March 13, 2003

My Last Word, Hopefully, on...

My Last Word, Hopefully, on Freedom Toast & Whatnot: I wrote an e-mail to Glenn Reynolds last night explaining my position, and of course he responded with a: "Looks like you've got a good column practically written. Run with it." So here it is:

I am just worried & over-sensitive about three trends:

1) The rhetorical tendency of "yeah, but he did it first!" Sure, it can be a funny rhetorical device -- the first hundred or so times -- but in the end, it's "yeah, but he did it first!"

2) The habit of making official U.S. policy and behavior, no matter how insignificant, based on the anti-war & obstructionist statements of allies. While of course you *must* adapt your diplomatic behavior to deal with the Schroeders and Chiracs of the world (and to emphasize -- I strongly dislike both, and the way they have behaved vis-a-vis the U.S.), doing things like snubbing Schroeder after the elections, or renaming cafeteria food, gives the impression of a petty and over-sensitive power, ready to punish friends for disagreeing. Quickly, this practice will discourage the free exchange of ideas (like, but not nearly as bad as, the way Chirac wants the post-commie kids to shut up about their pro-America stance). It will obstruct the flow of good information, and probably has (countries like Portugal and Bulgaria are incentivized to support us blindly at a time like now ... which is not to say at all that that's what they're *doing*, but to say the built-in incentive is there, and we will suffer if it grows).

Also, by hyper-reacting to specific actions related to the War effort, the U.S. will encourage on its own part a tendency to judge partner nations *on this criteria only*, or at least let it become the dominant determinant of who we decide is a friend or not. This, combined with the inevitable deal-making that comes with assuming & expending more power, means that we will be great pals with shitty countries, and angry quasi-friends with democracies that share many of our values and traditions. I think this is both stupid and dangerous -- we do not have a great track record of agitating for reform among the dictators we support, and I think supporting dictators qualifies as one of those "root causes" people get excited about.

Sure, I'm extrapolating a bit here. But I think it's incumbent upon the most powerful country in the world to develop thick skin, and respond to childish bullshit by rising above it, rather than sinking down to its level.

3) Leaders set some kind of moral tenor for the country. Now, I don't get *overly* excited by such things, but I think if a senior government official, for instance, uses "axis of weasels" to describe Chirac & co., he is emboldening the population to go several steps further, and legitimizing poisonous discourse. Already, you can see a progression of allowable jokes -- let's "Pave France," let's "Bomb Canada," etc. Many of these jokes are funny, of course, and I am definitely not the kind of person to take "offense" at them. But they veer into the genocidal, and I daresay if you saw jokes like that emanating from the ANSWER crowd, or directed toward Israel, you would give them no quarter.

I spent eight years in Europe hearing earfuls of the most simplistic anti-American crap imaginable (oftentimes from Americans themselves, of course). My reaction, always: Oh, aren't *they* being dumb. It was a signal of uncritical thinking. Seeing Americans take their justifiable anger at European actions, and their justifiable criticism thereof, and turn it into the same kind of formulations -- and then saying "well, they've been doing it for years, now it's payback time!" ... well, this has been disappointing. And I think the anger has long since clouded the judgment of some bloggers. I've read in recent days that, heck, *Russia* has more shared "values" with us than France or Germany. And Ledeen's comment (I think it was him) that the Franco-Germans are deliberately riding the backs of Islamic dictators to serve as a check on American power strikes me as madness.

This is not to say that I don't think Chirac is a wretch, or that he isn't endangering the transatlantic relationship, or that the degeneracy of the European chattering class isn't a worrisome issue. In fact, I think this growing divide is one of the most significant things happening right now, and I am obsessed about it for rather personal reasons.

I think that as humans, commentators, politicians, Americans -- we should act with the utmost possible nobility, and with motives that are vigorously cleansed of cheapness, retribution, personal profit and other vices. We are the most powerful country on earth, and I read somewhere that power has been known, on occasion, to corrupt. I think we are also the most noble and anti-imperial "empire" ever. I want us to do an even *better* job, and as you know I am concerned that we will create a damned-if-we-do scenario unless we start looking for creative ways to *devolve* power and responsibility to the rest of the world, starting preferably with our oldest and most trusted allies. (I mean the Brits, of course, not the crafty cheese-eaters). I don't want any more Sept. 11s, and I worry very much that by increasing the globally held notion that nothing gets done unless it's Americans doing it, we are setting ourselves up to be targets indefinitely.

