Phobias

Many years ago, in a previous workplace, a colleague and I had the following exchange.

She: All of the stories where the virgin appears to someone in a field or whatever have similar details, even when they are in different countries and cultures. This must mean that they really happened, and that the virgin mary walks among us.

Me: There are similar details, yes, but often these stories are transcribed or even retold by priests, all of whom belong to the same culture (catholicism) and expect to see certain features in a miracle story and are, indeed, prone to shape the stories by adding or emphasizing those features. Even those doing the encountering may, if they have had a religious education, have certain pre-formed expectations of what such an encounter should look like. Similarities between these incidents that appear in the written record are not, therefore, good evidence that miracles happen.

She: Okay, now you’re not respecting my religion.

Let’s unpack that last statement, shall we?

First of all, let’s just be honest. In actual fact the problem is not that I don’t RESPECT her beliefs, it’s that I don’t SHARE them. This is an endless loop where anyone who does not agree with Marcela (the colleague in question) is being disrespectful. And while this is certainly handy for Marcela, since rhetorically, no one can ever disagree with her about anything ever again without now being a bigot, it’s not a great premise for free speech, collegiality, friendship, rational inquiry, or equal rights.

Second of all, in a free state, you respect people’s RIGHTS, not their OPINIONS. It drives me crazy that these two categories have recently been elided to the point where you are no longer allowed to say that an IDEA is bad. Ideas can be bad. They can be evil, wicked, dangerous, destructive, stupid, unfounded, and much in need of rebuttal and eradication. Some ideas should crawl away forever and die in a hole they are so potentially damaging. And even those that are not, well, free people in a free state are allowed to disagree about them, because it’s the RIGHTS of those people — to have ideas in the first place, and to express them freely in various ways like speech, publication, and assembly — that free states protect, not the ideas themselves.

And so, third of all, and following on first and second of all, when you tell someone who disagrees with you about something that they are not allowed to hold that opinion, when you call them bigoted and disrespectful instead of addressing the content of their speech, you are the one doing the silencing, and you you are the one who lacks respect. For the law. For people’s rights. And for the other person. And, incidentally, since you seem to think ideas must be “respected” (i.e. agreed with), for that person’s ideas.

To be clear, I think the premise of “respecting someone’s beliefs” is a bad, bullshit premise. However, those who claim to live by its rules should be respecting my beliefs as well, should they not? And since my beliefs say that we use science, evidence, reason, and empirical data to make our decisions about the world, and are heavily skeptical of any and all religious claims, shutting me down is not respecting MY beliefs. Ok, now go back to the exchange above, apply the principle evenly, equally, to both parties, and see where it gets you on the discourse front. Hear those birdies chirping in the total silence? Yes, that’s where it gets you, and that’s why it’s a bullshit premise.

Fast forward to the american left, the 2010’s. Everywhere you look, there is a creeping new problem, islamophobia. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, people everywhere in the world today are not respecting other people’s beliefs, and they are bigoted about–an idea.

I am deeply, deeply tired of hearing about this for the reasons stated above, principally, but also for some additional reasons which I will detail below. Know for context that when I typed essentially exactly the same thing (rights and ideas are different) on someone’s post about islam as I did above about christianity, that person called me a bigot, twice, in front of an audience and refused to engage in any further discussion about the issue. When challenged, she wrote: “I don’t know what to say.”

So, in addition to the incredibly dangerous and mind-numbingly stupid base problems that come with “respecting someone’s beliefs”, let me add the following about “islamophobia”.

If extremist religious groups kidnap a classroom full of girls and sell them into sexual slavery, and they do so for religious reasons, and they tell everyone that their reasons are religious, and they chant allah is great all the while that they are engaged in this horribly violent, misogynist act, and you say to me, okay, but that has nothing to do with islam, I say are you some kind of moron? Of course it has something to do with islam, because they guys who are doing the kidnapping say it does, and that’s how beliefs work.

I understand the reasons behind the counter-arguments. Not every muslim is a conservative muslim, and not every conservative muslim is a terrorist, and we should not run around blaming individual muslims for something they didn’t do, and we should definitely be on the alert against the kind of violent, racist, and disgusting reprisals that my former country is, unfortunately, famous for throughout its history. I get all that, I’m with you. But all of this is still in the territory of protecting and respecting people’s rights. Once you step over the line and say that you cannot say anything negative about islam as a system of ideas in the world, you lose me, and also, you are deluded. When people say, hello, I am a deeply religious person and that is why I am smacking you in the face, and then they smack you in the face, and your response is, hey, that’s not about religion, you are deluded. How is anyone supposed to take an argument like that, a left like that, seriously?

Speaking of which, I understand that I have stepped outside the immediate context of fox news, and that many of these “islamophobia” posts are responses to things that get said, first, in these circles. Genuinely racist things, in many cases, because the american right is the only thing that is worse than the american left. So I get the impulse. But here’s what. Once you are letting the fox news guys decide the discourse for you, you may or may not win a few battles, but you have already lost the war. First because you are being reactive instead of setting up your own agenda, constantly following along the worst and stupidest lines of thought currently available and line-by-line glossing them to point out their errors instead of actually building change. And second because now, the ONLY people ever to say anything negative about any content of any religion are fascists. You’ve created a ground where you can either defend any and all religious ideas, no matter how cracked, or you ARE the fox news guys. It’s a bad idea to leave this territory for the neo-nazis. Leftists need to claim it, and find ways to talk about it that aren’t racist and horrible, or racist and horrible will be all we have left. If it isn’t too late for that already.

Also, this. If an extremist religious group kidnaps a vacationing backpacker in the mountains and executes him in the name of the lord because of his citizenship, and your FIRST REACTION is, okay, it’s true, those guys’ imaginary friend is a bad guy, but I know other guys who claim to have the same imaginary friend, and THEY SAY that he didn’t REALLY say to kidnap people and execute them, they say he’s actually a really nice guy, and would never do anything like that, so let’s focus on the fact that this imaginary friend guy isn’t like what the first group said but is actually like what the second group said because there is a hierarchy of imaginary friend guy evidence which proves that the facts about imaginary friend have been gotten wrong by group one….

If the above is your reaction to the events described, I question not only your capacity for rational thought, but also your capacity for empathy and a basic human response. Because the victim in this story is not some idea, “islam”, the victim in this story is the guy who got decapitated for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A person who cannot see that is not a person I want as my friend or my neighbor. If a bunch of these guys (and they are nearly all guys, let’s not kid ourselves) who believe in this imaginary friend guy are running around saying that women shouldn’t be allowed to read or drive a car, I say that, because we are, indeed, talking about an IMAGINARY FRIEND, a response that says they are wrong about him is illogical, useless, and completely deluded. Give each little believer subgroup its own name if it makes you feel better, but when your fellow citizens say something like, islam is bad for women and gay people, they’ve got good evidence for doing so, and calling them a bigot is not an appropriate, rational, or indeed a respectful response.

Finally, people, you are being used, and not just by fox news (who must be delighted that leftists as stupid and credulous as you have stumbled into their path). When “respecting a religion” becomes coterminous with “obeying that religion’s dictates”, well that religion and its leaders have now succeeded in converting you. Here, you need to rethink your position on publishing pictures of the prophet. It’s forbidden TO MUSLIMS to do this, not to everyone in the world ever, muslim or not. I’m not a muslim, I am not subject to this law, and, living in a free state as I do, I am allowed to publish whatever the hell I want. If somebody else gets upset about it, that’s THEIR PROBLEM. If you refrain from publishing this image “out of respect”, you are agreeing with the people in the religion who say that everyone, muslim or not, must obey them, who say that islam is the truth, that it is a world religion, and that everyone should be subject to its principles. This is a bad idea. The mother of all bad ideas. As for the people (and I know some) who defend those who kill people for publishing images of the prophet, hey, fuck you.

In a free state, all ideas a fair game. In a free state, I can think and say whatever I want. If you don’t work for these principles, you are not on the side of right, no matter how strident your denunciations of others.

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You best get yourself a weapon afore them zombies come, son

So here’s a thing that happens to me regularly. It’s in the same family as that vote with your dollars response that I love SO much. It goes like this. There is a structural problem. It’s absolutely clear that the problem is a larger issue affecting everyone, and not the result of individual choice. You propose a structural solution (pooling risk for health care, regulating the economy to prevent predation and housing bubbles, unionizing, banding together in other ways, such as consumption habits, to effect change, you get the idea). INEVITABLY, someone will say, okay, but instead you can just do THIS as an individual, problem solved.

So, for example, if I think that ebooks as a sea change to the fundamental identity of what a book is and who can control its content is a problem, and I have historical examples to prove that democracy itself is tied to not having the information in the hands of a single person, there is always that guy who will say, well this isn’t actually a problem because everyone can download that software that undoes DRM, and then everything will be hunky dory again. Also, this thing where all the books are encoded, and then every individual consumer must decode every individual book, risking prosecution each time she does, is somehow a totally acceptable solution, despite its wonky, work-around, digtheholenowfillinthehole quality, whereas, say, not buying ebooks, or asking that those who publish them be regulated or reigned in in some way is….not.

So what you’ve got is a group of people who refuse to see that they are a group, and who would, if presented with a simple option for averting the zombie apocalypse (stop buying from zombiecorp, and have the government outlaw their lil’ zombie pet product that’s so popular with all the kids these days), will refuse it on the grounds of “freedom”, opting instead to stock up on guns and canned goods, build a bomb shelter, and mercilessly mock anyone who does not do the same.

This is not rational. This is also not freedom.

And in a way, I would even find it cute, that relentless individualism that flies in the face of all evidence, I would find it cute the way it’s cute when a little kid tells you he’s gonna be an astronaut when he grows up, except that these same people are ruining the world. Like, literally. Politically, but also in that way that in a few more years the average temp will be like 50 degrees (Celsius, btw, that system everybody uses except you, perhaps you’ve heard of it?), what used to be farmland will be a dustbowl, and starving people will be battling it out over a twinkie. Also, some of these people have automatic weapons.

So, you know, not cute so much as horrifiying and scary.

Some problems are structural, and they are best solved using structural solutions. Suck it.

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American bobos, or somewhere, a celebrity is crying

It’s my own fault: I’ve been using facebook to stay in touch with friends from the US while living far, far away, and it’s acted as an unofficial news filter at the same time1. I know this is not how you get news. I know that real news comes from newspapers, from public media outlets, from reliable publications that aren’t self-censoring because of the advertisers or donors on their boards of directors, not people’s facebook posts, but I get sucked in anyway. And I find that more and more the picture I have of even left-leaning friends’ “political engagement”2 is making me feel sad and hopeless. First, there is the “cultural criticism”3 masquerading as genuine political engagement. Then there is the overweening conviction that the power we have as consumers is real and effective and, increasingly, the only power that my fellow Americans can even imagine existing. Between these two phenomena, I feel sadder than Kayne West being denied entrée into the world of fashion.

