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Monday, February 17, 2003


"Good example of lack of French hatred in mainstream media: Jack Lang, ex-Minister of Culture and ex-Minister of Education, said that 'George Bush and Osama bin Laden were a same enemy' during an interview on French cable news channel LCI.

"Un bon exemple du manque de haine dans les médias de masse en France Jack Lang, ex-Ministre de la Culture et ex-Ministre de l'Education a déclaré sur la chaîne d'information de la télévision cable 'George Bush et Oussama ben Laden, même combat'".

Lang Interview

Ovewrought remarks, of course, this babble of Lang's, which most of us might regard as extravagantly silly and maybe just plain nuts, but that are fully in line with what Jean-Francois Revel observed about the obsessively manical anti-Americanism dominant in French intellectual and political life. (See yesterday's commentary about Revel and l'Obsession antiamericaine). All of which leads us to the topic of the day, involving no one less than Jack Lang, then the Minister of Culture in the Socialist era of President Francois Mitterand in the 1980s. Nothing short, when seen in retrospect, of a determinedly Looney Tune exemplar of wildly uncoiled French anti-Americanism at the highest levels --- and French hypocrisy run rampant, too, in the same circles and elsewhere . . . an episode, as you'll see, of such consummate idiocy and politically correct apeshit that if you didn't trust what you read in the newspapers about it, you'd swear it was really the script for a new Inspector Clousseau film, played hilariously by the ultra-prim, ultra-bumbling Peter Sellers in all previous Clousseau films, but this time starring third-rate ham-actors temporarily out of work in the soft-porn industry.


Sounds almost Orwellian, no? Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Newspeak.

Something like Obrien Thought Police anyway, probably to ensure orthodoxy in the arts and literature, not to forget the use of proper Newspeak --- which in France these days means this: if you're a journalist or teacher or professor, or a member of the other official bureaucracies (more than 50% of the French work force), you can be reprimanded or fined if you dare let English or American words slips into your writing. Something, by the way, almost impossible to avoid . . . mainly because the French language, like all other aspects of French cultural life, is regulated by officialdom, in this case l'Academie Francaise, and is rigidly resistant to new words. Is that possible, what with all the enormous advances and changes in the technologices of communication and style of life the last century or so? Yes, perfectly possible . . . thanks to the guard-dog mentality of the fews dozen old-timers, the largely worn-out, half-fossilized overseers in l'Academie, most of whom, as they struggle up and down the stairs to the Academie's chambers, seem afraid of learning something new in their onsetting dotage, such as how to use a computer. No, not a jibe; rather a sound inference. Consider this: President Chirac, just finished with a speech urging the French in 1996 to open up and be more responsive to computer technologies, was shown on French TV visiting an office building somewhere -- more or less in the lofty style of Louis IX, the Sun King, deigning to mix with commoners to show what a swell guy he was, a toady at his side with a perfumed handkerchief held nearby the Sun King's delicate nose to ward off the peasants' body odor of sweat and cow-shit --- and then pointing at a little white device next to a PC, wrinkling his brow, and asking in all ingenuity what that was. Most of us call it a mouse.

The French Guard-Dogs are like that --- great at urging others to make sacrifices for them, a habit, come to think of it, not confined to the French peasants and urban-dwellers these days. Consider the Internet. It's virtually impossible to use or deal with it in any manner without using American terms; and though French officials have labored to find French equivalents in the quest to beat back the invasion of American words over the last half century, their translations are almost always windy and cumbersome compared to the original. Take browser. The first officially endorsed equivalent that all officialdom and journalists and advertising and all other media were to use was "un logiciel de navigation" . . . which, needless to observe, is quite a mouthful. So the legal and word-guardian elite labored and labored and came up with a nifty equivalent, now stamped with approval: "un browser." And if you let the simple American words slip in --- as everybody in France does, no help for it --- you risk having the Obrien Thought-Police show up and fine you . . . in principle anyway, and sometimes in reality.

Other Activities

So what else does a Minister of Culture do besides rap Frenchmen on the knuckles for using Americanisms?

Well, in France, the most statist country in the democratic world, you have a long tradition since WWII in which the ruling elites ---faced with the emergence of an affluent mass population for the first time, a prospect sending chilly fears up and down their spines lest the average Frenchman make an untutored, uninformed, unenlightened, unguided, ungainly choice of what to eat, drink, read, watch, or do in his leisure time, now that it was abundantly available --- decided, early on, as the masses got education and money to spend, to create a centralized Ministry and bureaucracy, later supplemented with a Minister for the Quality of Life, for staving off the threat of mass misuse of mass literary and resources. The Ministry's primary purpose: by a variety of means, all under the control of a rigidly centralized bureaucracy, to inform intellectuals, artists, journalists, and media-specialists what's acceptable or not when it comes to creating or appreciating appreciate novels, poetry, drama, television, radio, films, painting, and sculpture. Coaxing, encouragement, and education weren't enough. you see.

