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The F in French

Where Adam Smith meets Noah Webster & comes up with the $-word

Venice Beach, Currado Malaspina, watercolor on paper. 2018

Though the French are loathed to admit it, we adore American culture. We love your movies and your pop music precisely because they are products of an intrepid eclecticism that we in Europe sorely lack. The freight of centuries of tradition make us a terrific tourist destination but costs us a certain degree of inventive agility. As I get older I find that I spend time in the U.S. the same way other people spend time at the gym. Visiting the States prevents the hardening of my creative arteries and after each trip I come away refreshed, restored and optimistic.

Two American trends are of particular interest to me. The first is the “wellness” movement that miraculously makes salubrious, albeit self-denying practices an elevated value. The second is the impassioned professional aspiration toward “diversity,” a word, (not to mention a concept) that fails to find its precise French equivalent.

I’m often struck at what lengths prosperous, well-educated Americans go in order to deprive themselves of pleasure. Given the choice of a midday glass of fresh carrot juice or a deep, gritty, complex red Burgundy, most of my compatriots would choose the latter and never give it a second thought. What I love about the States is that an  aspiration toward rectitude enters into any careful evaluation of one’s gastronomical options. In my country we simply don’t drink our vegetables. In America, by contrast, wine is seen as a lovely, special, luxurious indulgence. To be healthful in addition to being healthy is a profound contribution to the fulfilled life and Americans need never feel ashamed of their prudishness or their caution.

Inclusiveness is a hardened French value, consecrated by our commitment to secularism. What we call laïcité is an uncompromising separation of Church from State. What I envy about Americans is that they cling to religion and link it directly to their sense of citizenship. This allows people their hyphenated identities, something that official French culture finds childish.

The United States has this uncanny ability to promote inflexible social practices that openly conflict with its commercial priorities. I find this absolutely wonderful!

I recently saw on social media a widely circulated video of a waitress wearing a skimpy black bikini tending to her customers. As a male patron walked past her he gently placed his palm on her exposed hip. The agile waitress promptly grabbed the groper by the collar and threw him violently against a wall. The man was arrested and charged with sexual battery.

I find this utterly fascinating and so fabulously consistent with the American devotion to business and the bottom line (no pun intended). I simply can’t imagine a restaurant in Paris imposing a similar dress code on its employees. Yet in America, the spirit of free enterprise is so unambiguously embedded in the culture that a nearly naked woman serving alcohol to young men comes with the implicit understanding that the burgers and the buttocks are unrelated.

Nowhere else is this type of paradox made more explicit than in the conviction that guns are not connected to gun violence.

Which brings me to diversity.

In France one must go quite far before being characterized as a bigot. One of our most popular political parties is the Rassemblement National, a party that despite its new name – until recently the party was called the Front National– has a long history of inflammatory dog whistling. In America, the guardians of civility have invented codes and initials designed to simultaneously evade and refer to forbidden words. The brilliance of American corporate ingenuity is that while strictly prohibiting the use of certain loaded terms by its Caucasian employees, the entertainment industry makes a fortune trading in those very same linguistic prohibitions. You have to love a country that fires its executives for verbalizing the same words it monetizes at the box office and on their streaming services. Without the slightest sense of dissonance American culture embraces and enforces its taboos all in the name of profit.

As someone who grew up on Cartesian Rationalism, I find these acrobatics  breathtaking!

We have a lot to learn from our cousins across the Atlantic and on behalf of my fellow Frenchmen – or should I say FrenchPeoples – I congratulate you.

Cogito ergo lucror!

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