair reflection. But if it is a way of arguing that ensuring equality of outcome requires judicial effort, then it is in keeping with her judgment in Ricci v. DeStefano, but it’s out of step with the American tradition.

Supreme Court confirmation hearings are now as much a forum for concealing opinions as expressing them, so we are unlikely to learn more about the judge’s real views on the subject until she receives her up or down vote. But President Obama has been speaking out on the subject as well, and his views are clearer. As he said in Strasbourg:

We spend so much time talking about democracy…[b]ut democracy, a well-functioning society that promotes liberty and equality and fraternity, does not just depend on going to the ballot box.

The latter reflection is certainly true: one only wishes Obama would apply the insight to Honduras, where ousted president Manuel Zeyala was engaged in an effort to use the ballot box to subvert democracy. But is democracy really the same as “a well-functioning society that promotes liberty and equality and fraternity”? That is the French definition, to be sure, and of course, Obama was speaking in France.

But that is no reason to adopt France’s terms: surely, an American president, whether speaking in France or elsewhere, should — without being rude about it — celebrate the uniqueness of the American definition of democracy, which has a great deal to do with liberty, but not much at all with the societal promotion of equality or fraternity. One has the feeling that this slip — like the Judge’s reply — is only a gaffe in that it reveals an inconvenient truth about the President’s beliefs. Perhaps if he had to contemplate those “disaffected youths,” he might think again about the virtues of the American road to modernity.


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