PEG tweeted yesterday criticism of what he takes as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s uncritical enthusiasm for France. Today TNC reports that he came down with food poisoning after eating one of those incredible roast-chicken-and-potatoes dinners you can buy on the street in Paris. So much for Paris-as-Disneyworld-for-Cosmopolitans! Anyway, in his latest dispatch from his summer in Paris, TNC writes about the temptation of idealizing the Other, and writes about how reading European thought and history has compelled him to realize the flaws in his education, and to see that he has a lot more in common with the people he used to see as Them:
For one such as myself, schooled on the savagery of Cortez and Pizarro, once inculcated with the theories of a natural impulse toward warfare among white people, raised up to seethe after the partition of Africa, it is still odd–a decade and a half after I left that world–to see myself in the image of people I once solely took as conquerors and barbarians.
I like to think I’ve come some ways since then, bearing the skepticism of those days, but free of the prejudice and the utopian romance. I like to think that I know that every home is imperfect, that I don’t come to France looking for something better than America, that I know that America is my own imperfect home. I like to think that you need worry about me going too zealous and hard. This is a great great trip. But it’s the food poisoning that makes it real.
I hope he finds a copy of James Baldwin’s remarkable 1955 essay about having a run-in with the Paris police, when he was falsely accused of a crime. Baldwin, who had left America in part to get away from its racism, discovered that the French police could be just as racist as the American cops, but it was harder to deal with because he didn’t understand the situation he was in. Excerpt:
I had no grasp of the French character either. I considered the French an ancient, intelligent, and cultured race, which indeed they are. I did not know, however, that ancient glories imply, at least in the middle of the present century, present fatigue and, quite probably, paranoia; that there is a limit to the role of intelligence in human affairs; and that no people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it. This price they cannot, of course, assess, but it is revealed in their personalities and in their institutions. The very word “institution,” from my side of the ocean, where, it seemed to me, we suffered so cruelly from the lack of them, had a pleasant ring, as of safety and order and common sense; one had to come into contact with these institutions in order to understand that they were also outmoded, exasperating, completely impersonal, and very often cruel. Similarly, the personality which had seemed from a distance to be so large and free had to be dealt with before one could see that, if it was large, it was also inflexible and, for the foreigner, full of strange, high, dusty rooms which could not be inhabited. One had, in short, to come into contact with an alien culture in order to understand that a culture was not a community basket-weaving project, nor yet an act of God; was something neither desirable nor undesirable in itself, being inevitable, being nothing more or less than the recorded and visible.
That is very, very wise, and wisdom hard-won.
The conventional idea is that exposure to other cultures helps us realize that we are all basically the same, in a comforting way, e.g., we all want to be loved and respected, we all want our kids to do well, etc. But sometimes exposure to other cultures can make us realize that their defects are also our own defects, though perhaps differently manifest. Similarly, we may choose to see these alien cultures selectively to justify our hatred of our own, or, conversely, to view the defects of alien cultures defectively in order to justify our defenses of our own.
When you’re in college and traveling in Europe, it’s common to run into fellow American students who are eager to trash their own country. I’m sure I did my share of that. Part of it is political, but I think for many of us — this was true for me — Europe has what we do not: the quality of being, in Baldwin’s phrase, “ancient, intelligent, and cultured.” It’s not, obviously, that Americans are stupid and uncultured, but rather that Europe, by virtue of many centuries of civilization, has inherited a degree of intelligence and culture that our far younger, and more dynamic, culture lacks.
As you get older, though, and more discerning, you come to realize that there is a reason more Europeans want to come to America than to stay in Europe, for all its cultural advantages. There are considerable down sides to the quality of being ancient, intelligent, and cultured. When I was in France last fall, I had a couple of lovely long lunches with PEG, who, though young, is intelligent and cultured, and is eager to get out of France and come to America. The weight of his country’s customs and institutions are weighing him down. He, like another entrepreneurial French friend of mine, is a creative sort with big dreams — dreams that he is convinced he cannot achieve in France.
My older French friend made it big in America but moved back to Europe, in part because for all of Europe’s problems, he found it to be a healthier culture in which to raise his children than America’s. This is something to consider when romanticizing America, just as the complaints this man, and PEG, make about France’s sclerotic economic and business environment should give we who are prone to romanticize Europe pause.
Anyway, TNC’s point about how his informal education — his reading, that is — is teaching him to see himself in people he only thought were barbarians, is also wise. It doesn’t make them any less barbaric; it only shows that inside us fine fellows lie hearts and minds that under different cultural circumstances could endorse barbarism. Indeed, I’m now reading Milosz’s The Captive Mind, about intellectuals who supported communism, and I’m finding a little too much of a younger, militantly Catholic me in Milosz’s description of why otherwise intelligent people sacrifice their minds to authority and causes. I’ll write more about this later, but rest assured I’m not saying that to be a Catholic (or any sort of Christian) is the same thing as being a Stalinist. But the temptations one faces when embracing any creed are not entirely dissimilar. I like to think that had I been born in communist Poland, I would have been a supporter of Solidarity, in the same way I like to think had I been born into the white supremacist South, I would have supported the civil rights movement. But I can’t say that, not if I’m honest.
At every banquet there is food poisoning.