On French Arrogance
January 17, 2007
It was in the mid-1980s that I first went to France, a country about which I'd already read much. I was a university student then, and clearly remember, that first visit, being impressed by two things: on the one hand, the pervasive presence of the medieval heritage in the cities and cathedrals, the medieval past still looming over many city centers; on the other, the cockiness of the French themselves, their famous snobbishness toward foreigners which, based on my experience those first weeks in Paris, was proving more than just a stereotype. How many waiters and shopkeepers nearly scoffed their way through my exchanges with them? At that time I could speak French at something like an intermediate level. But the people I talked to didn't give a damn: whatever language I spoke, they seemed mostly concerned just to show displeasure that I was there at all.
This double impression of France was accompanied by a third. Though surrounded by the glories of their medieval past, the French didn't seem much connected to it. They seemed rather to live in its presence with aloofness: almost as indifferent as if the great cathedrals around which their cities were built related to their current lives and thinking no more than if they had been Aztec pyramids. Such indifference, I knew, was mainly a result of the French experience of the Enlightenment and its revolutions. This third impression of the French has confirmed itself repeatedly during my later years of study.
No European people has been affected by modernity quite like the French. Modernity has cut them off from their past more completely than it has any other culture in Europe. If for most of the past thousand years France stood strong as the Catholic center of Europe, its towering cathedrals witness to an exemplary piety, during the past two-hundred years France has stood for something else: liberty, equality, brotherhood. All these are formulated by the French as if somehow an antidote to the teachings of the Church. If in the Middle Ages Europe's most ambitious minds came to Paris to teach and develop their theologies, now Paris and Parisians are entirely indifferent to theology, a kind of discourse that implies a certain humbleness toward the mysteries of the universe and our place in it. Ever inquistive intellectually, the French seem nonetheless to be missing this kind of humility.
I think many would agree on a general diagnosis: in an ever more secular Europe, France is among the most secular of nations. If the modern French worship anything, it is themselves. Self-worship is the real agenda of their concern with libertˇ, ˇgalitˇ, fraternitˇ.
That the French worship themselves is not entirely illogical, however, or at least not too difficult to understand. In worshipping themselves, the French are following a well-established pattern; they're taking up a well-worn psychological crutch. Such a heavy-handed focus on themselves is not exclusively a result of the Enlightenment belief in the perfectibility of man. No, it stems in large measure from more recent developments.
Many people, having suffered a blow to their vanity, will attempt to bounce back by convincing themselves they're really essentially better than the ones who beat them. Passed over for some award or promotion, such a person will tell himself the loss doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter because, to tell the truth, he himself isn't to be judged by the standards of the world. It's only by a different, higher standard that he can be judged.
As a nation, the French have for a long time now been doing just this. Taken down a notch or two by history, the French have responded by elevating themselves to a different plane. This was their cultural gambit through much of the twentieth century, particularly its latter half, and the tradition, though weakened, lives on.
In their own hearts, the French continue to declare themselves the universal standard, the cultural norm by which the whole world should be judged. In spite of failures on the world stage, they have in this way managed to hold their culture in a kind of permanent win-win situation. And how could they ever lose, given the way they've stacked the deck? After all, to the extent they are accepted as a universal standard of culture, they will always remain number one by definition, if only because nobody can hope to be more French than the French. It goes as a matter of course. The dynamics of self-worship are tediously circular.
But the persistence of this kind of arrogance is unbecoming to a nation with so many subtle thinkers, with such a long tradition of self-questioning. There's something contradictory about the French in this respect, something one wishes they'd get over once for all. I would say, with my limited perspective on the contemporary French scene, that they have well and truly begun to get over it. At least it's true that the transcendent self-image seems to have a less persistent hold on their imagination than it did even a decade ago. The French self-image is currenlty in flux.
This essay is being written by an American, which fact puts much of what is said in brackets. Because aren't Americans also guilty of a similar kind of universalizing arrogance? Certainly we are. And yet American arrogance, the overbearing arrogance of my compatriots, is quite a different matter. Perhaps this is because compared to the French we Americans have not been taken down any major notches by history--at least not quite yet. That Americans take themselves to be a universal standard--"The world progresses to the extent that it becomes more like us"--is a phenomenon altogether more naive, more direct. It's naive because most Americans, in my experience at least, actually believe it. They believe it completely, without a shadow of doubt.
"We are the best and happiest people in the world," Americans say. "If you don't want to be more like us, it can only be a sign of your backwardness."
The French have always found such beliefs off-putting, even difficult to understand. Me too, an American, I also find such beliefs off-putting.
Probably fewer Americans would hold to such beliefs so fervently if more of them spent time abroad. They'd see there are other ways to live, and that these other ways also have their advantages. A surprising number of Americans, however, even those with university educations, have little interest in spending time abroad. "Why should I bother?" they seem to think. "Isn't the rest of the world doing its best to become more like us anyhow? Why not just stay here and live where we already have the real thing?"
American arrogance, then, is direct and naive to an extraordinary degree. French arrogance, quite different in tone, seems to be based more on an experience of failure. It is a strategy to salve a wounded national vanity rather than a direct, untroubled feeling of superiority. The French would try to convince the world, themselves included, that they are the best because they fear (secretly they know) they are no longer the best, not even in that prized arena of theirs, the arts.
In important respects, then, the French might actually be a bit up on us their allies across the Atlantic; they might be a bit better off. Why? Because French self-confidence is always undercut by a wiser self-doubt. Though they pretend to believe their culture is a universal standard, at the end of the day they're probably wise enough (experienced enough) to know there is no universal standard. And such wisdom has its great advantages in the contemporary world.
Certainly, to take an obvious example, no recent French government could ever have convinced itself that Iraq might be remade as a Western-style democracy. No French government could ever have convinced its populace of this either. Contemporary France is far too canny as regards cultural difference to ever fall for such delusional projects.
But will Iraq, this dismal experience of American failure, finally succeed in tarnishing the purity and naivetˇ of American arrogance? I doubt it. Many Americans, looking at the Iraq disaster, will not conclude the obvious and say: "We've misunderstood Iraq. In our blindness, we've made a mess of things." No, they'll rather say: "The Iraqis don't understand us. They don't realize we are the best and happiest people on earth. How is it the Iraqis didn't manage to take our bombs and our troop presence and our Halliburton contracts and make a shining new democracy out of it? What a bunch of idiots!"
This is what I fear most Americans will say.
Though the arrogance of the French is liable to keep them up nights, always second-guessing themselves, it is not so with American arrogance. American arrogance is politically naive almost to the point of innocence. In their innocence, Americans naturally sleep better. Most of them sleep like babes.
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