SOMETIMES A WRITER craves to bare his soul and lighten his burden of hidden sin-yes, to admit that he hasn’t always lived as a Christian, that he has played cards in low dives and done shameful things with floozies in foreign ports. He wants to make a clean breast of it before the world, to say, “There. You see me in all my sordid sorrow and moral wretchedness. Forgive me if you can.” Well, I’m at that pass. I’m going to confess.
I like the French.
All right. I’ll leave town. (Actually, come to think of it, I’ve left town.)
Yes, I’ve written harsh things about the French. The French like the French awfully well, and I figured that here was a teeter-totter that needed some balance to it. So I laughed at them. There was no malice in it. I was just being professionally disagreeable.
But now our tub-thumping patriots are whooping it up most frightfully against France. Why? Because the French saw no reason to blow up Arabs in a contrived war of dissembled purpose. Neither did I. Nor do I remember that the French are corporals in our army. Besides, if we don’t support their opposition to the war, why shouldn’t they oppose our support?
The patriots call the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” It’s embarrassing-though not because they insult the French. I just wish we had a patriot who sounded more than eleven years old.
I grant you that the French are imperfect. They live on a reputation they do not deserve. I refer to their famous intolerance of visiting Americans, which is a tourist attraction, listed in travel guides. One expects a Parisian to sight down his nose as if taking a measurement, and sniff, and be supercilious.
But no. You cannot trust a Frenchman.
In former years I often went to Paris for the Air Show. Always the French were tiresomely civil. I had expected the heathen rudeness one associates with moral crusaders. I considered bringing a case at law: I had spent all that money in expectation of gorgeous churlishness and didn’t get any.
I waited everywhere for lightning to flash, for some spark to ignite the powder magazines of Gallic abrasiveness. Surely something would provoke them to vile manners. In particular, I had been warned that they would not suffer Americans who had not been born with a perfect fluency in French.
The rascals would not perform. My wife of the moment entered a drugstore in Paris to buy cough syrup. She thought she was asking for medicine, but was in fact asking for a doctor (“médecin”). The help were astonished as she went about peering at shelves, in the apparent belief that in France doctors were kept in little boxes. When the mistake was understood, the French laughed. They were friendly and helpful. It was low treachery.
Patriotism is more confusing than Japanese camera instructions. Russia, Germany, and France opposed our lunge into Mesopotamia. Which of these villains has done America the most harm? Russia, I recall, forced us to spend trillions for defense that might better have gone for counterproductive social programs and supplied our enemies in every war from Korea to Vietnam. Germany caused some little trouble in the Forties. But whom do patriots hate? France. The Russians after all can make no one feel inadequate. They wear baggy pants. Germans eat sausage. They polka.
Patriots make much of the dismal record of the French in matters military. Well, yes. It’s hard to argue with failure. I note, however, that the French have Germany on their borders, a condition associated with military failure for everybody enjoying the same circumstances. Americans cannot always distinguish between military prowess and the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, a great many Americans cannot find the Atlantic Ocean.
The Yankee record in festive slaughter may not be quite as good as we puff it up to be. The United States came late to the parade of World War I after everybody else had done the fighting and declared itself victorious. America won splendidly in World War II, drew in Korea, and lost in Vietnam. The United States has only a fairish record in wars against helpless countries: lost in Cuba, Somalia, Lebanon, Cambodia, and Laos, but won in Grenada, Panama, Iraq I, and, maybe, Iraq II and Afghanistan II. In our record of wars won we rank high in the standings and would make the playoffs, but on the percentages the British look better.
Now, I grant you that the French have done the usual irreparable damage to civilization that countries do when they can. Napoleon was a preening little scourge, yes. (He did show that the French can fight well when led by foreigners.) But-correct me if I’m wrong-did the French not produce Zola, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Laplace, Galois, the lovely prose of Alexis De Tocqueville, and indeed about 12,000 shelf-feet of such like? For this, perhaps, they can be forgiven Simone de Beauvoir and those unnecessary existentialists.
If only patriots whooped who had heard of these people, we might have rather less whooping. And if you are going to eat cheese while surrendering, you might as well eat good cheese.
If the French have declined in war since Napoleon, they still have style. I wish we had some. Our current emperor always gives the impression that he has just finished eating a peanut-butter sandwich. His speeches might be the winning entry in a seventh-grade elocution contest in Texarkana. By contrast, you can look at almost any French minister without suspecting that he was dressed by his mother, and the merest of them radiates an air of worldly understanding and intelligence that would get him jailed in America. A French cab driver has more class than a congressman, and probably fewer gravy stains.
The French respect intelligence, whereas we are deeply suspicious of it. I’m not sure that intelligence has much place in diplomacy, other than to let one make bad choices in better prose. Still, misjudgment engaged in with class at least makes better reading for later students of history. Whatever their failings, the French do not cultivate boorishness as a compulsory credential of democracy, lie systematically to their children, or endeavor to crush intellectual endeavor. We didn’t either, once.
America once had a brash, rough, leather-breeches style with a cornpone but genuine appeal. The genius of America was the pawky outsider laughing at European pretensions, the lethal wit of Twain, Bierce, Mencken, and Hunter Thompson. The country wielded canny frontiersman like Davy Crockett, enjoyed the cracker-barrel shrewdness of Andrew Jackson, who figured that Bourbon belonged in branch water and not on a throne.
Thing is, backwoods virility doesn’t well make the transition to suburbia. The American unease with ideas didn’t sit badly on Huck Finn, Daniel Boone, or, in the Heroic Age of American technology, the buzz-cut engineers working on Apollo. But put Tom Sawyer on Ritalin in deliberately crippled suburban schools to keep him from being a boy; teach him that to be manly is sexist and that to be educated is elitist; wean him from independence and self-determination but give him nothing to replace them; rigorously discourage intellectual enterprise-and you get the polar opposite of a Frenchman.
Europeans, and assuredly the French, like to believe that the tremulous age of Europe makes them proof against the jejune lurchings of the young United States. I see blessed little evidence of it. But there is something appalling in the boobish anti-civilization now eagerly embraced by America. Much of our noisy patriotism is not readily distinguished from the barroom tantrums of congenitally hostile louts. We have a president who probably thinks Oat Cuisine is something one feeds to horses. I’m not sure that, before we put our own house in order, we are a position to look down too scornfully on the French.