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Everything Old Is French Again

The confessions of a former Francophile.

7:00 AM, Apr 18, 2003 • By JOEL ENGEL
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ALWAYS ON THE LOOKOUT for creative ways to mold my teenage daughter, I accidentally discovered an efficient weapon in a pile of clothes earmarked for Goodwill. "Whose is that?" Maggie asked.

"Mine," I said.

"You wore a beret, Dad?!"

To prove I had, I put it on--and watched her collapse into a puddle of laughter. Soon, though, hilarity morphed into horror: A friend might happen by and see me like that.

Bingo. Since then I've been able to bend the poor girl to my paternal will by threatening to show up at school wearing the damn thing.

What she doesn't know is that I don't have the nuggets anymore to actually go out in public looking like Jacques someone, as I did nearly three decades ago to cover my unwashed hair during a mostly unwashed year in Paris (one does have to blend in).

In those days--when you couldn't apply for membership in the sophisticates' club without swearing that France was the world's only civilized country--going from Berkeley English major to beret-wearing expatriate poet living in a seventh-floor garret above a Tunisian bakery in the Latin Quarter was only logical. True, it had been 50 years since Hemingway stopped by Gertrude Stein's in the Rue de Fleurus and tried to write that very bad thing that you needed to forget (and hide from your wife) in cafés where you could drink cheaply and well. But even in the '70s, when you could drink cheaply or well but not both, France was still where romantics like me went to find art and truth and beauty.

America? L'Amerique, I enjoyed telling my buddies in the bars of St. Germain, was ze armpit of ze planet. They nodded avec enthousiasme and recited its endless evils. I agreed with everything they said, which of course made me one of them. It was a heady feeling to be superior--to be French. American culture was an oxymoron, I declared, and as reward was proclaimed the new Voltaire. Oh, how I loved it (picture Jimmy Carter reveling in Stockholm's applause). No matter that the jukeboxes blasted American rock-n-roll, and that the most popular movies were American. For that matter, I earned my living in the streets and subways playing guitar for an American woman who sang American songs, and could make an extra month's rent whenever I wanted by selling a pair of my authentically-American Levis.

Back at home 14 months later I rarely wore my beret, though metaphorically it still tilted just-so on my head for several years--long enough to almost stroke out my patriot uncle 10 or 12 times over dinner arguments. But at last I came to see France as an effete country of effete snobs whose best days were witnessed by Franklin and Jefferson and to see America for what it is: all things considered, the greatest force for good in ze planet's history.

That means I've broken ranks with generations of educated Americans for whom the Enlightenment trumps Yorktown and Normandy--and indeed, Baghdad. To most of our reigning intelligentsia, France and everything French still matter more than, say, Illinois or anything Midwestern. They still hunger for the pseudo legitimacy that only French approbation can bestow. Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton sought it for eight years. "Cowboy" George W. Bush stopped trying after a few months.

No wonder the elite press, most of academia, and Hollywood royalty keep trotting out the "unilateral" fiction. In their Harvard-Sorbonne math, 40 allies minus 1 French veto equals unilateralism. There's no point in suggesting that Chirac's Gallic nose in the air was intended not for the greater good but to cynically protect his country's own financial interests, or that France undermines us out of envy, given that America bestrides the earth as a colossus while La Belle Republique now has more in common with Le Petit Prince. Alas, old love affairs die hard. The worship of Paris continues unabated, unaffected by either facts or progress.

How utterly ironic.

Did we not all learn that liberalism--a political ideology with its roots in, yes, the Enlightenment--rejected authoritarian governments (like Iraq), defended freedom of speech and expression (rights not enjoyed in Iraq or anywhere in the Arab world), championed the individual's right to pursue happiness as he chooses (which he cannot in Iraq), and battled racism (for instance, the pan-Arab call for jihad)? Liberals are good, liberals are tolerant, liberals are--above all--catalysts for progress and justice who don't need Security Council resolutions to validate righteousness. Anyway, that's what I learned in the early '60s, when liberals were built like JFK. So I was raised a Democrat, proud to be on the good side of every battle.