In the elite view dominant in officialdom, what's needed is a lavish use of subsidies for establishment creators who willingly toe the elite and bureaucratic line --- and not just subsidies, mind you; censorship too, especially for radio and television and (until the departure of de Gaulle and after) for films as well . . . Kubrick's brilliant Paths of Glory, distributed in 1957, banned in France until 1974. It showed the French militry command, after all, in a bad light. Can't let that happen. Next thing you know, the French will start wondering whether their political leaders aren't venal and up to their necks in corruption. And, topping it all, an energetic bureaucratic use by the Ministry of various regulations and laws, backed by fines, for punishing the use of such barbarisms as English and American words that defied the elite control of French by l'Academie Francaise --- such as "le weekend" for la fin de la semaine or "le rush" for a harried hot-wire period of strain (no equivalent) or as we've seen hundreds of cyberspace words for which the French language --- its evolution controlled by old fuddy-duddy types elected to the l'Academie Francaise --- has no equivalent except cumbersome phrases or a surrender to American English.

French Creativity Down the Tubes

The upshot of all these subisides, regulations, laws, fines, and verbal keelhauling of all suspected pro-American subversives?

Largely mediocre cultural creativity, the opposite of what has been intended.

Not so in the past, of course. Far from it. All these cultural activities--- novels, drama, poetry, painting, sculpture, photography, short stories, architecture, music, and eventually films too --- were once artistic endeavors in which French creators and innovators excelled, their work gleaming with distinction. For that matter, so was the stress on clear, rigorous French --- not the bastardized German stuff, imported into French by Sartre and other intellectuals after WWII, that some French observers who remember the thrust toward clarity, not post-modernist pretention and obfuscation, call l'Hexagonal (a windy way French school kids are taught to say "la France.") This period of clarity and impressive high-octane creativity and innovation lasted roughly 125 years, from the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 until the start of WWII.

It was then, with good reason, that numerous foreign writers and artists of distinction found Paris a hotbed of creative billiance and stimulation and moved there, living and studying for a few years or --- like the Spaniards Miro and Picasso or the Americans Gertrude Stein and Julian Green --- staying on forever. That period ended in the early 1950s. How times have changed. For over 50 years now, with few exceptions --- very few --- French creativity in the arts and literature and architecture has sputtered or disappeared. The last French novelist and short-story writer of distinction, Albert Camus, a great writer whose works I continue to read and admire, died in an automobile accident in 1960. The last great French painters soon died after WWII. Even in films, alas --- after the initial burst of the breakthrough cinema of Le Cahiers de Cinema's group of journalists-turned directors, all inspired by Hollywood films as opposed to classical French filmmaking: meaning essentially the trio of Truffaut, Malle, and Godard in the early to mid-1960s --- creativity and imagination have waned or turned sour. So that, in the wake, another great film talent, Bernard Travier, has had trouble coming up with a good script or film since 1981 ("Coup de Torchon," Clean Slate, starring the dazzling actor, Phillipe Noiret in the French adaptation of the pioneer American crime writer, Jim Thompson, transferred from the segregated South to French colonial Africa).


Though lots of French intellectuals are aware of the cultural barreness --- it's the subject of numerous books --- few of them, never mind the bureaucrats and the Ministers, trace it back to a rigidly centralized and bureaucratric direction of most aspects intellectual and cultural life since WWII and the marked decline of French creativity and artistic talent ever since. Any more, come to that, than they connect it to the emergence of a bureaucratic, no less rigidly run education system, all commanded by a top-heavy Parisian Ministry from pre-school through university and post-graduate schools, that pushes the middle classes through like sausage makers: however diverse the thinking and creativity of young kids when they enter school, they all end up ---like bits and chunks of beef and pork in the sausage factories turning out the same in their pork casings -- talking and seeing intellectual and artistic life in uniform, conformist terms.

Note that this top-heavy bureaucratized system, with an ever expanding, underpaid university system at the top, is also a fairly recent creation. It got under way only at the end of the 19th century, and in its modern form, essentially from the 1920s on, with a huge expansion in the post WWII era. That was when the modern baccalaureate was created. At its start in the early 1920s, 20,000 would sit for the exams at age 18 or 19, and half pass. Nowadays, when French universities have expanded 20-fold in student population since 1950, twenty times that number take the exams, and about 75% pass. And then on into universities of distressing mass size, anonymity, and built-in alienation, a French student lucky if, in the course of years of study, he or she ever talks to a professor at all.

