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Yvette Carnell Headshot

Why France Burns and America Smolders

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On the 14th of July in 1789, French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille during what is now widely considered the flashpoint of the French Revolution.

Last week an estimated 3.5 million protesters took to the streets of France in protest of French President Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. Unlike Americans, the French feel a responsibility to counter any assault on the rights which they've fought so hard to win.

Here's the difference between us and them: If you pull a French protester aside (as many news organizations have done) and ask him or her why they're protesting, they'll generally offer up a strong, salient, consistent answer. Herein lies the difference between French protests and American folly.

Let's compare the French protesters with the Tea Party protesters who've been caught red-handed receiving government benefits while flailing against government spending or, in Christine O'Donnell's case, running on a Tea Party platform -- the overriding theme of which is an adherence to Constitutional principles, and then asking "Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?"

Intellectually, we're a lazy lot. Each day, Americans robotically offer up their bodies and prostitute their minds on behalf of faultfinding corporations. Admittedly, this is hard work. And I am in no way minimizing the mind-numbing challenges faced by the hardest working people in the first world. But viewing this back and forth to work, or the occasional (and almost effortless) vote every two, four, or six years as sufficient acts of citizenship is a flat, one dimensional interpretation of life's meaning and its accompanying responsibilities. Repositioning our psyche in such a way that we are continually responsive to life's demand for constant inventiveness seems the only anecdote to our lethargy and garden variety foolishness.

It is not that the French are necessarily any smarter than us (although they'd like to think so), or that they will be any more successful in their protests than we'd be if we took to the streets with fiery lanterns and provocative homemade signs, but at least they've accurately framed the crisis. They have correctly cast market speculators as villains and themselves as victims in this melodramatic financial boondoggle. They realize that average global citizens were not the market wizards who encouraged blind risk at the expense of the entire financial system.

They've wrapped their heads around the fact that the massive amounts of wealth which were quickly accumulated by many players in the global financial sector were not shared with the public and thus, the public should not bear the expense. Cunning gamblers created the financial patchwork products which operated under the label of 'derivatives,' many of whom were made multimillionaires by betting on these shadowy financial products. The unfairness is staggering.

Contrast this French outrage with American inertia. We live in a political environment where only the Tea Partiers are fighting (and I give them credit for doing something even if it's not the right thing) and African Americans, once the moral barometer of this country, have exchanged objectivity for Obama.

So when MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell convenes a deficit commission comprised of former lawmakers and announces (like magic) that we can eliminate the deficit if we behave as grownups, face the facts, and raise the retirement age to 70, Americans shrug. France is fighting a raise in their retirement age from 60 to 62, and we're acquiescing to 70.

In a country where only 16% of the public rates Congressional performance as good or excellent, our Bastille moment is imminent. Each day we're nearer and nearer to our own flashpoint. Whether that moment devastates or empowers us will depend on both our psychological readiness and collective understanding of the events which lead us to this point. Sadly, going to work and going to vote just aren't enough.

Yvette Carnell is a political analyst for the African-American business and politics new site, atlantapost.com.

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