Which brings us far afield from "Freedom Fries," obviously. But somehow I think it's of a piece.

Incidentally, about a dozen times in the last month or two people have said to Emmanuelle, "Oh, I don't have anything against you *personally,* it's just your government." It's been sweet, but also kind of bizarre. I remember hearing versions of that a thousand times in Europe, and I wore it as a badge of honor. But I also remember thinking, "you people don't know how silly you sound right now." As I look around these days, I see a lot of familiar silliness. We can do better than that.

Posted by at March 13, 2003 11:30 AM
Comments

Excellent column Matt!

I've got notes for a "40-odd things I love about France" ditty lurking in one of last summer's notebooks... you've inspired me to try to flesh it out.

Posted by: henry at March 13, 2003 11:54 AM

First, you have some very good points.

Re: #2, let me just say that diplomacy is and always has been a petty game. It's like high school popularity, or fraternities and sororities, with the back-stabbing, faux sincerity, etc. That doesn't make any of your complaints illegitimate, I'm just saying that stuff is par for the course, so don't fret. I think you overreact to this stuff really; snubbing Schroeder or renaming french fries to freedom fries isn't going to have any sort of serious long-term impact; like Glenn says, it will just serve as a notice to them that their actions are causing reactions over here.

Re: Leaders going overboard, I think you're right. As much as I cheered when Rummy said that (more because it was a victory for the blogosphere though--go Scrappleface!), a lot of pro-war pundits (Andrew Sullivan comes first to mind) have observed that Rummy's inability to censor himself is becoming a real problem.

Finally, this Freedom Fries thing? Look, the House decision to rename them Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast was made unilaterally by Rep. Robert Ney, who happens to chair the Committee on House Administration, which is responsible for running the House cafeteria, etc. Nobody voted on it, there was no bill that went through committee or to the floor--he just did it because he can. And here's the kicker--Nay is a French-American!!! So let's put this in context here: a crazy French-blooded American Republican Congressman from Ohio unilaterally enacted a change to the House menu. Get over it; it's not that big of a deal. Yeah it's silly. Symbolic and silly. Now let's move on.

Posted by: Andrew at March 13, 2003 12:11 PM

Just when you thought the mopes in Congress couldn't sink any lower than "Freedom fries":

Bill Targets U.S. Troops Buried in France

JIM ABRAMS
Associated Press

WASHINGTON - In another swipe at the French, a Florida congresswoman has proposed that the government pay for families who might want to bring home from France the remains of Americans who fought and died in the world wars.

"I, along with many other Americans, do not feel that the French government appreciates the sacrifices men and women in uniform have made to defend the freedom that the French enjoy today," Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite said in introducing legislation providing financial help for the reburial of veterans from the two world wars.

The legislation, which faces uncertain prospects, is the latest show of congressional frustration over French threats to veto a U.N. resolution that would open the way for U.S. military action against Iraq.

Earlier this week, the chairman of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, ordered that House restaurants change their menus to read "freedom fries" instead of French fries. French toast would also become freedom toast.

Lawmakers have also introduced bills to prevent France from participating in any postwar reconstruction projects.

Brown-Waite, a freshman Republican, said she decided to sponsor the bill after she was approached by a constituent who said he wanted to bring home his father, who was killed in World War II and buried in France.

Some 74,000 American war casualties are buried in France and Belgium, including 30,000 from World War I. The host nations, while retaining sovereignty over the burial grounds, have granted the land in perpetuity to the United States as military cemeteries.

Steve Thomas, a spokesman for the American Legion, said the veter href="mailto:arloomis@gslis.utexas.edu">AndrewTX at March 13, 2003 04:57 PM

The whole thing reminds me of the comments on the Solonor "Things to Like About America" blog. It turns out that patriotism may be all well and good, but you're actually not supposed to like the parts of America with lots of Democrats in them. Poverty, natural disasters, biting insects, harsh climates-- all those things can be overlooked in favor of a state's good qualities. But Democrats are beyond the pale, and the obligation to attack them in any and all fora trumps not just patriotism but even basic norms of politeness.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin at March 13, 2003 05:11 PM

Matt,
A well thought thought out column, however I take issue with what you call our erstwhile ally's "childish bullshit". That it may be, but that childishness is going to kill more American soldiers in the long run due to delay, and I personally find that sort of childishness intolerable.
Rgds

Posted by: Kim Crawford at March 13, 2003 06:14 PM

Matt, you've done a better job of convincing me I should switch teams than Micah has ...

