In February my son and I were in Paris for his birthday. Walking across the Place de la République, I stopped below the monument to the Republic, a seated woman. The sun shone on her massive female clothed form and I thought, we do need monuments to democracy. It’s an accomplishment. I explained to my son the military nature of Paris’ wide boulevards. They cannot be blocked by regular people with just cobblestones any more but he suggested an overturned bus might work. Every single day since March, I have been contemplating democracy here and in the United States. These two countries have a long shared history, from inspiring talks on liberty to abetting each other in the trade of enslaved bodies and so, so many contradictions abound. My US friends want to know what the difference really is. Why are people in the US doing terrible things to each other and not stopping a pandemic whereas life here is relatively peaceful and, at least for now, the worst of Covid seems to have passed? I wonder and wonder. I watch the women biking to work in skirts, I read the congratulatory signs from the government on being good citizens, I get nausea accidentally seeing footage of US bodies throwing other US bodies violently to the ground and worse and yet I don’t know what the answer truly is.
I mull and mull and get all mulloney and mullookey and think of all the vast generalizations I have heard over the years. This morning my 31 year old stepson wrote me from New York that he blames the current state of affairs on unbridled capitalism. I wrote back that the US is one huge embodiment of unintegrated trauma and we didn’t find an answer. Why, the French people ask, why did they vote for him? Why wouldn’t they wear masks? Why aren’t they taking care of sick people? Why? I don’t have a lot of answers but one little thing keeps pulling my attention.
Deserving. When a Black person gets accosted by the police, I often hear white people say something that begins with, well, he should or should not have ______ fill in the blank. Newspaper accounts of Black or Latinx people being arrested or worse almost always seem to include a little justifying paragraph at the end. He had a hammer in his pocket, he looked dangerous, he somehow someway deserved something. And this is the mindset that I don’t see as often here. Bad things happen in France but somehow, maybe Catholicism instead of Protestantism, I hear much, much less about deserving. In the US I feel like people are much too comfortable with the idea that people somehow should or do get what is coming to them. We can witness injustice and recast it in our minds so it is some kind of justified situation even in the most horrific circumstances. I have found myself doing this and I have heard close friends and family (all white) do the same. This is part of our culture. She shouldn’t have been walking there, they should have known better, he could have known that would happen, well, well, well… you know it was bound to happen. When we accept the most incongruous and devastating and tenuous relationships between cause and effect, we are not ready to build a new society, we find a way to escape our complicity. We are so used to this that we do not stop and say: the police should never kill people, rapists should never ever rape people, arrests should never ever take place like that.
The other side of the deserving coin that also bothers me is the positive and capitalistic part. How much do I deserve to earn? Don’t I deserve a car and a house and granite countertops? I am a good person and these are my just rewards. I get to have them if I want to because they are somehow my right. The mega church version of Christianity that preaches this in the US is so, so far removed from the Jesus of my childhood Sunday school who threw the money lenders out of the church and embraced poverty. In France if you make a lot of money you pay a lot more in taxes. You can work as hard as you would like but you still have to respect labor laws, tax laws, contract laws and you don’t necessarily deserve anything more than your neighbor. I asked a successful businessman here who had grown up poor and he bristled at the notion. No, he said, it is much more complicated than that. I don’t necessarily deserve anything he said, I didn’t work harder than other people, I have been lucky and I have been helped. Even with teenagers in my classroom in the US, I struggled with this notion of deserving. Somehow we believe that the rich deserve their big houses and the poor deserve their moldy trailer. I believe this at times, I can’t help myself. I don’t want to, but I forget to check because I get caught up in our cultural discourse. If someone here has a lot of money French people grouse about how their family probably had money and they should redistribute it, pay more taxes, not get to keep land from long ago, etc. How many of us are willing to say that openly and candidly about anyone who seems to have a lot of money? No one, but no one, DESERVES to be a billionaire. It should be a crime said my 14 year old son.
What does anyone really deserve? In French when you get a salary you « win » it rather than « earn » it. The French do talk about people meriting certain things, usually negative, but in my day to day interactions, I don’t see the constant competition for deserving either good or bad treatment. We all buy the same baguettes, walk the same sidewalks, take the same buses, pay the same prices for medical treatments, sign the exact same lease documents (the national government has a standard legal form), and wait the same amount of time for the very slow wheels of French bureaucracy to turn.
Maybe if we step out of the cycle of deserving, of personal identity as rationale for cause and effect which are often not cause and effect, maybe then we can critically analyze the country we in the US are trying to make and/or preserve. If we think the billionaires deserve their money and the young Black man deserves police violence then we are stuck, unable to actually see the real cause and effect, unable to question the history that led us to such a place. It is time to ask the much more critical questions of who profits? What systems started this? Where are the laws? Who wrote the laws?
If we think about loving each other simply as a practice and not because of any kind of deserving, maybe we can make progress and find our better connections. What do I deserve? Nothing. Everything. I think I would rather ask the question, what do I desire? What am I willing to fight for? Who can I help? How much discomfort can I tolerate?
What do you desire? Here’s a sexy apricot smashed on the sidewalk.