Friday, March 13, 2009

Franco-American Spaghetti

In my childhood my mother occasionally served some awful glop out of a can labeled "Franco-American Spaghetti." What this mess had to do with France, America, or spaghetti was never clear to me, but the amalgam has stuck in my mind as the perfect symbol for what goes wrong when comparative analysis goes off the rails for want of proper methodological precautions. Henry Farrell gives, as always, the careful, nuanced statement of this metaphorical condemnation. But Ross Douthat, who is soon to become the NY Times' conservative pundit of the hour, replacing the unlamented Bill Kristol, ignores Henry's warning and plunges right ahead with the conservative anathema of the hour: Obama is turning America into "France."

But saying "let's not turn into France" is a form of shorthand, not a rigorous comparison of systems: It's a way of saying "let's not dramatically change the relationship between the American state and American society," at a time when both short-term politics and long-term trends make a substantial change seem possible.

As Henry notes,

.... the claim is that America will become ‘France,’ not that America will become France. The ‘France’ of Cohen and Crook’s articles is less a country than a numinous state of being, consisting primarily of state-provided everything, laziness (both enjoyable and otherwise) and very good cheese. It has no actual inhabitants (excepting, perhaps, Peter Beagle’s imaginary Mr. Moscowitz who at the last became so French that France itself was no longer good enough for him).

Indeed. Let's hope that the editors at the Times will hold Douthat to a higher standard of argument. But given the enormities that they allowed Kristol to get away with, I doubt that much hope is warranted.

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