So let’s talk cultural criticism. Jezebel, ladies, I WANT to like you and your site so much, I really do, the idea that there are still young women in America who will actually label themselves feminists, publicly, and go out there is such a good thing. But in the end, I am even more disappointed by this site than had they not raised my hopes to begin with, and the fact that my female facebook friends seem to view Jezebel as coterminal with feminism itself and also as a verifiable authority on all questions of feminism, race, and class, well, this depresses me.

Because here’s what: a close reading of someone’s music video is not political engagement. What’s more, because it LOOKS like political engagement, it sucks away the energy that could be directed towards stuff like knowing who your state senator is and what he’s voted for recently into endless empty celebrity worshipping bullshit pseudo-querelles, like whether or not that video by that singer I’d never even heard of before the fucking Jezebel piece came out is racist. You know what a good answer to that question is? WHO CARES. That’s a good answer. That woman does not need your free publicity, and this is not what it means to fight for equality and justice4. If religion is the opiate of the masses, then this poseur cultural criticism bullshit is the opiate of the leftist intellectual, and it’s your own damn fault that the Koch brothers are eating your country and you DIDN’T EVEN NOTICE, because you were too busy with Miley Cyrus, while they were out ALECing it up because, evil as they may be, at least they know how to get shit done.

Add in the everyday petty likecount that facebook always elicits, and you end up with me, baffled that not ONE PERSON I know on the liberal left can take 20 minutes to watch a documentary piece about how corporations are actually writing legislation FOR senators, but there is on that very same day a TWO PAGE DEBATE about whether or not Woody Allen is a child molester. And that evil mélange of genuine outrage and personal affront (not even one like, really?) leaves me feeling lonelier and less American than ever. Are these people, my friends (or “friends”, since it’s facebook?) really able to get it up to troll the net for hours looking for dirt on Mia Farrow but don’t have the time to watch or read a piece by an actual journalist? Really? Am I seriously alone in this?

And where did it come from? Is it an American thing? Is it really cultural difference writ large and showing itself symptomatically in post after post about how women movie stars and black professional athletes are oppressed? Or is it more something about the small sample set of Americans I know on facebook (many of whom went to the same liberal arts college and are hence predisposed toward the pointless close reading)? And which of these scenarios is the worse?

Here’s the other cultural criticism what, and listen closely children, because you are being exploited here. Celebrities are not oppressed. Like, ever. Once you are a rich and famous and, more and more often, politically powerful celebrity type person, you cede the right to complain that there are celebrities who are even richer, even more famous, even more powerful than you because they are white or straight or male or whatever. Being slightly less ridiculously overprivileged than the other people in your ridiculously overprivileged class is not, I repeat NOT, the same as being oppressed. You are the new ruling class. You are the owners. When Jenny McCarthy has more power over public health decisions than the NIH, she doesn’t get to step into the role of marginalized other. And when I see my friends (“friends”) out sticking up for the poor little rich ones, I honestly don’t know how we can have come from the same place. Does four years in France really make that big a difference? It can’t be the country change and yet the alternative – that even my favorite Americans, the ones closest to me in history and politics and experience are dupes and celebrity worshippers – well the alternative is even worse.

Either way, you need to go look up incompetent judges and vote in mid term elections instead of sticking up for an American football player who got called a thug one time while he was out earning his obscenely large salary for throwing an oval ball around. Seriously. WHERE ARE YOUR FUCKING VALUES? No wonder they are steamrolling right over you: you’re not even fighting back, you’re STICKING UP for your new ruling class. Writing long blog posts about how terrible they have it. Remembering their useless, pointless, waste of skin names. And I’d let it go, I’d let it slide right down into the you deserve the government you’ve got category if it weren’t for the fact that EVERYONE ELSE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD ends up with your government too, by default, and we don’t get a vote5 or a say.

Celebrities take your money, YOURS, and they no longer just use to roll around on in some kind of baroque dollar bill pile sex fantasy with underage hookers, no. They take your money, YOURS, and then they use it as a public platform to influence policy and culture and they substitute this discouse for everything real, and you not only don’t notice or care, no, you sign up to write REAMS OF TEXT defending them and sorting them and analyzing them like some kind of old butler type figure who belongs to the old guard and doesn’t realize that his ideology of service and knowing his place is not only against his personal self-interest but also setting back the entire cause of humanity in its quest for an egalitarian, merit-based world where everyone deserves some respect and people are able to wipe their own goddamn asses. You’re Jeeves6, and you think you’re fucking Karl Marx.

This is not political engagment.

Or rather, it is, but not how you think.

I’ve already typed the word “fuck” like a million times in this entry, and we haven’t even reached the part about how being a consumer makes you powerful yet. Apparently I am filled with rage.

So yeah, about that consumers thing. Here we enter the larger world of internet discussion groups. And again, my own fault. See, I had this idea that I could sneakily, subtly, using nothing but reason and a gentle description of the reader’s self-interest, sneak my communist ways into the back of people’s heads, and maybe make them think twice about a thing that they take for granted (in this case, the idea that Amazon.com is good for readers because it is consumer oriented). I posted. Carefully. There were no “fucks” in my post, and I had the good sense to let someone smarter, better informed, and more eloquent than me7 do the heavy lifting8.

I got two responses (this on a discussion board that had 17 posts in one hour for a thread entitled “Any fans of the Lord of the Rings movies?”9). One was the response that should have sent me over the egde into rage and despair for the future of all humanity, but in fact pales in comparison to the pseudo-moderate, fake peace-marker smarm of “compromise” that was the second response. It was the second response that drove me from simply treating my husband to a short rant about how Americans are idiots who defend those who would exploit them for profit into a “fuck”-typing machine who needs to post on a blog that nobody reads and where comments are disabled. Not the first, outrageous, response, the second, seemingly moderate one. That’s where you lost me, America.

So it goes like this.

Someone in that quintessentially american mode, libertarian might makes right because the market always returns the best results, posts that the article is biased against Jeff Bezos (as an individual, apparently), and snotty to boot (for mentioning that he doesn’t know anything about books or appear to like them). She then compares him to other “great” men who built “this country” (where I’m not living when I post, but at this point this kind of automatic imperalism is not even a surprise to me), like Rockefeller or J.P. Morgan, and also to Bill Gates, noted philanthropist. “Yes, they were ruthless, single minded men. That’s what it takes to succeed. Is it always admirable? No. But it is what it is.”10

The debate goes on for a while, and ends, as such exchanges always do with a third poster presenting the bumper-sticker solution to all political problems (and the only political power any citizen needs):

“vote with your dollars. Buy elsewhere.”

I hate this about Americans.

It’s true that consumers have a certain amount of power, but it’s a lot less power than you think, it’s not the only kind of power, and thinking always and only in terms of consumer power has unintended and decidedly negative results for society.

First, as a consumer, you do not have as much power as you think. Every marketing message you’ve ever received is about choice, but that doesn’t make it true, that just means that all of our discourse is couched in terms of buying stuff, which is awfully convenient for the people selling it. But also, we do not live in a genuine free market with perfect competition. Even the choice between products is often not a real choice: the same companies that you can choose between are all using the same models to create legislation11, draft contracts12, and deregulate…well, everything13. I don’t even know what to say to people who think that having a choice between two brands of processed cheese in a can is the same as genuine political power. The article that this was in response to described a virtual monopoly that was able to successfully sue an oligarchy (its only competitioin) for price fixing, and won, meaning that the consumer went from having a choice between the monopoly and the oligarchy to having no choice at all. And even if I did have total choice, if nobody else goes to my small, independently owned local bookstore, it’s going to close anyway. Voting with your dollars works a whole lot better if you have a billion votes than if you have 10. Unless you are fitted out to be an independent patron of the arts, you have no real power against a corporation unless you band together with a whole lot of other consumers against it, and since my fellow consumers think my concerns are stupid, I’m pretty much out of luck on the voting with my dollars front.

Second, even if the power of consumption were huge and effective (and it’s not), it’s not the only source of power available, and I don’t understand why it’s the only one we talk about. I think because it’s easy, easier than other kinds of action, and it’s something we kind of want to do anyway. You get to buy stuff and feel virtuous for doing it. You can make a statement without any personal inconvenience of any kind. Consumer power is to geniune politcal action as a close reading of a music video is to genuine political information.

And finally, and most dangerous, there is a leak backwards now between these meanings. While we say consumers have political power, we have also begun saying that political power is kind of like consumption. A vote is like a dollar that you have to spend, and politicians are looking to get your disposable income. And the more we talk like this, the more an election starts to look just like any other purchase. Two alternatives that say they’re different from one another but are actually pretty much the same? Check. A total absence of transparency and widespread lack of interest and information in how things are actually done in practice? Check. A situation where the largest marketing budget is the key criterion for success? Check. Maybe we should stop making this analogy before it’s entirely too late. If it isn’t already.

There are other kinds of power, engagement, action. There are other sources of information. If you don’t choose to partake, ok, but drop the superior tone. I am done with boho pseudo-engagement, and I am sick of your superior attitude. Having a lot of likes is not the same as being right, and many things worth discussing don’t fit into the twitter character limit.

1Plus also facebook is pure evil, and I know it, and I go on using it anyway because what else will fill that stay in touch with people I kind of know and have vaguely fuzzy feelings toward but who live on another continent hole?

2As always, the scare quotes are there for a reason.

3Ditto.

4This is not to even go into the scapegoating and public shaming aspects of this. Sure, the woman who made the video is a performer, and she wants attention and she knew she was getting into the public domain, so I feel less sorry for her than for some random whose tweets are the lastest thing, but it’s still a disgusting display. To pillory someone for doing something that all the criticizers probably do themselves on a daily basis, ruin and shame her, and then pat yourself on the back for a job well done is stomach-turning. We might as well slap a scarlet “R” on her and force her into the stocks. This hypocrisy is the new puritanism, and it’s just as bad as the old one was. Having a discussion about race and racism is important, but picking a single scapegoat to blame for everything that is wrong with America is not doing that. Also, again, as I may have mentioned, it changes nothing, not even at the level of information. It just makes those doing the shaming feel superior and pure.

5Well me. I get a vote and a say on an absentee ballot, but I think you see my point. You elect people because they were pretty movie stars one time, and then you have the gall to laugh at other people’s presidents because they ride a scooter to their girlfriend’s house, like this is some kind of actual issue that matters, like politics is some sort of giant junior high school locker room between periods where the things that matter are who’s got the newest sneakers for fuck’s sake. You want Angelina Jolie deciding whether you get a prophylactic mastectomy instead of, like, an actual doctor, ok, but why does she need to be making everybody else’s health care decisions also? I know I sure didn’t vote for her.

