Still Pissed Off About the Hawley-Smoot Tariff

Monday, August 02, 2004

U.S.A. v. France - Whence the Animosity?

You ask an interesting question, litteringand. I don't think I have a definitive answer, but I'll speculate a bit, and you can let me know if you think I'm onto something.

First of all, I won't go as far as some commentators go and call France our enemy. I think "competitor" comes much closer, and with that in mind, the answer to your second question comes into clearer focus. We are not "enemies" in the sense that we want to defeat one another. We are competitors in the sense that some of our interests overlap and are mutually exclusive. Consider the relationship between Nike and Reebok. The two companies are not enemies. They both share the interest in preserving a culture in which they can market and sell shoes (and other athletic gear). But both of them realize, quite realistically, that for every pair of Nikes I buy, there's one more pair of Reeboks I won't buy. There's nothing like animus or hatred in the relationship, only competition, pure and simple.

America and France aren't companies, and don't sell a "product" in a traditional sense. Like shoe companies, the two nations have mutually beneficial goals - we want to preserve international trade, we value some modicum of stability, we want countries to play with some semblance of fairness because that benefits everyone. Both countries certainly do sell products. France and America export missiles, for example, and both import oil. Every missile America sells to country A is a missile France can't sell to country A. And if America and France both decide that no one should sell missiles to country B, then each will be unhappy if the other starts selling missiles to country B.

But it's not just products - both countries are also selling an ideas. America sells mass-marketing ideas, like McDonalds, big-pimpin', Baywatch, Michael Jordan, rags to riches stories, and Freedom (capital F). These are big sellers, especially the last one, which flies off the shelves, so to speak. France sells different ideas, including not a little bit of socialism, hundreds of years of culture, fine art, wine, music, an earth-changing Revolution, and also Liberte' (capital L), again a big seller.

When selling ideas, you can either tout your own product or disparage that of your competitor. If I want to make French Liberte' look inferior to American Freedom, I can point out that anti-Semitism is on the rise, that the 30-hour work-week is a dismal failure, that unemployment is through the roof, that free speech is (compared to in America) severely limited, etc. And these may or may not be legitimate criticisms. And if the French want to make Liberte' look superior to Freedom, they can point to American imperialism, the hypocrisy in deposing one tyrant (Saddam) while leaving others alone (Kim Jong-Il and the Iranian mullocracy), cultural bankruptcy (e.g. American Idol), etc. And again, these may or may not be legitimate criticisms.

The point is that it's marketing. Americans criticizing the French clearly aren't out to persuade the French that the French suck - everyone knows that's a total waste of time. The opposite, however, is not as clear, because the French trying to persuade Americans that Americans suck actually hits a target with a good fifty percent of Americans. Americans are a deeply divided people.

So getting back to the question, Does anyone know where anti-France came from? It is inherent when two countries set out to compete. The level of virulence is not inherent, of course. It's sad, and I wish it were otherwise. My digs at France are, well, digs. They aren't reasoned arguments, just cheap shots. (My reasoned arguments, on the other hand, are just that - not cheap shots). And the closer the competition, the more heated the marketing will get, I think. There's a certain amount of anti-British sentiment in America, too, when you consider something as basic as the English language. It's because America and the U.K. both want to export an idea about linguistic superiority, and they both want to win. Iran and America compete because we both want to export ideas about the proper balance of religiosity and freedom, and both want to win. Italy and France both want to export ideas about culture, art, and romance because both countries want to see tourist dollars spill in every summer.

The examples I've listed above show that competition can exist on many levels. The relationship between Iran and America is far more tense than the relationship between America and France, which is far more tense than the relationship between France and Italy.

The next important question to ponder is, how can the relationship between America and France return to something like normality? I suppose some would argue that the next important question is really should that relationship normalize. I think the answer is so emphatically yes that it needn't be asked. America doesn't need enemies. No one does. It might be fun to make France jokes, Canada jokes, English jokes, or American jokes (yes, I laugh at those, too), and I think that's normal and healthy. But full-fledged spite and animosity? No, and I hope nothing I write comes across as that severe.

As far as how to restore our relationship, I don't know. That's the subject of a future post. I don't think John Kerry has the answer, because his "answer," to the extent that he's given one, seems to be apologizing to them - yielding our national interest to their national interest. In other words, Nike apologizing to Reebok for competing so effectively, with a promise to make crappier shoes in the future. That doesn't end the fundamental competition, it just puts America in a disadvantageous position to continue the competition.