Sunday, May 20 2007

France and the Rules of Nations

I love reading the letters to the editor in the Washington Post.  I know the paper has a liberal bias, the editorial page especially, but because I know it's biased I can read it without too much guilt.  Sometimes, I suspect that whomever chooses letters to the editor to appear on the editorial page
has a secret conservative bias, as some of the liberal letter writers do their own cause more harm than good.

Case in point: a letter from Joan Salemi that appeared in today's Outlook section.  She calls into question a recent columnists' argument that Tony Blair was a better leader than Chirac, as Blair used his power to benefit the world while Chirac used his power to benefit France. It's a short letter, but the relevant passage is here:

"Would that President Bush had adopted Mr. Chirac's worldview. The United States would not be tied down in the deadly Iraq war."

Uh, hello?  France with Chirac at the helm certainly had no problems acting unilaterally to intervene in other parts of the world.  Chirac has emerged as a reliable ally for dictators around the world.  Although, ironically, she may be right about one thing... if Chirac had been president on September 11th, we probably wouldn't have invaded Iraq, though I don't know if his favored approach would be viewed by Ms. Salemi as being any better.

France is an interesting study in world politics and culture.  It seems to get away with behavior that would earn other Western countries serious condemnation.  It seems to base its world position on being a Western democratic nuclear-armed UNSC-veto-wielding counter to the United States.

I think this has to do with French culture and history.  The French still seem to have the nationalist streak that's been driven down in other Western democracies.  The French drew themselves apart from NATO under de Gaulle, and have pursued an independent military with nuclear capabilities.  They have vigorously maintained national culture, maintaining a quota of domestic media content and resisting efforts to incorporate foreign terms into their language by forcing adaptation of French-originating equivalents.  They maintain active involvement (and interference) in many of their former colonies.  The fact that the United States has emerged as the pre-eminent cultural force in the modern world must surely irritate them to no end.

Yet I strongly suspect that it's the cultural nationalism that has so hampered the spread of French culture.  For the purposes of this discussion, we'll assign different terms to reflect how things are viewed in various cultures.  Things that are "American" are normal parts of American life.  Apple pie is American.  Baseball is American.  Likewise, something that is "not American" is something that is not normal for Americans.  Cricket is not American.  Escargot is not American.  Finally, something that is "un-American" is something that is taboo if not illegal in America;  an American would face social stigma if not legal penalties for it.  Communism at one point was un-American (and I could argue that it should be today).  Eating dog would probably be un-American.  These are, of course, generalizations.  Something that is normal in a big city might not be normal in a rural part of America.  We can extend this terminology to things being French, not French, or un-French.

We'll start with food.  It's easy to understand food, although hard to come up with un- examples for food.  McDonald's Hamburgers are certainly American.  Nobody's going to look at me funny for saying I had a Big Mac for dinner.  (Personally, I haven't eaten at McDonalds in ages, but you get the point).  But Tacos, then, are also American under these rules.  As is spaghetti.  And Chinese food.  I'm not saying that Chinese food isn't Chinese as well, just that it's a normal part of American society to eat Chinese food.  In an urban area, just about any type of food that can draw an audience can be considered normal, where as most rural areas will be more limited (but you can almost always find a mexican place, an italian place, and a chinese place within a reasonable driving distance).  Sure, the food in the Chinese restaurant has been modified to suit an American palate, but that's the way we work.  If it's edible, we'll eat it, but not before adding any of the known virtues of the American way of doing things that we can.

Oddly enough, the one restaurant I can't find is a French one (though I know a few decent cafe and bread places that have adopted a French theme).  I certainly would think it a little more unusual for someone to tell me that they went out for French food than Thai food.  Yet American fast food proliferates everywhere.  I love seeing the anti-globalization protesters everywhere smashing McDonalds's.  You'd think that American anti-globalization protesters would smash, say, a Taco Bell instead.  But if the French protest globalization by targeting American culture, and the Americans target globalization by targeting American culture, than America must be doing something right in the culture department.  It is doubly ironic that the staple product of American food culture, the Hamburger, is named after a city in Germany.

And what America does right is learn from other cultures, take what works, combine it with what worked in the past (often also stolen from other cultures) and spit out an American version.  Sure, there are trade-offs to some of the advantages of American food, but there is a reason people are willing to substitute quality for speed, standardization and cost.  The French, meanwhile, are to busy maintaining the purity of their culture to adapt the advantages learned by other cultures, which both limits the choice of French consumers and the competitiveness of French culture.

To use my terminology, very little is un-American, and what begins as not American often quickly becomes normal as it combines with American virtues, and hence eventually becomes American.  Meanwhile, anything that is not French faces significant cultural hurdles to adoption, and in some cases, such as language, is automatically un-French.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 38 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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