Archive | December, 2012

Santayana, Socialists and the Siege

Denevue, Bardot, Depardieu. As a diagnosed Francophile, these names arouse images of big blonde hair, New Wave cinema, and amorous scenes of The Last Metro.Yet recently, these former sex symbols have been making headlines in rather unexpected territory.

This week, France’s most renowned male lead, Gérard Depardieu, announced he will be relocating to Belgium.There he will be joining the likes of Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH and France’s richest man, in the recent flight of affluent French to less tax-laden nations.The larger-than-life star’s grand move comes at a notably sentient time. The country currently entangles herself in a brouhaha over the Socialist government’s new tax policies, particularly the controversial 75% rate for earners of at least €1 million.

Following a grandiose open letter to Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault abdicating his Franco citizenship, Depardieu accrued public support from both Bardot and Denevue. In the second round, the French PM headed attacks on Depardieu, calling his move “pathetic,” while French actor Philippe Torreton followed his lead, censuring Depardieu for thinking solely of himself and money.
Conversely, in her correspondence headlined “Monsieur Torreton…” published in the left-wing Liberation, Catherine Deneuve lashes out against Depardieu’s treatment. Bringing out the big guns, she quotes none other than Voltaire: “I don’t agree with his ideas, but I will fight to the death so that he may be able to express them.”

Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve can’t resist each other in Truffaut’s The Last Metro(1980)

Deneuve thinks twice twenty years later in Potiche (2010)

Deneuve thinks twice twenty years later in Potiche (2010)

The Socialist Party’s new policies are not only draining the established enterprises from the republic, but are also stopping up up-and-coming companies dead in their tracks. A new survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris recently revealed that France’s allure as a business partner has plummeted in the eyes of the French divisions of US companies.

Staying true to a long standing Franco tradition, the youth are revolting. Young entrepreneurs and leaders of tech start-ups under the alias “pigeons” — French argot for “suckers” — began a rough social media battle against the new President’s plan to nearly double taxes on capital gains to some 60%. With the face of a piqued birds as their Facebook logo, the “pigeons” warned the tax quota would smother creativity and guillotine the start-ups, forcing them to also flee France and become “an example of hostility to entrepreneurism in Europe and in the world.”  “From oppression – freedom will be born” and “Let’s coo together” are just some of their sardonic tweets.

This past Monday, I observed the fast of Asara B’Tevet (the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet). While reading the latest on this monetary matter via France24, my thoughts on the day, the past, and what is currently fomenting in France all entwined like the gossamer knits of Rodarte’s cobweb collection for Fall 2009.rodarte-fall2009

The 10th of Tevet is a sort of double jeopardy, a two-for-one deal. We commemorate two atrocious phenomena on both ends of the chronological spectrum on the very same day. The first befell us over 2,000 years ago on of the 10th of Tevet, while the second remains the most recent tragedy to strike the Jewish people. In order to curtail the myriad of fasts, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel also turned the 10th of Tevet into a “Day of General Mourning” for those murdered in the Holocaust whose yortzeits (dates of death) remain mysteries.

Of all fast days appearing in the Bible, Asara B’tevet clearly emerges as the weakest in terms of awareness of the Temple’s devastation.  Others include the 9th of Av for the burning of the Temple, the Fast of Gedaliah for the last embers of Jewish sovereignty in Israel, and the 17th of Tammuz for five incidents – most notably the Roman breach of Jerusalem leading to the Second Temple’s obliteration.

Yet on the 10th of Tevet, Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who controlled the Near East in 588 BCE, merely barricaded Jerusalem. Meanwhile, life went on. Destruction was a gaunt Ralph Lauren model at the far end of the runway –a picayune sense of devastation compared to other days of gastronomic abstention (Kings II; 25). Contrasting in both timing and scope, the contemporary carnage of the Holocaust remains the most colossal calamity in Jewish history (and boy do we have a long history of suffering, and an even longer history of kvetching). Thus, when examining the Holocaust, some remonstrate that the wound still remains too fresh and that the phenomenon stands beyond comparison. Nevertheless, while all lessons learned from the Holocaust present as problematic, apathy would be ad absurdum.

