Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Alexis de Tocqueville recognized a certain vanity in Americans unlike any other:

Americans, in their relations with foreigners, seem impatient of the slightest censure and insatiable in their appetite for praise. They are pleased by the merest of commendations and seldom satisfied by the fullest. They pester you constantly for your praise, and if you hold out against their importuning, they will laud themselves. Doubtful perhaps of their own merit, they wish to have its portrait constantly before their eyes. Their vanity is not only greedy but also restless and envious. It gives nothing yet is always asking to receive. It is simultaneously grasping and argumentative.

I say to an American that he lives in a beautiful country. He replies, “Yes, indeed, there is none other like it in the world!” I admire the liberty that its inhabitants enjoy, and he responds, “Liberty is a precious gift, but very few peoples are worthy of it.” I remark on the purity of morals prevailing in the United States: “I can imagine,” he says, “that a foreigner struck by the corruption that is so glaringly apparent in all other nations might be surprised by such a sight.” Ultimately I leave him to contemplate himself, but he returns to my side and refuses to leave until he has made me repeat what I have just told him. A patriotism more trying or loquacious is impossible to imagine. It wearies even those who honor it.

Democracy in America, II.3.16

Nicolas Sarkozy seems instinctively to have recognized this American vanity and decided to flatter rather than mock it. So he told a joint session of Congress yesterday that France could not get enough of us: of our GIs, of Elvis, of Ernest Hemingway and John Wayne. And we loved it, or at any rate our duly elected representatives for reasons best known to themselves pretended to lap it up. Perhaps they were feeling repentant for the orgy of French-bashing that broke out in Washington and the rest of the country a few years ago, or perhaps they were just vain, as Tocqueville believed, and not particularly bright or wise in the ways of the world.

In a letter to his mother dated May 14, 1831, Tocqueville had this to say:

The absence of wine with our meals was quite disconcerting at first, and we still cannot quite conceive of the multitude of things that people put in their stomachs here. Did you know that in addition to breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which the Americans eat ham, they also serve a very copious supper and frequently a snack? Thus far, this is the only respect in which I am prepared to grant that they are incontestably superior to us. But they believe that there are many others: the people here strike me as stinking with national pride. It shows through all their politeness.

"Stinking with national pride": one wonders if Nicolas is writing as frankly to his mother about his day with the Bushes.


Anonymous said...

Bien vu !
Strange how my feeling, as a French student in the early 80's, was exactly that described by Tocqueville. It seems it has remain intact in all these years.
Coming from a country which was often described as chauvinistic (in the sense of national pride), I felt we were in a small league compared to Americans.

Anonymous said...

Lucky Americans, experiencing for the first time that wonder of high intensity flattering and skillful button pushing : Our Dear Leader Sarko the 1st.

Ugh, ugh, ugh.

Maybe time to remind that, before he, Chirac once was "the most pro American president evah"? Encore un effort, US media! :)

dominic said...

Sarko and Bush:glamours couple ,a bit of maffia and it could be a great american movie.Sarkozy is dreaming of an oscar!