Speaking of sports ... what about those tickets I mentioned?

Posted by: Howard Owens at March 13, 2003 06:24 PM

Howard -- By "switch teams," I assume you're talking about the Angels....

And I've forgotten what those tickets were mentioned were for....

Posted by: Matt Welch at March 13, 2003 07:10 PM

I've complained about France on my own blog a lot. Then I started to feel guilty about it, so I stopped. I'm glad I cut it out before I read this column, or I would feel like an asshole.

Good job.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 13, 2003 08:04 PM

Michael -- Don't stop complaining about France, mon dieu! It is possible that, with a little reflection & digging, the *real* record of Chirac & co. will be much more damning than yet another Jerry Lewis joke. And don't get me started on the little sweater-tied-around-the-neck business....

Posted by: Matt Welch at March 13, 2003 08:13 PM

Hey Matt McIrvin,

This has nothing to do with Matt Welsh's fine article, but since you brought it up, enough with your victimization theories. I assume you are not from the upper South/ Midwest states, like Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia, which have quite conservative and patriotic populations AND governors belonging to the Democratic Party AND substantial legislative numbers also. Read their comments sections and you will find they are almost all positive. There is something about California which brings out the extremists of any philosophy--I believe the 'meathead' term was applied by a SF commentator. How polite is that?

Posted by: Steve W at March 13, 2003 10:01 PM

I have a shot at four tickets to the LA Kings (march 20), and four to the Dodgers/Padres ... don't have them yet, but will push harder to get them (from my company) if you want to go.

Posted by: Howard Owens at March 14, 2003 12:11 AM

Matt: I'll still complaining about France. There is a lot to complain about. I'll just be nicer about it. I need to go easier on the peaceniks, too. I banned myself from the subject for a while so I can keep from being reactionary. Lord help me if I start saying Pave France.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 14, 2003 12:26 AM

Wish there were an Edit button. "Complaining" above should be "complain."

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 14, 2003 12:27 AM

I think they should be called "frog fries" since that's much more derogatory. The term "freedom fries" is just too tacky.

I also don't think the U.S. should be befriending socialist countries like Germany and France. I can't believe we spent 50 years defending Germany from the communists only to see the Germans vote them into office.

For all the drama and whining about Iran-contra,
even the Nicaraguans voted out the Sandinistas when all was said and done.

Who knows, looks as if we did the right thing in central America and as it turns out it was the Western Europeans whom we were denying the will of the people and preventing them from achieving their true aspirations.

Posted by: brandon adamson at March 14, 2003 12:54 AM

Anyway, french fries should be renamed Belgian Fries, they invented it and still cook the best ones. Get a clue Rep. Ney (a relative of the Maréchal Ney ?... this would be pathetic).
Great column by the way...

Posted by: philippe at March 14, 2003 03:35 AM

I couldn't concentrate on the column. There were too many asterisked words that kept ambushing me.

Me: (reading) uh-huh uh-huh ok ok

Asterisks: SMACK! BLAM!

Me: Aaaaaaah not again! The humanity of it all....

lol

:)

Posted by: vlad at March 14, 2003 12:13 PM

Let me forlay that we endly rid our good English tongue of *all* outlander inflows, borning new words as needed.

Posted by: Lonewacko at March 14, 2003 12:44 PM

Many good points to consider. I would like to add one more. (I may be adding this one again, but I am almost certain I hit CANCEL rather than POST).

I've enjoyed a number of the jokes regarding France, but what I cannot abide is the indignant expectation of obligation many Americans expect from the French for deeds of the past.

YES.....They helped us at Yorktown
YES.....They gave us the Statue of Liberty
YES.....The tide turned in WWI when the US entered
YES.....The Nazis were sitting Paris cafes in WWII until we routed them out.

Historical scorekeeping may be fun, but there is no real obligation from any of these acts. In each case, the "helping" hand was acting in its best interest, as both countries believe to be doing today. (Statue of Liberty was an exception, that was a Birthday Gift!)

If the noble acts of the fathers can be passed to the sons, then the sins come along too. If one believes France "owes" the USA for "saving its butt" from the Third Reich, then he get out his checkbook. There are a few reparations he'll need to make to African-Americans and Native Americans.

I support the administration. I am an advocate for invasion--the sooner, the better. But I did not storm the beaches of Normandy, so no Frenchman is indebted to me.