6Actually, not even Jeeves. Jeeves, at least, was smart, much smarter than Bertie ever was. Jeeves at least gave the impression overall of knowing what was what.

7In this case, George Packer who is proof that not all Americans are celebrity worshipping idiots.

8i.e. I pasted in a link to an article that I had read in tradition internet discourse fashion. Lazy? Yes. But at least I had read the article in its entirety, which is more than I can say for some shares. Still, sad. Shame me, I deserve it.

9Granted, it doesn’t take long to type in that you totally heart the Lord of the Rings movies and own them all in extended version of your personal DVD, but it’s also hard for me to see how this is worth even the small effort that it takes. To quote a fictional character in a fairly well-known book, it’s not what you like, it’s what you are like. Totally hearting TLOTR is not an adequate substitute for an identity, a personality, a moral compass, or even a genuine profile as a consumer of art, about which I do, in fact, care.

10Ugh. This kind of power worship makes the celebrity ass kissing look kind of like normal human behavior by comparison.

11Seriously, just watch the damn 20 minute ALEC documentary already. It’s not that long, and it’s pretty important. While you were forcusing on your power as a consumer, you probably missed them taking away all your rights as an employee, for example.

12For example, binding arbitration, which you sign up for with basically every service contract you sign (your phone plan, for example), and which always works in the company’s favor, and which is now your only means for redress of grievances.

13If you’re a hard-core libertarian, you may a well give up on my blog now. I’m not interested in your comments, you won’t convince me, and I won’t convince you (even though there is plenty that should convince you: housing bubble, anyone?)

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Further and further from home

Is it normal to feel more and more cut off from the country you started in? Does this happen to everyone who lives abroad?

More and more I feel that my interactions with people, with friends, still living in the US are just impossible; more and more I feel like we don’t share even basic foundations, not even premises for discussion any more. And then I don’t know if I would have grown away from these particular people in any case, if it’s me, them, or France. After all, I haven’t seen some of them in over 20 years, and I’ve since abandoned an entire career path, happily married, and gained a huge amount of self-confidence: moving to France is hardly the only major change I’ve made since college.

But it’s always there, now, this sense that I can’t communicate, and it makes me feel lonely. Deeply, profoundly lonely.

And I feel more and more that these people, these former friends, that they hate me, too; that they use me as a stand-in for France and that they hate us both. No matter what I say, what opinion I express, I get, well, France isn’t so great, you know, or in France they do this wrong, or the US has a better system than France for this. What is that? When did I become responsible for 65 million people in a country where I don’t even have the right to vote? And you, how would YOU feel if I laid every Rush Limbaugh quote, every drone strike, every SCOTUS decision at your door? If you tried to take part in a discussion and I said, oh yeah, well, your country manufactured evidence of weapons of mass destruction in order to wage a war of aggression in a foreign country, so your opinion doesn’t count, and by the way also fuck you?

I’m guessing you wouldn’t like it.

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Exceptionnellement fermé, merci pour votre comprehension.

To each and every one of those people who has ever sneered at me “you know, France isn’t perfect either”….Yeah, at least we’re not CLOSED.

 

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The Charlie Hebdo Incident

One of the things that I have learned about Americans after looking at them (us? Honestly, I never know which pronoun to use, though “them” is more and more tempting as the months slide by) from outside, is this: you can really be assholes.

I do not mean that some Americans are assholes the way that some percentage of every country is made up of assholes, though this is certainly true. And I am also not talking about that extreme case where stereotypical guy does exaggerated American thing. Yes, the guy sporting a swastika tattoo and toting his gun to church to “protect” himself and his racist buddies from muslims and black people is an asshole. Yes, the yappy investment banker spending his ill-gotten gains from sub-prime mortgage bundles on Cristal and hundred dollar bills to shove in the g-string of some stripper in some mid-town “gentleman’s club” is an asshole. Everybody knows these guys are assholes, maybe even these guys themselves. Possibly even their moms think that they are assholes. That is not what I mean when I say you can really be assholes.

No, I mean something different, something shared by all, something that even the allegedly well-meaning and open-minded people do, something I probably did for years without knowing it myself, which is this: you decide that you understand a situation in a foreign country based on anecdotal evidence or one or two newspaper articles. You decide that you know what those other people should be doing differently, and you up and tell them. You offer advice or, in some cases, coercion. You assume that different is the same as inferior, bad, suboptimal. You don’t even try to look for the upside, you don’t try to fit in, understand, or adapt. You don’t think of yourself as a guest in someone else’s country, you think of yourself as its rightful ruler. It never once occurs to you that the fact that (for example) millions of French people have been doing something a certain way, sometimes for hundreds of years, without problems or any desire to change might, just might mean that the system they are using works at least okay, or that you might try using it too, at least once, before condemning it as backwards or stupid or wrong.

Let’s take an example situation offered up in one of those books about coping with the terrible French (which you should never, ever buy). Man goes into boulangerie. He buys a baguette. He asks that the boulanger not wrap it in the standard paper square, but instead put it in a sack. The man knew this was coming, he knows the standards at this and other bakeries, he has practiced how to ask for the sack in French. Though apparently having a sack is of paramount importance to him, he has not purchased a cloth sack or repurposed a disposable sack he already owns. Instead, he has focused his efforts on trying to get a sack out of the boulanger, trying to get him to change his traditions, his habits, his business practices, his culture. The book, of course, thinks this is about navigating a problem, getting what you want, what you need out of the French, but I say it is not about how you carry your bread home, I say it is about cultural hegemony. Yes, no one in France has ever needed a sack for their baguette, not once, ever, anywhere1, but you, you know better. 63 million French people are wrong and you are right. GIVE ME A SACK, you demand haughtily, not understanding why the person you are talking to is looking at you with distaste. Hint: it’s because you’re being an asshole.

It’s bad for you when you do this at your local boulanger, but when you trot it out at the level of international relations, you end up with wars on two fronts and no end in sight. And yet, you refuse to back down when contradicted, and you attempt, rhetorically, to occupy a moral high ground to which you, as an American, really do not have the right2. It’s not just the go and bomb the arabs crowd that does this, it’s people on the left as well. You progressives think you don’t do this, but that blind spot just makes it even worse when you do. And trust me, you do.

America, if I had to describe it in metaphor when it is doing this thing that is one hundred percent typical of American assholism, America is a like a guy who has been lit on fire and pushed off the top of a forty story building who, on the way down, covered in flames and crashing to the earth, points at your office and says, you know, buddy, you should really think about washing those windows. Yet you are surprised when the reaction you get is “Really? My windows? REALLY?” A lot of the time, the motes that you all are so fond of seeing are tiny, or even, when contextualized, non-existant. And this is pretty asinine already. But to go on and on about it, with moral outrage in all your tones, when really what you should be doing is begging for a fire extinguisher and a net, that is what makes me say that, unfortunately, you guys can really be assholes3.

Consider what has come to be titled in my head “the Charlie Hebdo incident”. This moment, brought to me by facebook4, served as the kind of watershed moment for me when I first realized that some sort of unbridgeable gap had grown up between me and the kind of people that I used to know (used to be, in fact) when living in the US. It was a small incident for the others concerned, I think, probably now forgotten by them, but for me, it was uncomfortable in ways that caused me to reexamine my whole relationship to identity and place and citizenship. This was one of the first moments where I just felt like I fundamentally did not understand (or even like) Americans, and that Americans fundamentally did not like or understand me. And when you say every day to some French person who asks you that you ARE an American, this is a decidedly unsetting thing to feel.

So Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical newspaper. The staff there are pretty much dedicated to questioning all authority, especially religious authority, though they are not too fond of political authority either. If they have a political orientation, it’s probably more left than right, and they are at a minimum historically affiliated with anarchists, if not actively anarchist now. They are also fervently pro-freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and are known for publishing the kind of joke that offends someone. Though they are by no means a traditional newspaper, and much of their published work falls in the humorous column, they have very serious political engagements and opinions to which they are committed. They may be cartoons, but they are not Peanuts. They are not even Doonesbury. It’s bitter, mean-spirited satire in service of an uncompromising hard line far to the left of anywhere that the average American can see from his house. Sometimes it’s funny, but there is also usually somebody pissed off somewhere to balance out the guy who’s laughing.

The executive summary, if you want to understand the story that follows is that, for the guys at Charlie Hebdo, a theocracy that censors the media is their worst nightmare. At the time of the incident, and very much in line with these priorities, the guys at Charlie Hebdo had published some cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Not just graven images, but unflattering images, mocking images, some sexualized images. This was at least the second time that had published images of the prophet. I know this because the last time they did it, they got firebombed. This time, the police went to protect their offices after the cartoons appeared, and the French government forbade public protests of their actions5, citing security as a reason.

During the time of the incident, there was a special degree of unrest in the middle east as the result of some crappy film about muslims being sexual perverts that some American, or possibly someone else pretending to be an American, or some guy pretending to be an American pretending to be a muslim, had made as a some kind of propaganda to rile up muslims. Probably. It was one of those murky videos that appears on youtube and no one knows what it is, but it’s pretty clearly not what it claims to be. The Innocence of Muslims, it was called. The film was badly received in the muslim world6 and there were demonstrations in countries with large muslim populations protesting it and protesting America in general. In Libya, Barack Obama was burned in effigy. There was widespread concern amongst the kinds of western states that are always concerned about the middle east and muslims and what they are doing that some extra serious badness would happen.

Horribly, the much-feared badness arrived in the form of the assassination of the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, along with three other Americans working abroad at the embassy there7. The cartoons making fun of Islam, the prophet Mohammed, and religious authority forbidding jokes about religion generally were all published in the pages of Charlie Hebdo just at a time when tempers were already running pretty high on all sides. They also published them at a time when the content was the headline news story of the day, which is Charlie’s stated reason for the timing of their publication. The publication of these cartoons, of course, enraged a certain kind of muslim person, and offended a lot of other, mainstream muslim people, including a bunch who live in France, and offended or unsettled a bunch of not-muslim people, including a bunch who live in France, and also including my friend: let’s call him Mike8. In response, the French government increased security at home and abroad, including forbidding public protests in the streets by muslims.

For the record, I looked at all the cartoons, found the cover funny enough to laugh out loud, and the inside not funny, possibly because I didn’t understand one of the references and needed it explained at length, after which nothing is ever funny anyway, but also possibly because they weren’t that funny. I wasn’t offended by the inside, but I also didn’t go ahhahahahaha. Also for the record, Charlie is not really my kind of paper, and I never buy it, though I do like, and sometimes buy, France’s other satircal newspaper, the Canard Enchaîné9. Make of this what you will.

