International

Anti-Americanism vs. anti-Frenchism

An addendum to the recent posts here about anti-Americianism:

Norm provides the text of a examination in English proficiency for staff of the language center at University of Leiden in the Netherlands. If you don’t recognize it, it’s an excerpt from Michael Moore’s opus Stupid White Men. And like much of what Moore says, it slides effortlessly between legitimate (abeit unbalanced) criticism of American shortcomings and mean-spirited insults aimed at the alleged stupidity and bigotry of the American masses.

The former is not anti-American; the latter is. And the latter seems to be what wows ’em in Europe. As David Brooks wrote last June in The New York Times:

Like Hemingway, Moore does his boldest thinking while abroad. For example, it was during an interview with the British paper The Mirror that Moore unfurled what is perhaps the central insight of his oeuvre, that Americans are kind of crappy.

“They are possibly the dumbest people on the planet . . . in thrall to conniving, thieving smug [pieces of the human anatomy],” Moore intoned. “We Americans suffer from an enforced ignorance. We don’t know about anything that’s happening outside our country. Our stupidity is embarrassing.”

It transpires that Europeans are quite excited to hear this supple description of the American mind. And Moore has been kind enough to crisscross the continent, speaking to packed lecture halls, explicating the general vapidity and crassness of his countrymen. “That’s why we’re smiling all the time,” he told a rapturous throng in Munich. “You can see us coming down the street. You know, `Hey! Hi! How’s it going?’ We’ve got that big [expletive] grin on our face all the time because our brains aren’t loaded down.”

As for American French-bashing in the months leading up to the Iraq invasion: while a lot of it wasn’t entirely serious, it sometimes did get pretty nasty and ridiculous– although Moore and other Americans who publicly thanked France for having the courage to say no to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein were almost as hard to take.

Let’s not forget either that there were prominent French intellectuals who supported the invasion as an act of liberation.

But I think the bad feelings that emerged between Americans and French have long simmered under the surface; our respective self-images and images of the other are just too different. We seem to be each other’s perfect object of ridicule:

So much of America’s self-image — egalitarian, plain-speaking, practical, macho — defines itself best against a perfectly opposite foil: supercilious, obscure, effete — qualities Americans conveniently bundle and label French. Never mind that both these summations of national character are stereotypes based on dubious kernels of truth. This is the murky realm where culture-bashing occurs.

“French culture is always associated with high culture,” says Bernard Mergen, professor of American civilization at George Washington University, “. . . and boy, do Americans hate highbrows.”

Consider the unfortunate Frenchness of: poodles, bidets, wine snobs, gourmets, turtlenecks, berets, haughty waiters, obscure literary theories, movies called “films,” snails as food, frogs as food.

Also I suspect that like me, many Americans developed their first impressions of the French by watching Pepe Le Pew cartoons on TV.

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Add the reputed French reverence for Jerry Lewis– a comedian many Americans find supremely annoying– and you begin to grasp the problem.

But too many French soldiers died in the last century’s wars for me to find the “surrender monkeys” bit very amusing.

And I’m sure the French have their complaints about us too…

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