L'Obsession antiamericaine to the rescue

Whose fault is it then in the prevailing French view?

Silly question. By now, you should know. The buggy prof himself is writing this in Santa Barbara, itself located in the greedy, commercialized hegemon out to dominate others that's at fault. Yep, the US . . . more specifically, American culture and science and technology and food and television and books and scholarship and movies and music, all coordinated by the miscreants in charge . . . whoever they happen to be (Reagan, Bush-Jr, Hollywood, Donald Rumsfeld, the CEO of McDonald's, Mickey Mouse, Ma and Pa Kettle, JR in Dallas as you'll soon see, CNN, and l'Amerique profonde---Middle America as the French put it).

Lucky French in the 19th and early 20th century, by contrast.. They didn't face a rigid educational system, any more than they had to cater to the whims and tastes of a Minister of Culture if they wanted subsidies or preferred to use French as they wanted or pursued journalism without worries about censorship if the state were involved.


All of which brings us to the idiotic episode stage-managed by Jack Lang, the Socialist Minister of Culture back in the Socialist-Communist government dominated by President Francois Mitterrand, dealing mainly, as it turned out, with an American TV drama, serialized for years in the 1980s --- Dallas, to use its name --- that became a high-coiled cultural obsession among the French: loved by the French public, but abominated by the betters-in-charge of French taste and intellectual life . . . or so it seemed on the face of it. On the face of it. Keep that in mind. As for those of you too young too remember, Dallas --- and a subsequent spinoff called Denver --- were popular American weekly dramas about the chicaneries and hi-jinx of wealthy families in those two cities; year after year, throughout that decade --- topped eventually by another hammy serial called Santa Barbara (far more popular in France and Europe than in the US) --- the yarns and antics of these well-heeled, cynically charged families, shot up and multiplied on TV screens around the world with a speed matched only, it seems, by the mating habits of Australian rabbits and their ability to procreate 1000 fold in a decade. By 1983 or so, the weekly audience for Dallas alone was said to be about a billion world-wide. A billion! Nothing quite like it before really; or ever since.

And this included almost all of France. I know. I was doing some research in that country during the summer of 1983, and it seemed everybody you ran into was swept away with the need to chatter about the two programs. In a bookstore in Avignon, a large one, a whole section was devoted to books and magazines about Dallas and its stars, all in French.

Enter our Socialist heroes, out to save France and the world from American popular culture.

The chief hero, the one with power anyway, was Francois Mitterand --- elected to the French Presidency in 1981 and repeating it again in 1988: a man so secretive and duplicitous that one of his closest associates and the head of a Socialist government, Premier Michel Rocard, later described him publicly as a systematic liar . . . congenitally incapable of telling the truth or even distinguishing it from a lie. Seems sound; no exaggeration. As we eventually learned, Mitterand hid his background as a Vichy agent in WWII serving the Germans; hid his role as the French Interior Minister in the late 1950s who did nothing to stop systematic French torture in the Algerian war; hid his second family he remained married to despite his first family and continued marriage; hid his sickness from the French public that ate away his brain while in office; and presided over a debauch of corruption that has exceeded anything of the Chirac era. For that matter, Mitterand's son, a gun-salesman, became a billionaire thanks to copious sales of French weaponry to vicious totalitarian and authoritarian regimes in the developing world (more French le gloire, apparently; but never discussed in France in the Mitterand days). Why? a Socialist, Mitterand wsas beloved by the pc-radicals and pc-piffling pundits in much of Europe and some equivalent here.

Mitterand and his personal friend Jacques Lang --- the latter, as it happened, a great lover of freedom, who enjoyed vacations fishing on the dictator Fidel Castro's yacht off the coast of Cuba, Fidel and him photographed with big cigars in their mouths lounging on the boat with the hangers-on and hired hookers visible on the upper decks (all this, recall, while 10 million Cubans languished in a state-controlled island prison where they are confined by force, told daily what they could say or do or watch or read or when they might even pray) --- Mitterand and Lang, together the Mutt & Jeff team of the French leftie world, hatched a scheme to put America's mushrooming cultural impact in its place. How? By imitating Louis XIV -- the Sun King, "l'etat c'est moi" at the height of French power in the late 17th century; specifically, in this case, by summoning hundreds of politically correct, toe-the-line intellectuals of radical pedigree from around the world to a chat-fest in Paris. Lavishly financed, of course, at taxpayer expense. The year: 1982. With alacrity, always ready to congregate at others' expense --- "Have Loose-Tongue, Will Travel" --- the second- and third-rate intellectual apparatchiki around the world responded to the clarion call. Traveling first-class, many from Communist and developing country dictatorships with starving masses and ruined environments; many, maybe most, supporting actively the Soviet empire in the cold war still being waged (Lenin's "useful idiots" if from the democratic West), hundreds of high-living radicals descended on Socialist Paris for a full week's stay at one of the city's most costly hotels, the Ritz if memory doesn't fail me. Complete, it was reported in the press, with generous hooker-services and as much booze and rich cuisine as they could woof down.


