Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Thank God for the French

Now there's something my revered ancestor would probably never have said. (Dryden recognized the contributions France had made to world culture, but that didn't stop him from engaging in the perennially English habit of loathing les grenoiulles.) But I love the French. Or rather, I love the fact of the French.

Let me start off by saying that anyone who claims to hate "the French"--or indeed, the whole of the inhabitants of any nation--is an idiot, and your response to such an assertion should--nay, must be to turn your back and walk away once these words are spoken. Don't say anything, don't look back, just let the gesture of complete dismissal speak for itself. Claiming to hate "the French" is like claiming to hate tall people. Or left-handed people. Or people with green eyes. It is predicated on the assumption that the entirety of some subsection of the population is hateful, and if I have to explain to you why that's stupid, then you're not reading this blog. Similarly, claiming to love the French is equally stupid, which is why I tweaked it by saying that I loved the fact of the French.

Why? Because "the French"--and by that I mean their governmental spokespeople, their media, their homme sur le boulevard--are openly and nakedly contemptuous of American foreign policy, of America's leaders, of the American role in the world. And this is a very, very good thing indeed. Like the jester in the court of the King, the French stand up and say what nobody else can--that we are, in fact, the 800 pound gorilla of the world. Not just in terms of strength, but in terms of subtlety, intelligence, caution, and wisdom. We're a big, dumb ape, and everybody--but everybody--thinks so. Only the French have the courage to actually say it.

And here's the cool thing: much as our more red-neckish and purple-faced populace decry them--Bill O'Reilly actually scorns anything and anyone simply by virtue of any association with the country, proof that we should, as one, turn our backs on him and walk away, and nice how I came full circle on that one, eh?--much as we'd love to scorn them and ignore them and call them ugly names that would stick--we can't. We can't. Because when it comes to Europe, and to France in particular, we're deeply deeply deeply insecure. We may hate them, but we also--in our deepest gut of guts--admire them. We know that they're smarter, more cultured, more refined--that their table manners are better, that they're wiser about sex and booze and the finer things, that Paris is in fact the city to which all must go in order to have truly lived, and that EuroDisney was a bad idea. We know, in short, that they are cooler than we. Way, way cooler. Versailles. Monte St. Michel. Chartres. Notre Dame. The Louvre. Deep inside every single NASCAR watcher, every single Wayans-Brothers-movie-goer, every Huckabee's diner, there is a small, ugly voice that says that what they're doing marks them--brands them--as low. Not just low class--low. That they should be listening to opera, reading Proust and Joyce and Nabakov, dining on caviar and coq au vin, watching films with subtitles--because that's what the 'smart people' do--what the high people do. And that as long as they lead lives of pro wrestling and cheap porno (Swank and Jugs, maybe Hustler if they're in a wild mood) and domestic beer and frozen pizza and takced-up posters of s--tty metal bands--as long as they do what they do--they're no damn good. And the French--the French are. Or so we think in our collective imagination.

We tell ourselves, with pathetic and overcompensatory frequency, that we're the greatest country on Earth--but secretly, we think that France has got something that we don't, and we can never have: Culture--all that high-brow-ness that we like to think we're too "down to earth" to care about but which we really know we should like--they've got it, we don't. And so of course we hate them--we hate them the way Iago hated Othello, the way Uriah Heep hated David Copperfield, the way Humbert Humbert hated Claire Quilty (read a book! or, failing that, see a movie that doesn't have explosions in it!) We hate them because they make it look so damn easy to be polished and smart and with-it. We hate them so very very much.

Which is why we can't stop howling about them. When the President gets burned in effigy in Iran, we do not give a rat's ass. Why? Because Iran sucks, and we know it. (It's full of brown people, for God's sake!) Should the Prime Minister of Indonesia rail against us in the U.N., we don't care--we couldn't find Indonesia on a map, and we know nothing about it. (Note: I do not, in point of fact, know what the hierarchical nature of the government of Indonesia is--whether they have a Prime Minister or not. This lacuna in my erudition is, I admit, embarassing. But I can find it on a map. And I know that Java is an important island therein, and that they have monkeys, and maybe orangutans.) But the French? They're civilized. They're white. They're like us, only cooler. And so when they tell us we're ignorant f--k-ups, when they tell us that Bush is an ignoramus who's in way over his head and that the war in Iraq is so stupid they want no part of it, when they, in short, stand up before the world and scream that America f--king sucks (it sounds better in French, of course)--we listen. We have to. We don't change course, naturally, no more than Lear does when the Fool tells him he's an idiot. (Again, read a godd--n book!) But it stings. Oh, it stings. And that, folks, is a good, good thing.

We need the French. We need a buzzing fly in our ear to remind us that while we may have the power of a god, we don't have the knowledge or wisdom of one. We need the jester. We need Thersites (I'm only going say this one more time: Read. A. Book.) And even though their criticism may have a contrary effect--though it may prompt us (well, Bush, really) to persevere in stupidity and self-destruction--well, that's not a bad thing either. Because only by plunging into the depths of stupidity and folly, only by becoming so ridiculous and pathetic in our conduct, can we as a nation--red states and blue states alike--be confronted with undeniable evidence that we, not the French, are the true fools of the world. And then, we can begin to work towards the wisdom of patience and peace. Or, you know, we'll just go screaming over the edge and drag the world with us into Armageddon. But if that happens, f--k it, we had it coming.

Either way, Thank God for the French.


Blogger graygor said...

C'est vrai--c'est tout.

8:51 PM  

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