It was at this moment that a friend of mine from the US ran across a Reuters10 article indicating that public manifs (pretty much necessarily protests by muslims) protesting the cartoons were forbidden and posted on his facebook account that the French government was protecting the rights of Charlie Hebdo but not those of Muslims11, and that this, and the French government, and the French were all racist and hypocritical and horrible. He indicated that the French government was on the side of Charlie Hebdo and working to actively silence muslims. I, stupidly, got into it with him, even though I should know that either you can give pages and pages of context, or you can say nothing, but trying to do these things on facebook is insanity, even though I should just at this point know better. In my defence, I think I was egged on into actual posting by the friend of my friend, who posted in the comments the helpful and witty observation that “France is so weird lately.”

Anybody who is looking to push my buttons by trolling me on facebook should take note now that this type of comment is the quickest route to the end of that road12. I was angry with my friend Mike already, but this is the comment that really made me want to smack someone. The US has produced Fox News, the Tea Party, fake cheese in a can, reality television, genetically modified food, Ayn Rand, that guy holed up in his basement with an aresenal and a bunch of canned ravioli, Haliburton, and exploitative big-money capitalism that has wreaked havoc literally worldwide, and you think FRANCE is weird? (Really? My windows? REALLY?) And since when do the self-proclaimed progressive people dismiss entire countries with a touch of the “like” button? Apparently it’s not xenophobic if it’s directed against a European country. What if I had posted that Nigeria was so weird lately? Korea is so weird lately? Guatemala? Would anybody be considering me an internet wit, or would they all be busy tallying up my racist shortcomings? Oh and lately? Are you some kind of expert on French culture that you are able to sense its small ebbs and flows and determine that before is wasn’t that weird, it was maybe just a little weird, like a 4 on the standard, internationally recognized scale of country weirdnesses, but now, by contrast, it’s up to like a 13, it’s so weird lately?

But I digress.

Rejecting all of that bile and vitriol, I opted for what I considered an extremely moderate post (apparently I was alone in this assessment of the post’s content and tone), suggesting that, while the French government may not have made the right call in forbidding protests, part of their motivation was certainly security, as the offices of the newspaper had been firebombed a couple years before. This little piece of backstory was not included in the Reuters13 item, though I would consider this an essential piece of information to include in any reporting on the subject of Charlie Hebdo and muslim protects. Let’s repeat it here, lest we forget the details. There were French newspaper offices, in the middle of Paris, that were lit on fire in a terrorist attack. In the center of Paris. On fire. For publishing pictures of the prophet. The on fire part of the story is, for me, essential (though apparently I was alone in that assessment, too).

Mike, however, replied that the guys at Charlie Hebdo deserved to be firebombed. Deserved to be bombed. Think it through a minute, all my leftist progressive peace-loving, carefully considered opinion having, diversity loving, cultural difference embracing American who is opposed to the war and never voted for George Bush so it’s not YOUR fault, people who think you are not the assholes of the first paragraph. Because that is exactly and 100% my friend Mike. Mike is so not racist tattooed guy. Not investment banker guy. Not they had it coming fucking arab bastard guy. My friend Mike, thoughtful, intelligent Mike, Mike the peace loving progressive leftist activist guy wrote that French newspaper editors deserved to be set on fire because they made fun of somebody’s religion.

Yeah.

There was some more back and forth after that, but frankly for me, the battle was lost in that moment. That was the moment I first though to myself, damn, Americans can really be assholes. I tried to explain some more later, but that ended with Mike telling me I was wrong and naïve. In the end, I gave up for many reasons, chief among them being that the things that I felt like posting were too aggressive and too mean. Maybe this piece is coming out aggressive and mean, too. If so, I am sorry for it, but what I say is true nonetheless, and it is well past time that Americans heard some of it. Not just those Americans you all know are assholes. All of you.14

So, first of all, let’s fill in some background. Yes, the people demonstrating in Libya were already pissed off, and publishing these cartoons pissed them off more. I grant the premise, counselor. Whether this means you should modify your actions to not piss people off is another question, and one we will get into below. For the moment, though, how many people were pissed off and what were they pissed off about? Well, if you believe the mainstream coverage, there were tons of enraged and dangerous muslims who were out in the streets in huge numbers, a veritable horde of rabid and frothing arabs who wanted blood. And the thing they were upset about was this film, “The Innocence of Muslims”, because everyone knows that these acts of violence and the tensions between countries and cultures are always all about religion.

Except they’re not. The protests weren’t as big as they were reported to be, though the violence committed was serious and, in my view, unforgiveable. More importantly, though, the reason that images of the prophet like this one set off this level of protests and anger and insult is not because muslims, in a vacuum, are crazy religious nut jobs who kill people for disagreeing with them. Does anyone really believe that a country full of happy and prosperous muslims, having no other beef with the west and no history of international or intercultural tension will suddenly and spontaneously take to the streets, murdering foreign ambassadors because some guy posted a video on youtube? The reasons are economic and political as well as religious, and in many ways religion is a tool which can be used to manipulate people politically. Manipulate them into doing stuff they would not normally do, like suicide bomb something (or, in other cirsumstances, declare a “crusade” in the Middle East) and think it is a good idea.

No, people in this part of the world are pissed off for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with pictures of the prophet. Among these reasons is the fact that Americans have spent the last few decades systematically exploiting and manipulating large parts of the muslim world, and then blaming it for being upset. They don’t hate our freedom, but they probably do hate having our tanks in their country. They hate having a decade plus of foreign war of aggression. They hate us for taking their oil and not giving a shit about their people, and then pretending to give a shit about their people so we can go and blow stuff up to protect our interest in their oil. I honestly believe that, while devout muslims will always find cartoons of the prophet offensive, very few of them will ever blow anybody up if they do not also have political and economic circumstances creating a background radiation of pissed-off-ness that is actually the thing that pushed them over the edge.

And whose tanks are these? American tanks. Whose predator drones? American predator drones. Whose gas-guzzling SUVs? Well, everyone’s, but Americans’ especially. My point here is that, if you actually look at the protests themselves, the person being burned in effigy is not François Hollande. The diplomats killed did not come from France and the embassy attacked was not the French embassy. The answers you are looking for are: the American president, the American ambassador, and the American embassy. American. American all three times. Not even once French.

The idea that, somehow, the totally stable relations between the western world and the middle east were somehow disrupted by some French satirists publishing some cartoons of Mohammed in their newspaper in French created, out of some kind of vacuum, a bunch of pissed off muslims who were then gratuitously further silenced by a French government which is systematically racist for no reason at all is just….nuts. Is this really what my left-leaning soi-disant politically engaged friends think is happening here? Seriously? Did they sleep through the last ten years? And if it’s not what they think, then why the hell are they France-shaming? What possible stakes are there in telling this story about how horrible France is on the subject of muslim relations? Because frankly, there has got to be something to explain why this person who is pretty much sociologically identical to me is out there suggesting we blow up satirists for saying that religion is stupid and bad. I cannot accept that he really thinks this. But I can’t convince him that he shouldn’t think or say this, either. Indeed, he thinks that I am misguided and naïve. And he said so.

Well, I think he is being an imperalist American asshole, though I did not say that at the time. Here is what I did not put on the facebook feed.

It is true that the guys at Charlie Hebdo threw some fuel on the fire. But let us not forget that that fire was going pretty good already, and that it was not France who started it, let alone a small French newspaper. So fuck you, Mike. And fuck your France is so weird lately friend of a friend. If we’re going to get out the big post-colonial stick and measure up misdeeds, fine; France has a lot to answer for. But you do not get to hold the ruler because you guys, well, you guys are currently the worst of the worst, and you don’t have a good place to stand to do your measuring. Nobody likes having a finger wagged at them, but when the person doing the scolding is currently the world’s worst citizen, it is pretty hard to not want to smack you right upside the head. (Really? My windows? REALLY?)

When you type that sentence, “this isn’t about what you think it’s about, it’s about silencing muslims” you import all of your context, your culture, your assumptions, to paste your story right on top of my story, of France’s story, and you do not even acknowledge that the pasting has happened. Because for you, right now, in the US, there is a story about silencing muslims. And you are all pissed off about it. And you are probably entitled to be all pissed off about it; I think, in so far as I know stuff about this story of yours, that I am with you. Go, post, rant. For you, in your country, with your issues you have a narrative with your government whereby this kind of thing is, in your opinion, about silencing muslims.

But we aren’t in your country, and we aren’t in your story. And when you don’t get that, you exist on a continuum with every other American throughout the whole history of America who has ever said, oh, this is really about stopping the spread of communism, or this is really about freedom, or this is really about protecting our way of life. Every time America messes with someone else’s elections, chooses a “better” leader for them, sneaks them automatic weapons over the border, assasinates somebody on the sly, starts a foreign war of aggression, takes sides in an international dispute, bullies its way through those international trade talks, dismissing anybody with different values as quaint and unreasonable; every time the US just generally throws its weight – military and otherwise – around to get stuff to be how they want it, how they think it should be, without any reference to how those in the countries concerned think or what they want, it is an example of exactly the same arrogance which allows you to come all up in my country and tell me that you understand it better than I do. Here’s a tip: you don’t. Here’s another one: this is why people don’t like you. You personally, and you as a country. There are reasons your boulanger stares at you in distaste. There are reasons that people bomb your embassies and burn your president in effigy.

Note how I stop shy here of claiming that you deserve it15.

As far as the motivations of the allegedly racist French poeple, there is some serious cultural context missing. When I say, you don’t understand because you don’t live here, you don’t have enough information about this situation to make that judgement, that newspaper article you read is missing a bunch of stuff, I am right, and you should listen to me, not dismiss me as naïve. I don’t think the way that you do, but that doesn’t make me wrong, and it certainly doesn’t make me stupid. This is why I am all pissed off, this is why I type the word “asshole” over and over again in this piece, this is why I see your actions on a continuum of arrogance, a rich heritage of dismissing other people and their cultures, an American tradition of not listening. Because you’re not listening. You never had any intention of listening, you always already think you are right, and you don’t think you need any more information. And you, of all people, you should know better.

There are assumptions that Americans make about their relationships to government that they do not see as assumptions at all, and which are very different from the assumptions that French people make about government and its functions. There are assumptions that Americans make about what freedom is, also not necessarily the same as other people’s ideas of freedom. There are key words floating around, religious expression, respect, tolerance, each of which is constructed a specific way in America and not necessarily set up the same other places. These differences are huge, and yet also largely invisible. And, while not perfect by any means, I am actually pretty well-placed to explain them to you, if only anybody in your country were ever interested in listening.