The ostensible aim of the conference? Remember, to see what could be done to stymie and force back the expanding influence of American popular culture, which was then being gobbled up not least in France by the French masses . . . the early 1980s, you also need to remember, being the era of Disneyland in France, McDonalds' hamburgers, the continued impact of American literature that went back to the 1930s, American science-fiction and le serie noire, American music, and American television and films: Dallas at the forefront here. And, as it happened, at the forefront of the conference's discussions, a new l'Obsession antiamericaine, crazy-house style.

Very quickly, that television program --- which the assembled radical highbrows seemed to know far more thoroughly than any American I ever met --- took center-stage at the chatterbox conclave, where it was denounced and assaulted, hour after hour, days on end, as just the single greatest threat to mankind since the perfidious British had captured and burnt Joan of Arc at the stake some five centuries earlier. On and on, with of course plenty of interruptions for lavish 5 course meals, costly cognac, premier cru wine, cigars (Havanas, of course), and rich gooy pastries, the intellectuals in situ at the Ritz Hotel obsessed and fulminated about the JR dynasty and its petty machinations and chicaneries and how it symbolized the greed of mankind and its worst forms of vulgarity. Capitalism run rampant, in short --- the culmination of American vulgarity, capitalism, greed, chicanery, machinations, and the quest to dominate. The French delegation, especially Socialist Jack Lang, was shocked! JUST SHOCKED! that something allegedly cultural or with pretentions to art could stoop to such levels. Huh? All this hokum in the country, mind you, where Honore Balzac and Emile Zola are rightly honored as great novelists, along with Flaubert: three writers who depicted at length, in numerous volumes, the cupidity, greed, selfishness, and sheer clapper-clawing cruelty of French families at all levels of French life .. . . from the royalty to the aristocrats and the haute bourgeoisie and the nouveau bourgeoisie in the cities and the pawky peasants and the workers too.

But then, the hypocrisy here was still top-skimming. It would get worse on Saturday, the last day of the conference.

How so?

By then, the hot-air conference and its loquacious two-legged wind-machines were meeting for the sixth day. Evening began settling in, the booze and the cuisine settling in as well on their brains, the human windmills were whirring madly with blazing speed once more about the evils of Dallas and American TV once more. Only . . . well, at one moment, one of the radical intellectuals present --- his eyes not entirely drooped shut from all the cognac and gassy windbag stuff stuffed down his gullet--- looked up and yelled suddenly that it was 7:50 PM. 7:50!! Mon Dieu!! Mon Dieu!! Que c'es tard!!! A moment later, surges of adrenaline were crashing through hundreds of boozed-out brains. Quickly, a few fingers burnt in doing so, stinky Gaulloise cigarettes were crushed madly into ash-trays --- costly Havanas too, the surplus value of semi-slave laborers back in wonderland Cuba; cognac and whisky left in glasses went down in a gulp. Tables were shoved forward, chairs scraped loudly, some to the floor in a clatter; and a abruptly a crush of the gas-bag jaunters began elbowing and clapper-clawing their way forward to the exits. Out in the lobby, a further crush, elbows and shoulders working hard as the intellectual cream of anti-American radicals all pushed toward the elevators. First floor, second floor . . . up to the penthouses for the Communist Party elites. Scuttling to their rooms, one and all, the intellectual gas-baggers slammed shut the doors, yanked the curtains close, took the receiver off the phone, and then . . .

Well, then what?


Turned on the telly, that's what. At 8:00 P.M., you see, the latest French-speaking installment of "Dallas" was being played. The conference-hopping intellectuals wouldn't miss it for anything. To a person they gobbled it up --- devotees to the end; and not just in Paris obviously.

And there's more.

The New York Times, reporting on this prententious, off-the-wall hypocrisy, quoted a French official who knew Mitterand well that the Sun-King President was so enamored of "Dallas" that he couldn't wait for Saturdays to see the latest of JR's machinations (always involving money or women or intra-family squabbles or cross-family conflicts). Instead, he had instructed the French Embassy in Washington to record "Dallas" on Tuesday nights when it played in America, then to fly it on the Concorde the next morning to Paris, so he and --- guess who --- his great friend Jack Lang could gobble up the misdeeds and awful awful nature of American capitalism and hi-jinx in English.