by Piet Coetzer

Where is Lady Godiva now?

Lady liberty kicking the can down the street

Lady Liberty needs to convince US citizens to tighten their belts
Lady Liberty.jpg

The battle over a period of 18 months to come to grips with the US’ gigantic fiscal shortfall introduced a new term to our vocabulary: 'fiscal cliff'. The US was at a point where the government ran out of funds to honour its commitments – including the salaries of its employees.

Metaphorically speaking, it was already a few minutes past midnight when the compromise deal was reached and which will see a few rich Americans paying slightly higher taxes. But it is a far cry from a true and balanced plan to reduce America's debt. Come the end of February, the country will reach its debt ceiling and, shortly after, the austerity time-bomb that was just avoided in January, will begin ticking again.

Like the emperor who, in the 1837 Danish fable written by Hans Christian Andersen, refused to recognise that he was naked, American lawmakers refuse to face the truth: a comprehensive package of tax increases for those at the top of the economic ladder and austerity affecting those at the lower end has become unavoidable.

A legend from antiquity tells the story of how an 11th century Anglo-Saxon noble woman, Lady Godiva (from the Old English word Godgifu, which means God’s gift), rode naked through the streets of Coventry in order to gain a remission of the oppressive taxation imposed by her husband, Leofric, on his tenants.

The American version of Lady Godiva, or maybe Lady Liberty, would have a somewhat reverse role from the one played by her historic sister from Coventry: to persuade the broad populace that some real sacrifices will be needed.

She would, in the modern world, also have another problem with a character dating from the days of Lady Godiva. The original legend had it that the townsfolk agreed not to look at Godiva as she passed by.

A 1236 account of the event tells it as follows: “The Countess Godiva, beloved of God, ascended her horse, naked, loosing her long hair which clothed her entire body except her snow white legs, and having performed the journey, seen by none, returned with joy to her husband who, regarding it as a miracle, thereupon granted Coventry a Charter, confirming it with his seal”.

An account written in 1773 added another character to the tale, who has since become a fixture in the collection of English expressions. According to this version Tom the Taylor just could not resist the temptation to take a 'peep' at the naked lady on her horse and made a hole in his curtain to have a look at her.

This act earned him the nickname Peeping Tom. Later embellishments on this version of the legend have it that he was struck with blindness or even death for breaking the trust of Lady Godiva.

With so much at stake for countries and people across the world, it is most unlikely that America will have an opportunity to solve its problems while everyone else looks the other way.

The expression, 'kicking the can down the street', which has been used so often in connection with the way in which American legislators have been dealing with the threatening 'fiscal cliff', has come over time to mean delaying a difficult decision in the hope that the problem or issue will go away or somebody else will make the decision later.

It derives from a particular version of the children's game of hide-and-seek. A tin can is placed in an open area where the child who is 'on' or is the 'seeker', closes his eyes and counts to 10 or 20 to give the rest of the players an opportunity to hide.

Those who are caught by the seeker gather around the can. But if one of the players can sneak up on the can without being caught and kicks it over or down the street, those already caught are set free. If the seeker can catch everyone, the one caught first is usually the next seeker as a new game starts.

Exactly how and when 'kicking the can down the street' acquired its modern meaning is not clear. It probably derives from the fact that it postpones the final, inevitable entrapment.

What is clear, however, is that, considering the implications for the US and the global economy, the present kicking the can by American legislators is no child's play.

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