Conservatives, meanwhile, were on the wrong side. Necessarily so. Conservatism meant preserving the status quo, upholding traditional (unjust) values, rejecting new ideas, and denying needed change. It was--above all--a reactionary philosophy adopted by Republicans, the evil party of Goldwater and Nixon.

But that was then and now is now, and now, it's fair and right to say, the reactionaries appear to have changed parties. Hard-core liberals have fixed themselves in the past, their stance frozen 35 years ago, unmoved by either the advances that liberalism actually engendered or the context newly created that September 11th morning. They can't tell who the real enemy is anymore--tyrants or imperfect democracies--and their beliefs can be boiled down to bumper stickers like "Don't legislate hate. Fight the right" and "Dare to keep the CIA off drugs." Thus did (then) Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney beg a Saudi prince for the $10 million Rudolph Giuliani had returned to him, in part because "the Voting Rights Act will soon expire"; while in Iraq, Congressman Jim McDermott saw the ghost of the Tonkin Gulf, claiming President Bush would lie in order to thrust America into war.

Thus did acclaimed novelist Rick Moody, in a front-page New York Times Book Review of a Neil Young biography, wonder whether the Neil Young who'd just recorded "Let's Roll" as a tribute to Todd Beamer and the other heroes of Flight 93 wasn't somehow an imposter. "Ohmygod," Moody wrote. "Is this really the same songwriter who immortalized the murdered students at Kent State in 'Ohio'?"

Thus did Nation columnist Katha Pollitt refuse to let her young daughter fly the American flag after September 11, explaining that it "stands for jingoism and vengeance and war," and that there's a direct connection between "waving the flag and bombing ordinary people half a world away back to the proverbial stone age."

Thus do college professors who'd protested the Vietnam War as undergraduates nearly pull their hair out over their pro-war students. In a Times story about that very subject, Amherst political scientist Austin Sarat wistfully recalled his campus protest days at the University of Wisconsin. "In Madison, teach-ins were as common as bratwurst," he said. "There was a certain nobility in being gassed. Now you don't get gassed. You walk into a dining hall and hand out an informational pamphlet"--one that the students would apparently just as soon ignore, much to his exasperation.

Thus does my friend Linda, coincidentally an Amherst student in the 60s, clasp her hands over her ears and shout "I don't want to hear it" when I inquire why there were no antiwar protests in the two years between America's withdrawal from Vietnam and Saigon's ultimate fall; or when Pol Pot was slaughtering millions; or when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; or when the Rwanda genocide and Srebenica slaughter were being committed under the nose of the United Nations; or when African Arabs brutalize and enslave African blacks; or, for that matter, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. But Linda won't let me finish the list. "Is Bush on drugs or something?" she asks. "He's just the stupidest man in America."

And thus does my wife's cousin believe that the Kennedys are entitled to occupy the Oval Office for all generations to come without the formality of elections. When I observe that JFK's core policies--a strong defense, the propagation of liberty, lower taxes--are rarely seen in today's Democratic party and that JFK might even ridicule his own brother Teddy's agenda, she flatly declares "Not true."

"Not true that that's what he believed, or not true that he wouldn't recognize the party?" I ask.

"I don't know, and I don't care. Are you a Republican now?"

Indeed, over the last year I've discussed terrorists and Islamo-fascism and just wars with at least two dozen friends--educated professionals all, most of them alumni of elite universities--in a tone that was mutually respectful and measured until their moment of ghastly realization. Then came the now-familiar shriek, signaling the end of rational conversation: "You like Bush? You?!"

So it goes.

This war and the run-up to it have been infinitely clarifying. It's clear that many antiwar liberals are like the proverbial frog (hmmm) who doesn't notice that the water has gotten hot until it's too late. It's clear that the word liberal often belongs to an Orwellian lexicon. It's clear that France--which remains Europe's locus of antiwar anti-Americanism (and which predictably now wants back in on the action)--petrified into obsolescence a long time ago. And it's clear that those who can't unglue themselves from the romantic notion of France as the legitimizer of art and truth and political beauty now find themselves described in the dictionary under the adjective "conservative: in favor of preserving the status quo and traditional values and customs, and against abrupt change."

Joel Engel is an author and journalist in Southern California.