Friday, June 27, 2008

Cliché Criticisms Cripple Themselves

Discussing the role of the United States in World War II with a cyberfriend, I found myself sighing with the exasperation of one who could make her case ten times better, yet would never choose her terms. This happens whenever someone ventures into an area in which I feel comfortable about facts my interlocutor treats much like a bull amid eminently breakable china.

Say a European spouts clichés about the USA. "You Americans are, how do you say ... [insert cliché here]."

Or how about your gringo out of central casting who spouts something like "Well, [Latin American country here] is so backward because those people just don't know how to [insert Ugly American truism here]."

Then there's the bloody Prod who repeats some 500-year-old false canard such as "the Jesuits [add heinous act here]."

Critics often think that my reaction means they've touched a nerve. They decide that I am "emotional" (goodness, let's not spill emotion on the clean carpet, shall we?) in much the same way there-thererer men dismiss women who get legitimately annoyed.

My problem is not always that I disagree.

Americans have customs and habits of mind that may seem quaint or unusual to Europeans or even Canadians. Latin American countries are socioeconomically behind the United States by almost any conceivable measure. And even one Catholic joke has it that not even the Holy Spirit knows what the Jesuits are up to.

Nor is it that my feelings of attachment to the country of my birth, the region in which my ancestors lived or the the religion in which I was brought up (to which I no longer assent) prevent me from accepting their blemishes, scars or even fatal flaws.

Actually, the problem is that most Europeans have no effing idea of the depth of criticism to which I am capable of subjecting America. Nor do average Americans know enough to understand my exasperation with Latin American societies. Nor, finally, does the average Protestant even begin to plumb the faultlines I see in Catholicism.

To the contrary, pseudo-savants such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, the recent author of an essay on the United States, which was expanded into a book, are exasperating for the little they understand. They richly deserve every kick in the pants they get precisely because they provide the best rationale for the Republicans' idiotic renaming of French fries as "freedom fries."

That's the problem. But how does one convey this to those who feel they already know the truth and even know what I am thinking? Moreover, I am not exactly incapable of provoking a similar reaction.

Sometimes, men and women are the worst discussants in the world. I wish I could talk to my dog -- if I only had one.


Geneviève said...

Have you read BHL’s essay ? or just some American opinion on it ? In France he is considered as a comic puppet, he and his colleagues of “nouveaux philosophes “ who are said as empty as, let’s say a china pot....Choose better examples! (Tocqueville?) I suppose your exasperating correspondent to be no more full of cliches as you are on Europe and on the role of the USA in WWII. Who can boast about owning the truth through facts that may be read at the light of prejudices? Noone!

Cecilieaux said...


One should notice the links a blogger inserts: they are a clue to what he has read. Indeed, after reading the essay, my reaction was very much like Keillor's. BHL obviously has no idea what he is talking about. I didn't bother to buy the book, why give this idiot more money?

If you have nothing to offer as a "better example" than an essayist from the 1830s, then it is no mystery why France declined. Otherwise, do your homework; I am not going to make your argument for you.

You can suppose all you want, but until you prove any supposition, it remains merely that.

Finally, boasting about owning the truth -- without evidence, without proof, without even bothering to reason -- is precisely what I am criticizing. Reading is required to understand an essay.


Geneviève said...

I agree with almost everything but the logic of this sentence: " If you have nothing to offer as a "better example" than an essayist from the 1830s, then it is no mystery why France declined", because I do not see the connection between France 's "decline" and my reading not enough about French authors who would cense the USA, (or the lack of French authors censing - or analyzing well - America ? probably they exist).

I am surprised that you believe in such a prejudice that ancient authors are not so interesting as contemporary ones, even when it is about present policy and economics -- moreover American ones being not right now the best example either for the planet.

Of course, children are well aware of their parents's flaws that they can reveal to the world,no problem, but the strangers are not allowed to criticize them, I know.

How is going the conversation with your virtual dog? At least he will not conradict you stupidly!

Cecilieaux said...

I was hasty in my reply, Genevieve. There are a few sharp sentences that, in retrospect, I should have taken out. Excuse my impetuousness.

With respect to authors and France, I feel I was misunderstood. It is not that I prefer modern authors to those of the past, but rather that the absence of lively and incisive contemporary authors in a society tends to denote a certain staleness in that society's public discourse, an indicator of decline.

If there were many incisive, funny, lively and quotable French writers, one of them, rather than dear old Alexis, would have come up in your response as a substitute for BHL. Since none did, it seemed plausible to suggest that their absence could explain why France is in decline. As without new authors, a society has no new ideas.

The children-parents simile, if it is meant to be applied to the essay, is already answered in it. Otherwise, je comprends pas.

A virtual dog! Why didn't I think of that?

Geneviève said...

Sure there are new incisive French authors with "new ideas",like in the USA I suppose all your authors are not respectable old comics like Keillor. Probably they are not interested in the USA or, more plausible, I don't know them.

In your post, yes you are like a child who knows the flaws of his parents ( or country,ancestors'country, religion) but strangely, all strangers who dare to criticize them are idiots.