So, the French government. The French government had advance notice of the publication of the cartoons and, when they asked for it, were also provided with the front and back covers. They asked the editor of Charlie Hebdo not to publish the cartoons, and he went ahead and did it anyway. As a result, the French government closed a bunch of stuff overseas, contacted a bunch of the local, French dwelling muslim leadership, and basically stayed up all night cleaning up what they can only have thought of as Charlie Hebdo‘s mess. To say, in this context, that the French government is protecting the rights of Charlie Hebdo to say whatever they want while denying muslims the same right is not, strictly speaking, accurate. Saying this does not express a full and complete understanding of the situation and the context. I myself am quite sure that even the most progressive and freedom-loving of all French governors looked back in this moment on the days of state controlled media, and wondered silently to himself if censorship was really such a bad thing after all. I am quite sure that the French government considered Charlie Hebdo at this moment, in this incident, a giant, festering pain in its ass, if not actively dangerous.

And yet, somehow, despite everything, since France is a free state, the French government neither could nor would nor did move beyond efforts to persuade and into effots to control or coerce or censor. The bastards.

It feels weird reminding Americans, who live in the land of the freedom of the press, that free states do not, in general, censor the independent newspapers that are printed in their countries, and that this is, on the whole, largely considered to be a good thing. Bombing the people who print things you disagree with is largely condsidered, in these same quarters, to be a bad thing, or I had always thought it was. Have my former quarters changed since I moved out of them? Should I need to say these things explicitly? When did we get to the point where I have to type them out? I do though, and I will: France’s government does not control what newspapers in its territories publish, and it does not censor those newspapers to make life easier for itself, even when it really, really wants to16.

Charlie himself. Yes, what about the guys at Charlie Hebdo? (Or, since the editor has a name, Sébastien Charbonnier17.) What were they thinking, the irresponsible jackass guys, taunting muslims for their own amusement, having no clue about the consequences of their actions, destroying the good efforts of policy wonks and diplomats worldwide? After18 the facebook exchange I went looking and I found an interview of the Charlie Hebdo editor and I listened to it twice19. He explained exactly what he was thinking, which is as follows:

It is grossly irresponsible to let the actions of a tiny, violent, extremist, and crazily religious minority of people determine how everybody else everywhere in the world conducts him or herself, and what we can and cannot say and what we can and cannot publish. What you call being polite and respectful, he calls oppressive, dangerous, irresponsible bullshit. For somebody who does not even believe in god to run around being careful not to print pictures of the prophet so as not to be offensive to those who do is as ridiculous as humoring a crazy person by inviting his imaginary friend to tea, and for an allegedly secular state to make these sorts of concessions to people who are not only religious, but crazy religious, dangerous religious, violent religious is, in his view, irresponsible. Irresponsible is the word he used20.

Now maybe you agree with him and maybe you don’t. And maybe you can also say that his methods are not the right ones to accomplish his goals, however laudable they may be. But mistaking him for that internet troll guy everybody knows who just likes to make trouble and laugh at it is a mistake, as is mistaking him for his corrollary, internet racist guy who uses free expression as a disguise for his racism, cart before the horse style. He’s not this guy. He may not be a guy you agree with. He may not be a guy you like. But you cannot say, in my opinion, that this is some kind of overgrown adolescent Mad Magazine dumbass humor guy gone hopelessly haywire, with no clue what he is doing and with no thought for anyone but himself. This is a guy with a plan, a guy with political ideals, a guy with a pretty uncomprimising hard line and who is quite literally risking death to practice what he preaches. So that respect you Americans all say you have for everybody’s religious beliefs and everbody’s right to an opinion? Let’s just try spreading a little bit of that around so that some few droplets of it get on Stéphane Charbonnier.

And, let’s be honest about our own motivations and cultural blinders. I’ll go first. I would not have printed the pictures myself. I wouldn’t. There are things I don’t say, not because I believe they are not true, but because I think that saying them will be mean or damanging in some way, and their truth is secondary to being nice. This is one of those times I would have stopped myself and not said the thing, out of politeness, respect, not making a fuss, keeping the peace. But I cannot say for sure whether my motivations are fear or ingrained submissive politeness or an absorption of the American construction of what freedom of religion means or actual, genuine conviction about what is and was and would have been the best course of action. Because I am (and despite what this piece of writing may lead you to believe) somewhat timid and fearful of giving offence. I want people to like me, even if I don’t like them. There have been many many times in my life when I have shut my mouth and said nothing even though I knew I was right because I didn’t want to make others uncomfortable, didn’t want to make a scene, didn’t want to have a fight, didn’t want to lose a friend, even if that friend was a crappy one. I was an obedient child, and much of my adulthood was spent obeying, questioning myself instead of others, avoiding giving offense, avoiding even asking for things I wanted. Is this a good foundation for an opinion about political events or public policy? And does it have anything to do with cultural difference? This personal story of a fearful childhood partially overcome is as much me as being either American or French is me, and who is to say where my real motivation is when I say I wouldn’t have published those cartoons? Maybe Stéphane Charbonnier is harder, tougher, braver, firmer in his convictions, more consistent, more morally upright, a hero where I am a coward, a wuss, someone who caves when the hard thing comes.

Also, I am an American, however compromised and dissatisfied and distant. I spent 39 years being told, and believing, that you have to respect people’s religions, even if you think they’re stupid, ridiculous, laughable, dangerous, damanging, immoral, manipulative. Perhaps even especially then. I have internalized this message in what may, unfortunately, be a permanent way. The few forays I made outside these boundaries when living in the US were met with outrage, accusations of disrespect, anger, ad hominem attack. I relish my new freedom to mock the religious, even if only in the tiny space inside my marriage and our shared apartment. But I don’t take that freedom out for a spin in the larger world that much, even though I know I am right and that religion does terrible, terrible harm in the world, even though I think people who are offended that someone made fun of their prophet are weak and stupid, or manipulative, or dupes, even though I think they have their priorities totally out of whack, morally and intellectually, even though I do, privately, look down on them. Maybe there are things that shouldn’t be mocked, things that can’t survive a mocking despite their importance (I have my doubts), but I don’t think your imaginary friend is one of them, and I never will. Despite these deep convictions, I will also never be the first one to sign up to publish the cartoons in question, not because I think the offended parties are right, but because at some basic level publishing them seems mean21. Indeed, in some deeply fucked up way, from my ingrained American perspective (respect everyone’s religion!) publishing these cartoons seems meaner even than blowing somebody up, and I see that this is not logical, not reasonable, not morally correct, but it’s still how it is. This is a cultural blinker indeed, and a dangerous and damaging one, no matter what our constitution does or does not say.

Or maybe self-restraint is the right call; when a crazy man with a gun is staring you down, you may find that the best course of action is to soothe and placate him, even if this means telling lies. You can choose to make a moral stand, but it might be your last one. You can, for reasons of long term safety and the happiness of the many, say that you will never ever negiotiate with terrorists, but this is not much comfort to the people who get blown up down the long historical line of your firm moral stand. There’s political good and then there’s political good, and it can seem like a very small thing to just not publish these cartoons right now if it will save lives, make peace, postpone disaster another couple of months.

So I don’t know, actually, if my instincts are really the right instincts, or even where they come from. I am both jealous and contemptuous of those people who don’t have these kinds of doubts, who are so so sure that Stéphane Charbonnier is wrong and they are right. But even if they are right about his actions, they aren’t right for the right reasons, because they aren’t giving him a fair shake. People who claim to that respect for others’ beliefs and opinions is the highest good, coming even before refraining from blowing people up, should be doing better. I no longer expect better from people, but I still think better is warranted. Necessary. Better is necessary. Especially from Americans, who enjoy vast privilege and power in the larger world.

I can say for certain that I see the slippery slope the guys at Charlie Hebdo are talking about. If I have to make a choice, I would rather live in the world Charlie prescribes than in one where our public schools go ahead and teach students that the world might be only 5000 years old because we’re afraid we might offend somebody by discouting their opinion. The US could use a little Stéphane Charbonnier in the mix, and I am glad, in this particular moment, that I live here and not there.

Imagine with me an American government that responded to the domestic terrorist bombings of abortion clinics in its territories in a spirit similar to Stéphane Charbonnier’s reaction to the burning down of his editorial offices. Call it a thought experiment. The clinic blows up, and the American government says fuck you if you think that will make us stop legalizing abortions. They say, when I catch you – and I will catch you, because this shit is personal now, this shit is a priority for me, violence user, killer of americans – when I catch you, you’re going to jail. They say, you are a terrorist (a real one, not a security theater one), and as such, you do not get a say anymore about how we run stuff, abortion clinics, public education curricula, or anything else, ever. They step up to the plate and go all out, saying I may even build an extra abortion clinic now, just to spite you. But the one thing I am NOT going to do is back down now and do what you want, voluntarily cede my rights because you threatened, because you blackmailed, because you bullied, because you killed and maimed and exploded. You will never convince me, never change me, not one inch, not one milimeter, not ever, not now that you have done this, do you hear me? You can shoot me in the head, maybe, if you must, but you will have to shoot me, because you will never change my mind or my behavior, not after what you’ve done. And don’t talk to me about respect, because we are done with that now, and you are the one who ended it. You are officially no longer part of our national conversation about anything, and the people you were with aren’t, either. Not one unclefucking milimeter, we’re done.

Does this kind of response strike you as an improvement on the status quo or a step down? If Charlie Hebdo‘s editorial staff continues with what they are doing despite firebombings and death threats, they may not be better than I am, but I hestitate to jump to the conclusion that they are worse, and you should too.

Speaking of governments, ideal and otherwise, let’s go back to that idea of naiveté which so clearly got under my skin. For an American, to believe that what the government says about its motivations is a true account of its motivations is, already, always naïve. I get this. I lived this. I voted and was disappointed, I stopped voting because I didn’t see the point, I went back to voting even though I knew it would never work, I tried it all and felt hopeless. I gave up. The relationship of the American citizen to the American government has become one of deep distrust, but also a relationship of us and them. Americans do not believe, at the base, the the government is (or can be, or should be, or could be, or would be, or will ever be again) of by and for and of them. This is not true only for crazy survivalist guy holed up in the backwoods with an arsenal and awaiting the new holocaust. This is true for people of all political leanings and social and economic statuses. It is practically a badge of pride to cast off the teachings of your childhood about democracy and representation and patriotism and don your cynical, doubting, adult persona. “Naive” is the opposite of all this: a sheep, a child, a credulous moron, who sits back and accepts the cover story for why things are the way they are which is, almost by definition now, a lie.