Posted by: Lance at March 14, 2003 01:31 PM

Steve W: Oh poo, this is why I have to remember not to post angry. Actually I am from Virginia, and of course you're right about the place. I was mostly upset about the piling on Massachusetts, which is where I am now. The rest was hyperbole for which I apologize.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin at March 14, 2003 02:46 PM

Matt,

In your admirable attempt to be the voice of moderation, you minimize what France is doing and overstate the "chilling" effect that French-bashing may have on other allies.

If France were merely advising us that it disagrees with U.S. policy, or was offering alternative policies or suggestions quietly, no one would be dumping French wine in the sewer or trying to rename "French Fries."

If France was merely being publicly vocal in its opposition, like Canada, the level of hostility towards it would not be as keen.

Instead, France is actively and publicly trying to underming the United States. It calls us haughty and unilateral Eastern European countries who support us to shut up or risk exclusion from the EU. It boxed its fellow EU nations into either abandonning the sanctions against Mugabe or allowing Mugabe to visit France, so that France could engineer and announce a pan-African statement against the U.S. It tried to block NATO from defending fellow NATO member Turkey, threatening the viability of that institution.

I have lived in France, met my (American) wife in France and love Paris and Provence. But I have regretfully come to the conclusion that our differences are not mere policy differences over how to get rid of Saddam, but rather that France actually wants the United States to fail. Based upon France's willingness to see all of the institutions it professes to support severely damaged, I would not be surprised if France were to offer intelligence or other covert assistance to Saddam.

Unless your hypothetical Portugal or Bulgaria is not vehemently trying to undermine our policy, I do not think that it would feel inhibited from expressing skepticism or advice to the U.S., or even to sit this one out.

I also believe that France has been as successful as it has been because it (and the rest of the world) think we will merely shrug it off and go back to business when this is over. Unfortunately, I belive we have to change that impression, and France will have to be the prime example. Finally, I renaming fried potatos will be nothing compared to the U.S. antipathy toward France that will result if: a) we suffer casualties attributable to the delay in attacking Iraq; b) there is a substantial loss of life among Iraqi civilans due to measures Saddam put in place in the last few weeks; or c) it comes out that France has been working with Iraq during the past 12 years.

I have enjoyed your blog since shortly after 9/11 believe you definitely are reasonable and open minded, and wish you lukc with the new paper, but I think you minimize France's treachery.

Posted by: Thom at March 14, 2003 03:08 PM

Bush Announces 'Nanny-Nanny Boo Boo' Legislation

Posted by: Oliver at March 14, 2003 03:20 PM

Point somewhat taken, but you know, the really important difference between jokingly saying "Pave France" and saying "Kill the Jews" is that only one has been actually tried.

Personally, I think we shoould have really stuck it to France by changing them from "French Fries" to "Pommes Freedom." Take that!

Posted by: Mike G at March 14, 2003 06:32 PM

Excuse me.. but the Brits are our "oldest and most trusted allies," as compared to the French, no less? What about the Revolutionary War? Did we have some sort of major falling-out with the French since then?

Posted by: neil at March 14, 2003 10:33 PM

"Oh, I don't have anything against you *personally,* it's just your government."
People who say this don't understand the first thing about America. We are the government,it's "of the people by the people and for the people." Even if you didn't vote for GWB, and aren't a hawk. American citizens are the government. You Europeans can't criticize American government without criticizing me.

Posted by: billhedrick at March 15, 2003 10:07 AM

And, really, the same thing is true of most Western countries (France included). While it's true that the US governmental structure is somewhat different from the more typical multiparty parliamentary republic, the uniqueness of the American system is often exaggerated.

And while it's true that we get the government we vote for, it's easy to feel alienated from the federal government if all three branches are currently run by people ideologically distant from you.

Yet I still bristle when outsiders speak of the US as the Focus of Evil in the Modern World. One thing I've noticed is that the degree of American love for George W. Bush is vastly exaggerated in the foreign press. I think they latched onto the desperate rallying around the president just post-Sept. 11, 2001 and never got the memo that this ever changed.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin at March 15, 2003 11:44 AM

Quoted a chunk of this and linked to it here, Matt.

I think it's perfectly possible to be rightfully critical of France's (and Germany's) errors and foolishness and even maliciousness -- just as it's possible to be rightfully critical of America's same -- and still -- mon dieu! -- maintain proportionality and reason about it.

