Politics & Policy

Down With The French!

Two great new books.

Ah, Christmastime. Joy to the world. God bless us, everyone. Through the rapturous din of carols and chimes, a stray condemnatory note can be heard, chastising the yuletide revelers for being too materialistic, too concerned with gifts that come wrapped in pretty paper and shiny bows. Who can help but sympathize with such concerns as the groaning hoards of shoppers appear like Huns outside the doors of Wal-Mart? That is why I am so grateful for a special Christmas present–holiday present if you must–for the whole world. No mere thing or shiny bauble, this present is an idea, glowing with an ecumenicism that fires the mind and illuminates the heart, uniting nearly all mankind in fellowship. What idea is that? Why, the total destruction of France, of course.

No, no, I don’t mean–or want–to kill the French people and salt the earth where they live. That would be wrong.

No, what I’m referring to is the destruction of France as an idea, as a shining fromagerie on a hill, serving as a beacon of asininity to left-wing radicals and a siren to kleptocratic third-world dictators who, after a career of mass-murder, want decent medical care, a good lawyer, and a fresh croissant. Two new books are out that attack the cheese-eating surrender monkeys from two of France’s three most vulnerable sides: facts and logic (the third vulnerability, duh, is its border with Germany).

For centuries France has claimed a monopoly on political virtue by glomming all the credit for the Enlightenment and by pretending to be its anointed protector throughout history. Gertrude Himmelfarb demolishes the first part of this myth in her scintillating intellectual history The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments. The Enlightenment was that moment when mankind allegedly first threw off the shackles of superstition, tribalism, and tyranny and embraced reason, universal human rights, and democracy.

I say “allegedly” because there are still quite a few friends of mine who resist the idea that the Enlightenment was a major step forward intellectually. This is a more interesting debate than you might think. But, since the Enlightenment is also tied to a level of material progress that cannot be discounted to the point of a triviality, I think these people are enjoying an academic fancy more than a serious point of view. We can have this argument more another day, but I think modern dentistry, the elimination of rickets, and the light bulb are pretty serious accomplishments.

Anyway, my own view on debates over the Enlightenment can be summarized by Mike Meyer’s Scottish crank dad from So I Married an Axe Murderer: “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap.”

Himmelfarb updates this ancient wisdom by persuasively placing the Scottish Enlightenment under the rubric of the British Enlightenment so as to join Edmund Burke and Adam Smith in a single tradition. She also adds another enlightenment, the American, to the mix. The French have long tried to claim that the American Revolution was merely an offshoot of the French Enlightenment project. Himmelfarb disagrees. She shows that the French took a different road to modernity than the British and Americans, who took similar but slightly different routes themselves. The British valued virtue more than liberty; the Americans had it the other way around. But where the French differed is that they sought to replace the religion of old Europe with a new cult of reason. They even made the Notre Dame Cathedral into a “Temple of Reason.” The philosophes’ Encyclopedie proclaimed, “Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian. Grace moves the Christian to act, reason moves the philosopher.” By making a religion out of politics, with the state at its center, the French never embraced liberty the way Anglo-Americans did. It was this legacy that lent intellectual heft to all the great dictators–Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. (A similar impulse also transformed American liberalism for the worse, but for that you’ll just have to read my book, whenever it comes out.)

Anyway, our friend and my colleague–or is that my friend and our colleague?–John Miller picks up the story basically where Himmelfarb leaves off. In Our Oldest Enemy he and co-author Mark Molesky debunk the mythology that America and France were anything like sister republics fighting side by side in Lady Liberty’s defense. Yes, the French throne–not the Enlightenment philosophes–helped us out during the American Revolution, but that was a calculated attempt to give Britain a wedgie. Before that–during the French-Indian wars–and almost ever after the French have practiced a nasty realpolitik towards America and the world. The French supported the Confederacy in the Civil War and let’s not count how many Frenchmen supported the Germans–and the Holocaust. Suffice it to say, the Hollywood version of French heroism leaves a lot to be desired. “Next to the weather,” General Eisenhower lamented, “[the French] have caused me more trouble in this war than any single factor.”

And let’s also not gloss over the fact that more than a few French intellectuals have been known to look at dictators and mass-murderers the way Michael Jackson gazes at posters of Macaulay Culkin. Michel Foucault was like, “Oh my God, the Ayatollah is sooo cool.”

Anyway, Eisenhower’s lament was perfectly consistent with our entire history with France, as Miller and Molesky relentlessly document. During the Cold War, de Gaulle was always more of a hassle than a help. France’s opposition to the Iraq war had a soupcon of principle in a kettle of cynicism burbling with Iraqi oil and blood. Indeed, we forget that the phrase “millions for defense, not a penny for tribute” stemmed from America’s refusal to acquiesce to French shakedowns during the XYZ affair. And we also forget, by the way, that the phrase, “Herr Kommandant! The Jews are hiding in those woods right over there!” was a wildly popular phrase in France in the early 1940s.

But the most annoying irony is that while they ribbit a big game about bringing liberty and civilization to the world, France’s record is one of sowing the seeds of tyranny and corruption almost everywhere they’ve planted their flag. Meanwhile, Britain’s former colonies are mostly moving in freedom’s direction. The political scientist Myron Weiner has observed that since 1983, “Every single country in the Third World that emerged from colonial rule since the Second World War with a population of at least one million (and almost all the smaller colonies as well) with a continuous democratic experience is a former British colony.” Meanwhile, every former French colony talks pretty. Advantage: pub-crawlers!

These two books make excellent Christmas presents for those in need of waking up and smelling the café au lait. And while I feel bad that it took so long for me to plug John Miller’s book, as the French general who started fighting the Germans in 1945 said, “Better late than never!” So joy to the world and down with the French! But I repeat myself.


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