Unfortunately, this cynical posturing has become, for many people, what they think of as activism. (Yes, there are people doing much more engaged and complex political work. But don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Being politically engaged for them means uncovering this truth, this other story, this notthegovernment’s story, and then forwarding it to all your friends. But then your work is done. Creating the other narrative is the political engagement. Being skeptical is, in and of itself, how you stay morally right, the goal and the end of the process. Maybe you sign a petition (I do it myself, from my couch in France, in my jammies, because what else can you do?), but the petition is not the point. The uncovering is. The finding out the truth. The not being naïve.

Even more unfortunately, it seems clear to me that the US narrative of a government not to be trusted is probably accurate22, as is the cynical idea that there is pretty much nothing I can do about it. This brand of facebook activism is unlikely to even make a dent in the corrupt system, but then again, nothing else is likely to do any good either. Not being naïve is pretty much all you’ve got.

So I haven’t got any bright ideas about what to do. I don’t. I admit it. But what I can see from here is that when cynical doubting and a semi-public wringing of your hands is the only power you feel you have to participate in your allegedly representative government, you probably don’t want to hear somebody telling you that they believe theirs. It might even make you mad enough to tell them to go get themselves blown up.

With certain qualifiers, and in these days of mild socialism, I do tend to believe the things the French government says about its motivations and actions. These qualifiers are important, it’s most of the time, it’s almost never Sarkozy and never ever the Front National, and it’s never when I smell something from what I think of as the American playbook. When Claude Géant goes on and on about how we wouldn’t have any problems in this country if it weren’t for the goddamn immigrants, I still smell a rat, partly because I have seen this shit before, in my old home country, in the US. But when the newly elected French president says, I am going to legalize gay marriage this year, I believe him. I believe he might be later than planned, I believe we might have a big fracas about it with people demonstrating left and right (we’re doing that right now), but I also believe he will actually enact gay marriage, and without totally gutting it first. I don’t think he’s lying, and I do not think he has some secret agenda which the gay marriage thing is covering up. I do not think he is either one of George Bushes. But I also, as he’s on the left, do not think he will be pulling a Bill Clinton (oops, instead of gay marriage we’re going to do don’t ask don’t tell!) or a Barack Obama. Like you, I voted for both of those guys, and like you, I was deeply disappointed later on, after a cruel raising of my hopes. I get what that is. This is not that.

Let’s put it this way. I know as well as anybody that when Laurent Wauquiez dons his pretty suit and heads off to be broadcast on tv somewhere, his goal, full stop, will be to forward himself, his party, and their rich, tax-break hogging funders and friends, and that he will employ any means he has at hand to do it, lying, bullshiting, making stuff up, deflection and misdirection, the whole disgusting amoral politican’s toolkit. I know that “lying whore” is basically Laurent Wauquiez’s entire job description. But when I see him doing his act, my reaction is “I do not believe that Laurent Wauquiez is being sincere and telling the truth”, and my reaction is not “I do not believe that the government is being sincere and telling the truth.” And it is especially not, “oh look another lying politician, they are all such liars23.” This may not seem like a big distinction to you, but believe me when I tell you that it is enormous, and it accounts for a lot. It explains at least half of what went down with Mike; why he got so angry, why his “naive” riled me up in return. There was a time, not so long ago even, when even US citizens believed this way about their government. Not the “patriotic” guy who accepts and obeys. The other guy, the one in the streets with picket sign and all the hope asking what’s going on. You’re not that guy anymore, America. France still is. We’re slipping, but we’ve still got some hope.

I think that M. Hollande will probably do, or try to do, most of what he said he would do, and that on those occasions when he does fail, it will be because of technical difficulties or inertia, not bad faith. I also know that his goals are modest, and I would probably have preferred someone else, somebody further left, somebody more ambitious, maybe somebody who would not now be at war in Mali24. But this is still a situation where everyone is, more or less, up front and direct. And so, when the newly-elected president says, after discussing it with some of France’s muslims, we’re not allowing demonstrations about this for reasons of security, I actually believe that security is the real reason. It’s not because I am naïve, and it’s not because I do not understand that security theater is a thing. I know that security theater is a thing. It’s an American thing. It’s your thing. This is not your story.

There are a lot of reasons why I think this difference is a real thing, based on actual facts – the way money works in government, the number of political parties and choices, the comparative absence of lobbyists as a signifcant force in the works, the greater access even marginal parties have to the media, the sheer power of the US and its historical influence both covert and overt since the second world war – but the thing that interests me the most is the attitude of the regular French person (whoever that might be) toward his/her government. It’s not that they trust the government and American people don’t, it’s more that the idea of trusting or not trusting the government doesn’t make good sense as a question unless you already think the government is always and necessarily separate from you as a participative citizen. I think that they still think of government as being theirs, as belonging to them. Collectively. So yes, sometimes stuff happens you don’t like, someone is elected you think is a putz, bad decisions happens, dissent exists. Nobody is saying France doesn’t have any problems or disagreements. But when that happens, you change your government, or you try to. You vote, you demonstrate, you take to the streets, you call your union, indignez-vous!. You do not tweet your cynicism in some witty turn of phrase before making one more decision about what products you will boycott that week before heading off to bed and think that that is government. You try to participate because you believe participation is possible. Because the government is not some exterior iceburg of an impenetrable thing sitting over there, separate from you, untouchable, unmoveable, forever broken25.

When I say that French government is different, when I say it is better, this is what I mean. I do not mean nobody ever does anything stupid corrupt or selfish, that nobody ever lies, that France never experiences problems, even deep and serious ones. I don’t mean we don’t have racists and racism and people who would gladly silence the muslims. We’ve got people whose entire political existence is dedicated to silencing the muslims. They’re horrible and I wish them grisly horrible death. What I mean is, the political process has not been reduced to pure theater, and detached irony is not France’s national passtime.

This is why it is also not sufficient to find me one bad French person, one racist, one homophobe, one Front National voter, one corrupt politician, one elected official who is one hundred percent entirely full of shit and then hold that person up as an example and be like, see? France isn’t really better! This happens to me with great regularity, in fact. There is a certain subset of cynical American person who likes to shatter my temporary joy when something here goes right or makes me happy. People who are otherwise capable of subtle, careful, complex thinking, people who normally see the need for complex explanations, deep context, and a large set of data points, will read a single news item, see that there were demonstrations in the streets against mariage pour tous, and say, hey, are you sure it’s better there? I can’t tell if they’re being uncharacteristically stupid, they’re engaged in that assholism that I am trying to describe in this piece, or they’re just being mean on purpose to harsh my mellow when this happens, but I do know this:

Yes. Yes I am. I am sure it’s better here.

“Better” is not the same as “having no problems”, “making no mistakes”, or “everybody agreeing”. Holding France up to this standard is offensive. We’re allowed to have flaws without being worthless racist naïve losers. France is neither a virgin nor a whore. This impossible standard is part and parcel of failing to recognize that it is, in fact, a whole country and culture, where people get up, shower, go to work, fight with their spouses, yell at their kids, have lunch, stub their toes, endure that one insufferable coworker, stand in line waiting for paperwork, and otherwise lead lives that you would probably recognize as everyday, normal ones. They are susceptible to the same pressures and manipulations and failings as everybody else, everywhere else, throughtout the history of time. The difference is, they live in a state that believes one of its functions is to regulate; to reign in the worst of human behavior and protect the community and the community’s weakest members. French people get that, and they think that the government works for them or, at the very least, they think that it should.

This does not make them naïve. This makes them powerful, solidaire, safe.

Another big cultural difference that is operating covertly in my dispute with my friend is religious freedom. He says “silencing muslims” as if it was an issue of race and not one of religion; silencing muslims isn’t a racism thing, but “muslim” has become a sort of racial identity. Or actually, if I may interpret based on my own previous incarnation, he sort of means both, because in this case religious identity and race exist in an uneasy conflation in the US, and racial and religious discrimination are considered to be basically the same thing. Here too, actually. But this is not good. And it’s not just not good in the sense that there are arabs who aren’t muslims and muslims who aren’t arabs and it’s bad to make these assumptions (something that, to his credit, Mike would probably be first in line to point out).

No, it’s also bad because underlying it is the sense that everybody’s identity is in part a religious identity, and that freedom of expression historically and always means the right to do whatever religious practices you want. That is, in fact, one of the fundamental bases of the US as a country, from its birth: freedom of religion. We see it as having the same status as, and indeed overlapping with, freedom of expression. Part of freedom of expression is the freedom not just to worship how like you in private, but also to publicly express religious ideas, opinions, experiences, thoughts. And I think, fundamentally, that is not what either religious freedom or freedom of expression mean in France.

Here in France we have something more like “freedom from” than “freedom to” when it comes to religion. With certain limits (and these limits are stricter than in the US already), you have the right to practice your religion privately. But you do not have the right to unrestricted religious speech, and you do not have the unmitigated right to pratice your religion publicly. This is not enforced equally for say christians versus muslims, and there are those who try a rhetorical cheat by saying we are secular state with christian roots, but fundamentally, in principle, in the Republic of France, the sitution is the same for everybody and all religions because the state is secular.

You may think that you live in a secular state in the US, but you don’t.

No French presidential candidate, not even Christine Boutin, leader of the christian democratic party, has every been photographed on his or her way to pray at church as part of an electoral campaign strategy. The very idea of it is ludicrous and offensive. Nobody learns about “intelligent design”26 in school. No judge posts the ten commandments in his courtroom. Nobody would think to, but if they did, the government would come down hard and immediately. We do not endlessly debate the morality of abortion, euthanasia, gay civil rights; and even when those discussions do come the forefront of public debate, everybody is very careful not to mention the bible as a reason for doing something. Catholic bishops representing the church in feedback about the proposed gay marriage laws do not say, publicly, anything about what “god”27 thinks. They say they are opposed, that other French citizens are opposed, that children need a mother and a father, that the civil code must be protected, and anything and everything else that they can think of, but nobody sets even one toe over the line that says we have to set secular law this way because my religion tells me to.

French people are also, by and large, more secular themselves. A 2005 poll performed on behalf of the European commission shows French people split equally into thirds: 1/3 believe in god, 1/3 in some wishy-washy agnostic middle ground (“life force” is the term used in the poll), and 1/3 are atheists. Numbers for the US vary by poll taker, but range from 1.6% to 10% atheist depending on who is doing the asking and how. But even those French people who are religious practice privately. Private religious pratice is protected by French law. Public religious practice is not. Public religious speech is not integral to freedom of expression the way it is in the US.

