Candide & the GOP’s Tax Obsession

Candide expelled for having insufficient quarterings

Monday

As far as I can tell, the GOP has become a party with only one real agenda: pass more tax cuts for wealthy Americans. Or put more broadly, redistribute income upward from the lower class to the upper class. If this means taking healthcare away from 23 million Americans; if this means gutting Medicare and Medicaid and food stamps; if this means closing their eyes to other pressing matters, such as climate change and a president who is consorting with a hostile nation and putting the White House up for sale, well, so be it. They remind me a lot of the Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh in Voltaire’s Candide.

The Baron and his son care about one thing and one thing only: their noble lineage. Voltaire shows the absurd degree to which it obsesses them.

We first hear of the Thunder-ten-Tronckhs’ obsession with lineage in the opening paragraph. Candide is rumored to be the illegitimate son of the elder Baron’s sister, who was in love with his father but would not marry him because he could lay claim to no more than 71 quarterings, “the rest of his genealogical tree having been lost through the injuries of time.” Because she has 72 quarterings, he is deficient in noble blood.

The Baron expels Candide from his castle when he catches him kissing his daughter Cunegonde. From that moment on, Candide finds himself enmeshed in a turbulent and cruel world, one which, moreover, descends also upon the Baron and his family.

The plot is too entangled to summarize and, in any event, Voltaire uses it mainly to make satiric points. One of these is that, despite  the Leibnizian optimism of Candide’s tutor Pangloss, we do not live in the best of all possible worlds and all is not for the best. (“Whatever is, is right,” as Alexander Pope put it.) Another is that, regardless of what happens, the Thunder-ten-Tronckhs never cease to insist upon their lineage.

Take, for instance, Candide’s chance encounter in South America with the Baron’s son, now a Jesuit friar. The reunion appears happy until Candide mentions his desire to marry Cunegonde:

“You insolent!” replied the Baron, “would you have the impudence to marry my sister who has seventy-two quarterings! I find thou hast the most consummate effrontery to dare to mention so presumptuous a design!”

Candide, petrified at this speech, made answer:

“Reverend Father, all the quarterings in the world signify nothing; I rescued your sister from the arms of a Jew and of an Inquisitor; she has great obligations to me, she wishes to marry me; Master Pangloss always told me that all men are equal, and certainly I will marry her.”

“We shall see that, thou scoundrel!” said the Jesuit Baron de Thunder-ten-Tronckh, and that instant struck him across the face with the flat of his sword. Candide in an instant drew his rapier, and plunged it up to the hilt in the Jesuit’s belly…

The story continues on in the same vein, with Candide eventually rescuing  Cunegonde from one set of captors and the Baron’s son (who survived the sword thrust) from another. It should be enough to earn the man’s gratitude, but there’s the issue of tax cuts—or rather, lineage:

Cunegonde did not know she had grown ugly, for nobody had told her of it; and she reminded Candide of his promise in so positive a tone that the good man durst not refuse her. He therefore intimated to the Baron that he intended marrying his sister.

“I will not suffer,” said the Baron, “such meanness on her part, and such insolence on yours; I will never be reproached with this scandalous thing; my sister’s children would never be able to enter the church in Germany. No; my sister shall only marry a baron of the empire.”

Cunegonde flung herself at his feet, and bathed them with her tears; still he was inflexible.

“Thou foolish fellow,” said Candide; “I have delivered thee out of the galleys, I have paid thy ransom, and thy sister’s also; she was a scullion, and is very ugly, yet I am so condescending as to marry her; and dost thou pretend to oppose the match? I should kill thee again, were I only to consult my anger.”

“Thou mayest kill me again,” said the Baron, “but thou shalt not marry my sister, at least whilst I am living.”

The Baron is not the only one who refuses to change his views in the face of reality. The eternally optimistic Pangloss is no less inflexible:

“Well, my dear Pangloss,” said Candide to him, “when you had been hanged, dissected, whipped, and were tugging at the oar, did you always think that everything happens for the best?”

“I am still of my first opinion,” answered Pangloss, “for I am a philosopher and I cannot retract…

I remember how President George W. Bush also couldn’t retract. When the economy was booming and the United States had a budget surplus, he advocated tax cuts. When the economy sunk into recession and retirement savings were wiped out, he advocated tax cuts. Now the GOP is willing to advance a healthcare plan that has a 17% approval rating and that slashes safety net spending so that they can give the trillion dollars in savings to the wealthy. Various French terms for such an obsession are “idée fixe,” “grande folie,” and “manie.”

I thought Voltaire creates exaggerated characters when I read Candide in high school. Now I think he is only describing reality.

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