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Go Easy on French-Frying

March 02, 2003

Eh bien, let's think about this une minute. It can, to be honest, be very funny to ridicule and laugh at people who are different and far away. You don't really know them and who's going to be hurt, right? Take the French. Please. They're obstructing the Anglo-U.S. drive for a broad anti-Iraq coalition and doing so in that gallingly gorgeous language, with that annoyingly alien logic and the insufferable superiority that comes from owning a millennium of history.

Never mind that the French are not alone in opposition. It's impossible not to laugh at caricatures -- the Axis of Weasels photo, the jingoistic headlines of some news corporations or a cartoon quote: "Bonjour, you cheese-eating surrender monkeys." Oversimplified. Entertaining. Publicity for talk shows bashing French leaders and restaurants removing French beverages to protest Parisian protests.

But before these fine French whines cause us to saute ourselves by boycotting French fries and French toast for the momentary consumption of TV cameras and the actual economic detriment of Idaho and Kansas, let's recall a personal lesson. Wasn't this the same derisive treatment we gave a classmate named Joel back on the seventh-grade playground when he earned straight A's and, worse, his mother told all of our mothers? Didn't we make fun of him ruthlessly even to his puzzled face? Didn't it feel good to mock his clothes and dodge-ball ineptitude? It was more fun because he clearly scorned our disdain. And so much easier than addressing the real issue: our own grades.

Using the pens adorning his shirt pocket, even on Saturday, Joel perhaps designs or runs satellites that eavesdrop on space and Earth now, something certainly complex. To be honest again, wasn't it the Joels we thought of years later in silent privacy, realizing how we regretted our behavior back then?

Now let's recall some history: Way, way back, even before "The Simpsons," didn't French troops help outnumbered American soldiers at the Revolutionary War's decisive battle of Yorktown? Where did that large Statue of Liberty come from? And, if memory serves, wasn't it the American president in 1954 who obstructed and declined to join a French military coalition fighting communists in Indochina?

We all have personal and national agendas. Just because they occasionally differ doesn't mean they're intentionally opposed. Or not. It's also theoretically possible that even obstructionists have something valuable to add. Other lands -- Belgium and Germany come to mind -- agree with France. But we have a long sibling-like history with France, resentful rivalries included.

As we contemplate major new history these crucial days, let's not go beyond momentary mocking laughter and risk an old relationship, diminishing ourselves again in our own future memories.

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