With the Adhan (Islamic call to prayer) of the neighboring Arab village reverberating through the shiur covering the fast’s scriptural sources in Zechariah, Ezekiel, and the Talmud, I waited for the much anticipated “so what”?  What exactly do these two seemingly dissimilar events share, besides a date of carping and collywobbles for observant Jews?

Dreaming of Mahane Yehuda Delectables

Perhaps both caliginous events shed light on the window of reflection. Long after the destruction, we must now realize the sparks of those flames consuming Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av were already flickering on the 10th of Tevet; sharpen our awareness of the past, and, most importantly, take note of new branches burgeoning from the roots. As we examine the past, we learn not only to focus on the final hammer blow, the sensational headline itself, but also to take note of the process – even in its seemingly innocuous infancy. This message resonates louder with the Holocaust. Unlike the Temple, the Shoah has been shrouded in the Sturm und Drang of modern history, creating a seemingly Sisyphean task of answering: Where did such an atrocity sprout from?

In response to this question, many historians have thrown in their Hermès scarves. The strong dichotomy between the culture of the German nation and her actions seems enigmatic. On the flip side, in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer seeks to uncover the underpinnings, positing that German history logically proceeded from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler, and that the Führer’s ascension to power was an expression of German national character, not zeitgeisty totalitarianism internationally en vogue during the 1930s. Shirer summarized his perspective by pointing out that “the course of German history… made blind obedience to temporal rulers the highest virtue of Germanic man, and put a premium on servility.” Around twenty years ex post facto, Shirer reaches a conclusion that with a discerning eye could have been reached while the tragedy was still unfolding.

In hind sight, one can lucidly identify ominous warning signs: the music of Wagner, the dominance of the Bismarck, and the teachings of Nietzsche. All may be obvious now, but all were unfortunately overlooked in their time. Lebensraum (“living space”), the genocidal expansion policy adopted by the Nazi party, was nothing new. The term itself coined by Friedrich Ratzel in 1901 was actually based on the German people’s aggressive eastern expansion throughout the Middle Ages termed Ostsiedlung.

I cannot blame those who listened to The Flying Dutchman or agreed with Beyond Good and Evil.  Nevertheless, now we must be cognizant that such a robbery of humanity is indeed possible. Before the Holocaust, such destruction was unfathomable. The buds went unnoticed as no one knew such a tree existed. However, as the post-Shoah generation, history behooves us to refine the awareness connecting siege and destruction. Heightened sensitivity simply out of the fear of a second Holocaust, or even hate in general is not enough. Instead, we must hone our awareness since if such inhumanity emerged from just a spark, how pernicious must be the sparks themselves?

So here’s the common denominator– refining the cognizance of progressions. Refining discernment of what lies in front of our very eyes to understand the horror extreme power, nationalism, indifference, and militarism will ignite.

Rabbi Soloveitchik, the unchallenged leader of modern Orthodox Judaism in the United States, expounded on tshuva (repentance) en route to sin, in contrast to repentance from sin. There lies the raison d’être of Asara B’ Tevet. Even those concepts accepted for seeming “eh, not too bad”, are the concepts that require most inspection. Through the chovah (obligation) of contrition on this day, we see in “real-time” what would appear on “playback”.

Finally, the ancient siege, the Holocaust, and the contemporary French monetary mambo all coalesced in my famished mind. The Depardieu affair is about much more than simple citizenship and French nostalgia—it parades the failure to acknowledge a country’s own long standing aversion toward capitalism and the profit-making rich, as well as steps the current policy makers are taking to promote an entrepreneurial brain drain. Earlier this year Hollande defined France’s “main enemy” as the “world of finance,” resonating back through the epochs, even pre- 1685, when Louis XIV seized the possessions of the country’s 1 million Protestants. France’s best financiers, the protestant financial leaders, either fled or died, initiating a commercial dearth.

So whether you’re under a Babylonian siege, living in Nazi Germany, or alive amid Hollande’s France…Wake Up! Understand the past, and read the signs of new developments right before your very eyes. Be proactive, not reactive. Take action before policies encircle you, and your new Birkin bag will be taxed right out of your freshly French manicured fingers.

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