But I'm just That Way, darn it.

Posted by: Gary Farber at March 15, 2003 07:00 PM

I think the silliness will fade quickly; we have much more serious things on our minds, especially with the invasion about to commence. In the months and years ahead we will have plenty of opportunities to adjust our international affairs to realign with our strategic requirements and realities - many of which will not include France, but some will. In the meantime, it is only natural that we seek ways to express our immediate displeasure, especially when there is a perception that Allied lives are put at risk by Franco-German hypocrisy and cynicism. We will get over it - we always do. And if France or Germany gets in trouble and asks for our help, we will give it - we always do. So lighten up a little. We are about to shed some blood for Chrissakes, and this is a fairly harmless and short-term way to blow off some steam.

Posted by: bartleby at March 17, 2003 02:39 PM

Glenn gives good advice. The column is worth reading. Intelligence is often but a matter of seeing things before others do. A blind spot of bloggers is that they are very often way ahead of the crowd-a crowd with normal IQ's, with much less education, with more fear and more to lose.

Posted by: leon dixon at March 18, 2003 05:20 AM

The problem is that the US is the Hegemon at the moment. Since it is in effect responsible for the world (at least in as far as it and their interests coincide) it has a tendancy to carry the costs of "public goods".
This in effect causes a "free loader effect" and the slow decline of the USA relitively speaking. The more the USA tries to be the nobel inscrutable leader the shorter the time it will be able to stay leader at all.Besides the unplesant side effects of a change in hegemon, I think that the USA has done a good job - and therefore can see some justification (as a foreigner) for the USA acting in self interest to maintain its position.
Sure this may seem a long way away now and Europe itself is about as much threat to the USA power as zimbabwae (the EU is following the UN form of governance which they like so much and it will sink them). But it is this sort of regard for long term gooals which has seen sucess for countries like singapore and china.
Bringing it back to the topic I believe that China's relitively cynical foreign policy strategy has payed dividends in that they have lots of friends due to respect as opposed to massive financial donations. They havent had to send armies over seas and they are allowed to repress people in their own country without serious repucussions. They can basically run their foreign policy mroe efficiently (amongst other things).
I would rather live under a pragmatic USA governement than see the power shift (which i think would be unplesant) and live under either a expansionist chineese government or in the anarchy of isolationism

Posted by: Scott at March 18, 2003 04:58 PM

Matt Welch has lost the vote of all the Franco-Germans in the United States Of America!
Roman Alsace-Lorraine
Cliveden Mansions
17 Gregory Terrace
Spring Hill
Queensland
Australia
4000 Romanalsace@hotmail.com

Posted by: Roman Alsace-Lorraine at September 18, 2003 02:40 AM
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-a crowd with normal IQ's, with much less education, with more fear and more to lose.

Posted by: leon dixon at March 18, 2003 05:20 AM

The problem is that the US is the Hegemon at the moment. Since it is in effect responsible for the world (at least in as far as it and their interests coincide) it has a tendancy to carry the costs of "public goods".
This in effect causes a "free loader effect" and the slow decline of the USA relitively speaking. The more the USA tries to be the nobel inscrutable leader the shorter the time it will be able to stay leader at all.Besides the unplesant side effects of a change in hegemon, I think that the USA has done a good job - and therefore can see some justification (as a foreigner) for the USA acting in self interest to maintain its position.
Sure this may seem a long way away now and Europe itself is about as much threat to the USA power as zimbabwae (the EU is following the UN form of governance which they like so much and it will sink them). But it is this sort of regard for long term gooals which has seen sucess for countries like singapore and china.
Bringing it back to the topic I believe that China's relitively cynical foreign policy strategy has payed dividends in that they have lots of friends due to respect as opposed to massive financial donations. They havent had to send armies over seas and they are allowed to repress people in their own country without serious repucussions. They can basically run their foreign policy mroe efficiently (amongst other things).
I would rather live under a pragmatic USA governement than see the power shift (which i think would be unplesant) and live under either a expansionist chineese government or in the anarchy of isolationism

Posted by: Scott at March 18, 2003 04:58 PM

Matt Welch has lost the vote of all the Franco-Germans in the United States Of America!
Roman Alsace-Lorraine
Cliveden Mansions
17 Gregory Terrace
Spring Hill
Queensland
Australia
4000 Romanalsace@hotmail.com

Posted by: Roman Alsace-Lorraine at September 18, 2003 02:40 AM
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