The problem with the French is that they have been looking down on Britain for the last millennium. The problem with that is the British ruled the world for about 200 years and left that dove-tailing reverence for France in a muddy hole around the time of Shakespeare. This left French pride in a peculiar place. Like and old aristocrat, they had forgotten how to respond with humility. So they doubled down and looked up, down their noses!
The result? An inability to take a compliment without spitting it back covered in venom:
American: What’s good about you French is that you don’t care about your politicians personal lives
French: Yes, well, we French have interesting lives of our own to concern ourselves with…
What is subtle here is the condescension. What the American is saying is ‘even though your country is an amusement park for me, I still see something done well’.
I want to illustrate this with a story:
Two men meet up after twenty years. They both went to collage together where Man 1 excelled. Man 2 was in awe of man 1 and his ability. But they spent the twenty intervening years very differently. Man 2 got job with a bank and made lots of money. He now drives a Ferrari, lives in a mansion and has a supermodel wife. Man 1 travelled the world for a while, working odd jobs, reading and considering many different ideas. He eventually settled and became a teacher which he has been doing now for 7 years. Let us listen in to a short but revealing conversation:
Man2: So you’re teaching? man i never saw you as a teacher…
Man2: With a brain like yours you could have made bank!
Man1: There are more important things than making money
Man 2 smiles at him with pity.
Man 2 has ticked every box that American culture raises to the level of virtue. He is rich and he shows that. He does not consider man 1’s objection valid because he reads from the good book of the almighty dollar. Man 1 knows that many people in this world would consider him a failure. Instead of getting out there and making it happen, he floated about the world and therefore wasted his god given talent. But man 1 knows what he cares about. He was sat at the table of silver spoons and caviar but got up and went out for hamburgers. Because man 1 likes hamburgers.
Man 2 does not understand that man 1 could never be happy with the wealth package. Man 1 could never feel satisfied sitting across the table from another who had fared worse in units of ‘american success’. Man 2 has never considered weather any other way of living could have value. He simply followed the bright light through the deep dark sea. Man 1 looked a little harder and saw the translucent jaws of the monster behind and he fled.
But do not get me wrong. Man 2 was perfectly right to follow the light. He believes that the central virtue in the life well lived is to make money. When he talks to the man who lives on the top of the hill he thinks to himself ‘this is what i want to be’ irregardless of what that man says. And what is to be despised is to live in an apartment, take the bus and wear the same coat for five years. He is living authentically because what he thinks, says and does are all in harmony. What makes him blind is that he is never challenged by any opinion that the majority profess. If he was transplanted to some isolated human colony on mars where being funny made you king, he would become confused. He would play with his Rolex and complain about the amount of gas his Ferrari burns and nobody would show any sign of respect. Man 1 on the other hand can see. He can see that being loyal to what you care about is the only authentic way to be. He therefore sees that they both live good lives even though they are completely different.
So we return to the French. They haven’t the gold or the power of the American (or what the British had), but they like the way they live and think. For them, being rich in culture is far superior to being rich in finance. So they won’t be looked down on by the guy who had Macdonalds for breakfast every day for the week he was in Paris. No, they will spit in his face the way he spat his word out of his fat chewing mouth. And who are we to blame them?