From an American perspective, then, French people have fewer rights. Fewer religious rights, a vastly constrained freedom of expression. They can’t join a cult, they can’t march through Skokie holding a swastika, they can’t pray in school. However, they also enjoy a truly secular state. Religion is not used to make law, or even to propose law (not overtly, again, we have our problems). The French are able to enter any public place unmolested and safe, even if what they want there is an abortion. Pharmacists dispense birth control pills and RU486 whether they personally agree or not, and if they don’t like it, they either suck it up or they stop being pharmacists. Doctors are reimbursed for treatment by the state, and the state – not the employer, not the insurance agency, and certainly not the catholic church – decides what treatments they can and cannot offer, and which treatments will be reimbursed, and how much. No French court has ever ruled that it is legal to fire your dental assistant because you are attracted to her and your christian values outlaw these feelings. No French public school teaches anything but evolution, and no degree recognized by the French state includes “other theories”. No French public library, school or otherwise, bans a book for religious, sexual, or political content. If a French kid wants a book from his school library, he doesn’t need a note from his mom saying it’s okay for his religious beliefs. French children do not die because their crazy religious parents deny them a blood transfusion and get a court order to stop treatment.

So, looking at that list from a French perspective, from an outcomes perspective, it looks a lot like American people have fewer rights. From a French perspective, from an outcomes perspective, American people look totally fucking bat-shit crazy.

I am an outcomes kind of girl. Put me down in the not bat-shit crazy column.

Now go back and imagine the French government telling muslims that they cannot publicly protest the publication of images that offend their religious sensibilities because of their religious convictions. Be careful to imagine that it is the French government and not the American government. You could, indeed, look at it like Mike does: the government is silencing the muslims, denying them freedom of speech. But you could also look at it like I look at it, which is this. Americans live in a world where everyone, even the atheists, has internalized a model of freedom of expression that always includes religion and, in practice, fills the public discourse with ridiculous, offensive, unscientific, untrue, and frankly dangerous bullshit. Bullshit that takes us to war, bullshit that kills people with AIDS, bullshit that is causing climate change and destroying the planet.

Americans look at that steaming pile of bullshit, the very pile of bullshit that is corroding their body politic and their way of life, not to mention ruining the lives of a great many of their neighbors in other countries, and they say that while it is regrettable, everyone and anyone does and should have the right to keep piling it on, even if it kills you, even if it kills us all. Americans believe in the right to express opinions even about questions of fact, they believe the shared structures of society should bend to include their fairy tale about their imaginary friend, they impose a hegemony on everyone they meet and call it diversity, ripping at the very fabric of the language so now even words don’t mean anything anymore and newspapers ask if they should still bother with fact checking. In short, Americans believe in the right to foist their beliefs on others instead of worshiping politely and in private like a nice, normal, French person would. Americans believe that you have the right to go into the streets and yell and scream and wail because someone, somewhere, published something that offended you, the right to demand that they stop offending you, stop publishing things that offend you, stop saying them, stop thinking them. That doesn’t look like freedom to me. That doesn’t look like freedom to a lot of people in a lot of countries, only you don’t listen to them, because you think you’re better than they are, because you think you’re right. You don’t listen to us because you are an asshole.

And when you tell me that I am wrong about all this, that I am naïve, that I am worse than wrong, that I am not free, or that I am denying freedom to other people, when you say that I don’t understand what freedom even means, and that you should have the right to impose your ideas of freedom on me whether I want them or not, well, dude, you are being an asshole, and in a typically American kind of way. You are participating in the great American tradition of imperialism and made up crap. You think you’re different from those people who say that the muslims hate our freedom, but from where I sit you’re doing exactly the same thing. It’s not your job to police my freedom, or import your particular brand of it to my country. But yours could stand a quick second look. Maybe you should try focussing your energies on that. If nothing else, it’ll make you less of an asshole.

1I’m exaggerating to make a point, btw. I am well aware that some bakeries have a sack, some French people probably prefer one, and that the vast hordes of the soi-disant gluten intolerant aren’t eating baguettes to begin with. I choose to express myself this way despite all that. There’s a lot more of this kind of thing coming, and if you are unable to navigate it, this piece of writing will make you unhappy. Also the fact that I find myself adding this fucking useless footnote for readers at this level is, in a nutshell, why I am in no hurry to solicit comments, and your will probably never get approved, no matter how innocuous it is (we’ll just see how it goes). While you’re at it, I don’t want to hear about split infinitives, the passive voice, or your vast knowledge of historical grammaer. Shove it, hypothetical unworthy reader guy.

2No, you don’t. Seriously.

3Some people like to use the term American exceptionalism, but I find that I prefer the term asshole.

4Who can also really be assholes, seriously guys, Mark, it’s enough already.

5In practice this means no going into the streets for a manif.

6I know, color me stunned, right?

7There it is again, the word abroad. I wonder if Chris Stevens and his colleagues felt at home in Libya before they were killed. For me it is equally sad to think that they did and to think that they didn’t.

8Let’s call him Mike because that’s his actual name. He’ll recognize himself anyway if he ever sees this, so what’s the point of changing it?

9Around this time they also published a cartoon also mocking religion (but not the muslim religion), with the caption “Anus Dei”. You can probably imagine the rest from there. When I saw it, I laughed and laughed. I showed it to other people. They laughed and laughed too. The Tunisian government did not laugh; they pulled this issue from distribution in Tunisia. No one was firebombed. That I know of.

10Why do I specify Reuters? Because, even though I do not have the time, space, or energy to get into it here in detail, I do want to remind everybody concerned that irresponsible journalism takes many different forms, and that of these, Charlie Hebdo is perhaps not the worst.

11His capitals, not mine. Before you jump down my throat (which you can’t because comments are closed) know that I don’t capitilize christian, either. Also, maybe read the rest of the piece, for fuck’s sake.

12Except that don’t troll me on facebook, what are you ten years old?

13Why do I again specify Reuters? Because real journalists do at least a google search’s worth of work before they publish something like this, and are equipped to know, and report, that there is an important backstory involving a terrorist attack when there is, like, and important backstory involving a terrorist attack. To paraphrase a writer who does understand how investigative research and reporting can work to inform, to clarify, to explain, and to build empathy, that’s not journalism, that’s typing.

14I also feel that once someone has suggested that you merit being the victim of a terrorist attack, they cede their rights to not be criticized for it, and possibly to civilized discourse all together.

15Well, you do deserve the flak from the baker. I mean come ON.

16There are actually exceptions to this, and I could maybe even see a case for shutting down this issue of Charlie Hebdo on the incitement de haïne raciale exception, and if somebody wanted to discuss it, I would probably be up for that as an intellectual exercise. But, on the whole, I think you get my drift when I say that it’s hardly the fault of the French government if one of its citizens publishes something that offends another of its citizens, or the citizens of other countries. And if you think it should start policing the press when and where it’s politically expedient, you’ll not find a willing discussion partner in me.

17My god! The person who did this has a name, a set of beliefs, religious convictions of his own, and a voice with which explain himself? I am shocked, I tell you, shocked by this unexpected news!

18Yeah, I didn’t research it before I posted, either. So sue me.

19This interview exists partly because, despite the fact that “France”, which is so weird lately, loves Charlie Hebdo and wants to silence muslims, a lot of French people had the same questions as Mike, to wit, why not refrain from publishing these images, especially right at this particular moment. You see how slippery it is to say that France is doing something? It’s not the French government, it’s not the French people, it’s this guy who happens to be French. Stop being sloppy, stop being lazy, stop being, dare I say it, prejudiced, or I am going to start holding you and President Obama personally accountable for every goddamn story about the Olsen twins’ eating disorder. Is that what you want? Because, flaming guy falling out of the window, if “America” is responsible for everything weird, horrible, or immoral that rolls out from inside its borders, you are going to have a long, long day.

20I am, of course, paraphrasing. If you don’t like it, you can always go trolling for split infinitives somewhere. If you actually want an adult discussion, then when I describe conditions in the US as a result of your respect for others’ religious beliefs below, you might remember this word – irresponsible – and see if you think it fits.

21Also because I am very much afraid of being blowed up.

22either that or I particpate in this cultural phenomenon while in American mode and only change to something more hopeful when I think about France?

23Though unfortunately for us here in France, this last attitude is rapidly gaining traction. So take heart, France-haters. We’ll be where you are soon enough, and you will no longer need to try to spoil my joys one by one on facebook.

24I haven’t decided yet on that last one. Attitudes about foreign wars are subject perhaps more than anything else to the American cultural blinkers thing I was on about above, and I have yet to even gather up all the marbles to see where mine lie.

25Again, though, less and less. The slow breaking of this fragile thing makes me sadder than I can express in words. I hope I have not arrived too late to fully partake in it.

26Yes I put it in scare quotes. I did that because it’s bullshit.

27You already know what I am going to say here about the scare quotes.

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An American living abroad in France

I am an Amercican, living abroad in France.*

This would be the most obvious way to describe myself, the most easy to understand and process, the quickest and shortest way for anybody I am talking to, French or American, to access my situation at its most basic level. “I am an American, living abroad in France.” I say the first half of this all the time.

By all the time I mean several times per week, every time I meet a new person, as a response to the question that I am inevitably asked as soon as I open my mouth because my accent leaves me no way to keep any kind of low profile, because if I say anything more than a quick bon soir I am outed and the first question will take the form of “are you English?” or “where are you from?” French people, because they have a complex and effective system of politeness, particularly when it comes to breaching the gap between someone’s public life and their personal life, are always careful to ask nicely and with friendly interest and at an appropriate time, so let me be clear that French people are not the problem, if there is a problem. This is not one of those “how to survive the French” handbooks that you see everywhere for and by Americans and the British (The French explained! Thank god! At long long last! And I, silly me, thought them clueless savages, when in fact they are quaint little weirdos with adorable customs and super tasty croissants! I cannot wait to take this book home and start devising my strategies for dealing with them, clever little monkeys that they are!) Please do not shelve me with those crass, xenophobic self-“help” guides in the bookshelf of your heart, for that is not what I am. Rather, the point is that the words “I am an American”, “I am from the United States” come out of my mouth often, easily, and by habit. And yet the longer I live here, the less I feel like that’s a good, accurate description of who and what I am.

Let’s do the second part first: “living abroad in France”. Okay, yes, in the strict, technical sense I live abroad. I no longer live in my country of origin, I live somewhere else. But this way of putting it – “abroad” – implies all kinds of things that I don’t feel about my situation: temporariness, exile, farness from home, and most of all, a sort of intangible center that still lives in the US somewhere. I can make it a little better by getting rid of the word “abroad” in that sentence; “abroad” puts me in a two-column system, a binary checkbox, tax-form kind of place where either you are in the the US or you are everywhere, anywhere, somewhere else, n’importe où. And that’s fine for the US tax people, but it’s not fine for me because I am not living with all those people in China, Russia, Argentina, Afghanistan and the South Pole Research Center. I am not living in the notUS, I am not living in my nothome and I am not living “abroad”. I am living in France.

Indeed, to be absolutely clear and rid that sentence of any traces of the temporary or provisional let me amend “I am living in France” to, “I live in France”. Specifically, I live in Grenoble. Specifically, not even Grenoble; I live in a little town two layers out in the agglomeration of Grenoble, a town which is called Meylan, which is already not like the rest of Grenoble, which is already not like the rest of France, which is already not like the rest of Europe, which is already not like the rest of “abroad”. That little pinpoint on the map is my center, and America is closer to being in the second column, the everywhere else column, the JapanNorwayChileSaudiArabiaSomaliaIsraelAbroad column than it is to being in my “home” category.

Maybe I have three columns now; maybe that’s just one of the things that happens to immigrants.

But in any case, when you get out your map to measure how far away something is, note that my away is not from the US now, my away is from France. Spain is right next door, California is a world away, Canada is far. France is my home, I live here, and I am able to clearly state that with the now-amended sentence “I live in France.” And yet this is already bizarre; no one who actually lives in France and considers it his/her home is always saying the sentence, “I live in France”. Of course you do, so does everybody. Consider it this way; do you ever turn to your American neighbor in your American town or city and say, “I live in America” as a way of clarifying who you are? Does anybody living next door to your born and bred in America home turn to you from their born and bred in America home and ask you where you are from? Of course they don’t. Why would they? So, I live in France, but constantly saying so already always implies that I don’t quite live in France the way that a French person lives in France.

And also, and this is a pretty important thing to remember, I got here by choice. I choose to live here, specifically here, and I like it. The Meylan part, and even the Grenoble part, of that little outward zoom (imagine here those science museum displays of my childhood taking you up up and out from the subatomic particle to Jupiter and beyond) may change, but the France part probably won’t. I like France. I like French people. My husband, who is one of the aforementioned French people, likes these things too. We’ve talked it over and we want to stay. Somehow even my now amended description “I live in France” does not really express that sense of firm, permanent, positive choice. Even though chance played an extremely large role in determining my current situation, I did not wander here accidentally. I was not sent here by work. I am not a tourist who just somehow never bothered to leave. I am not a temporary resident waiting out my sentence here. I am not a refugee, an exile, or an outcast. I came here knowing what it was like (more or less – yes, more or less, because hedging and qualifying and except that-ing is the meaty center of trying to describe cultural difference; those how to survive the french books present you with clear and simple certainty, but that should be your first clue that they are bullshit). I came here having other options open to me. I came here intending to stay permanently. I live here. And yet I am not French.

Which is how we get back to the first part of that sentence. “I am an American.” For citizenship purposes, sure, absolutely, clear. But when it comes to culture, that is a whole other matter. The longer I live here, the longer I see the US from the outside instead of the inside, the less I feel like a regular American and the more I feel like somebody who doesn’t quite get Americans. I wrote “regular American” just there because I actually don’t feel less American – my approach to things, my way of interacting with people, the perky persona I get out in certain work and social situations, the structures of language that I use, these things are deeply American and probably always will reflect the America of my experience and education in some profound, unshakeable way. In the same way that I, as an individual person, have changed immensely over the 42 years that I have existed and yet still remain somehow me, I am still and will probably always be an American.

What I do feel, though, as I make specific efforts to try and integrate myself, to make French friends, to bond with my French family, to work in a French workplace, is more and more French, and, as a consequnce, more able and even more likely to view America and Americans the way a French person would. This view is different, often uncomfortable and, of late, very sad. More and more, the longer I live here, and given the events of the specific time period over which it has been happening, I feel like I have come to see America as a big and often terrible place, and one which is in deep and terrible trouble.

To say of your home country, the place where you grew up, the place that made you, the place that you always assumed would be your home until you died, to say that this place is a terrible place is a serious and awful thing, so much so that I almost cannot believe I am typing it, and am constantly tempted to go back and erase it and write something else. And yet, this is the truth. Being an American who lives where I do when I do means, at least for me, the experience of a special kind of grief: the combination of changes there since I left with my change of perspective have led to the loss of an idea of America as my home. I no longer look at the country I grew up in and think that it is the kind of place where I would want to live.

And yet I cannot stop being an American, reading the news updates, the latest horror, the most recent tragedy/folly, (but also the positive things, and books written in English by Americans set in America, falling effortlessly into a world of fiction that is also simultaneously a real place that I know) and feeling especially involved, more than an average French person (whatever that is, I am not it), especially concerned, especially grief-stricken, especially delighted, especially at home. And I know, intellectually, that I no longer see the littlest of the good things, that I no longer experience day to day life in the US, with its small local joys and all the rich details that an individual life brings. I know that I now am beginning to experience the US the way that anyone outside does, through news reports and the consumption of its cultural products, and not as a regular American. And so I grieve a certain kind of loss without knowing if what I had before is even really gone. I feel that whatever home the US was for me no longer exists, and I do not know if this loss is the result of real changes to the country, an illusion brought on by perspective, or even the loss of an idea in my head that never really existed in the first place.

But I do know this: when people ask me if I miss the US, if I am homesick, that question is unanswerable in any way at all because as a question it doesn’t really make sense. I know that I experience a very deep and specific kind of loss, which sometimes makes me very sad indeed, but I am not homesick. Home is in France now, in any case. But for the US, the home I had there is gone, however it went, and the US that I knew is forever altered for me, replaced by something which, while familiar, I am almost tempted to describe as foreign. I think often of that phrase that people use to describe something uncomfortable but not actually foreign, “foreign to me”. As in, the idea of living in that way, doing that thing, not having this other thing is entirely foreign to me. This phrase has taken on a looming presence in my life. The ways of Americans, how they think, how they talk, how they behave are, in many ways, entirely foreign to me, and that seems as though it just should not be true, since technically, I am one of them, since I, technically, talk and think and behave like an American.

And so, here I am, an American living abroad in France, and I have learned many new things. I have learned things about the French. But I feel like I am also constantly learning things about Americans, things I didn’t know before, or didn’t see before, when I was whatever kind of American I was before I became the kind of American I am now. And I’ve also learned to write convoluted sentences like that one: because I was never a typical American, even when I lived there, whatever a typical American might even be. I was the product of a very specific America: white, middle class, formally educated, and (once I was an adult and had the choice) urban-dwelling. Politically left-leaning. Northern, it is important to specificy, over and opposed to Southern. Western, it is important to specify, over and opposed to East Coast. Except for that part that was Chicago, which is neither western nor east coast. There are lots of Americans who were nothing like me even when I was living there and France was just a foreign country where French people lived, a country I might have maybe known the president of, if you asked me on a good day and I could remember reading about it somewhere. Even then, I wasn’t like all other Americans, and they weren’t like me. I was never black, I was never poor, I was never rural, I was never filthy rich, I was never New York or Los Angeles or Texas, I was never a trixie or a frat guy or a jock or a banker or a stripper or a check out girl at the AandP. I don’t know these Americas any more than the French family next door does.

And the France I live in now and learn about, the culture that I describe as “French” is the same France: it’s the middle class mainstream of France, professional people who have enough money, who went to college and maybe got a masters degree. Both by choice and by chance, here too most of my acquaintance is left-leaning, though France goes a lot further left than the US does, on average. My in-laws live either in Lyon or Dijon, with one aunt who lives in the South, near Marseilles, and we live, as I said, in Grenoble(ish). None of my experience tells me about Paris, with all that that includes; from its shiny fashionable marketing face to its poorest and most neglected suburbs, I know nothing, or not much, or only what I’ve read or seen as a tourist; basically no more than you do. None of my experience tells me about the communities in the North of France devasted by unemployment and starting to swing right, vote for the Front National, hate the immigrants. None of my experience tells me about the deep, and deeply conservative, countryside, though I have seen parts of the country and talked with some of the people who live there. I congratulate myself on integrating, alternatively pitying or condemning the anglophone women of my acquaintance who are unwilling or unable to leave their English-speaking bubble, but I’m looking at the world through a soapy sheen myself, and always have been.

For convenience, I talk about what it means to be French and what it means to be an American, and in many cases, I know more than the person I am talking to. And I will continue to do this, in my life and in whatever this – blog?, diary?, book?, memoir?, explanation?, witness statement?, defense? – is. If nothing else, it’s better than what you get in your guidebooks because, even if I cannot see past them, at least I know that my blinders exist.

It’s better, too, because whatever else may be, I love France. I love living here, and I love French people. I can promise never to offer you advice on how to “deal” with the French because I do not take as any kind of base assumption that French people are a problem to be solved. If anything, I think I am too quick to swing the other way, to assume the problem is with the American visitor, to forget the bafflement and frustration of the first period of adjustment to France, to fail to reach that place of empathy. When I arrived, America was like my little brother: I bash and tease him all the time, I’m the mean older sister, but I do not like it when anybody else does the same, and in some cases I’m ready to risk a black eye sticking up for him. The Dominique Strauss-Khan thing was like that for me. Of course now it’s been a few years, America is a lot like my drug-addicted little brother, who does a lot of bad stuff and seems like he can’t take care of himself. The Newtown shooting thing is more like this older, less presentable brother for me. I may not like it when people go on and on about how bad he is, but I cannot say that I do not see their point.

So. I am an American living abroad in France. As such, I have a unique perspective on both French and American culture. For whatever reason, I also have an abiding need to describe and justify the French to Americans, and to try and explain to you what you look like through the eyes of a French person (and quite possibly to a lot of other countries as well).

I believe that France exists for America as an example case: from model paradise to cautionary tale, this idea of France is out there in America, a backdrop against which you are to decide how and how not to live. You know these stories. France is a paradise where no one goes without food or shelter or health care, the kind of system we should sign up for tout de suite; or, France is filled with art and music and michelin star quality food, peopled by men in berets smoking cigarettes in cafes, discussing the meaning of meaning, each one traisping home at the end of the day with a baguette under his arm; or, the great secular satan socialism has eaten the freedom of all French persons, who live in a haze of drugdery to the state, wishing they could participate in the great liberty that is the US. At a minimum those telling these stories, positive and negative, do not have the complete information. At worst, it becomes necessary to remind everyone concerned that France does not exist as a mirror to reflect the US back to itself, and that reducing an entire country and culture to a way of admiring your own image is deeply offensive. Use us as a comparison if you like, but a little less ham-fisted, if you please, and know when you don’t know something, which is often.

Remember also that France looks at you, too, and does not always find you to be splendid. Let this be the first thing that I say about all Americans that I will later need to hedge and qualify and take back: they don’t have anything like an accurate picture of how they are seen by others, and when people don’t like them, they totally misunderstand why. Because I am between cultures right now, I can see both, and because I can see both I can often explain. For the record, this is my truthful account of the event called Nicole moving to France and trying to adjust. I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I do not promise it will be anybody else’s truth. And I do not promise that you will like it.

*This footnote is not angry. It is just a test footnote. Snarky footnotes are to come.

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