“My God,” Sandi exclaimed, “is that woman being sodomized?”
It was shortly before Saturday midnight in Clermont-Ferrand, a provincial city that’s like the Bridgeport of France but with better food. We’d just returned to our hotel, and I began channel surfing to see what the locals watched instead of Saturday Night Live. My fingers froze on the remote: A naked woman was performing an exceedingly unnatural act with three men in Roman military garb. It turns out we’d tuned into Le Journal duHard, a weekly program devoted to previewing hardcore films — in this case, an epic sexfest called Gladiator X. And the amazing thing was that we hadn’t stumbled onto some subscribers-only channel for masturbatory weirdoes. This was Canal+, a mainstream network known for backing classy art films. The two of us sat there gaping, as if we’d clicked on A&E only to find Inspector Morse whipping out an erection the size of a baguette. “You know, San,” I told her sagely, “the old ditty is right. The French really are a funny race.”
But then again, so are Americans. The next night I stayed up until 4 a.m. watching that same network’s live coverage of the Super Bowl, with a sardonic French announcer and an American color-man whose accent made me feel better about my own: “Luh de-fons doo Patriots,” he’d say, “eh tray formy-dobble.” Naturellement. It really was a terrific game, yet what I remember most about it was the fact that Canal+ showed it with no commercials. Whenever there was a time-out, the camera stayed in the stadium. Sometimes, you’d get a miniprofile of Marshall Faulk or Tom Brady, but mainly you just watched the fans looking bored and the players anxiously waiting for the latest batch of multimillion-dollar ads to end so they could get back on the field. God, there was a lot of dead time! And though I thought I already knew this, I finally grasped the extent to which The Most Important Game of the Year is actually designed to showcase The Most Important Commercials of the Year. In fact, without the ads, even a thrilling game felt poky, flat, abnormal.
These days, it’s the media’s job to define what we think of as natural — to set the limits of what is normal, comfortable, allowed. Back in the early ’80s, Jean-Luc Godard remarked that any French TV channel would happily show a five-hour program about Maoism if it ran from 7 p.m. until midnight on a single night, but if you made 10 separate half-hour shows to be broadcast 10 nights running, no channel would ever air them. Why? Because the five-hour version could be written off as a special event, and therefore extraordinary, whereas 10 half-hour shows would imply that it was perfectly natural to think about Maoism every single day. Repetition would make Mao’s ideas seem like a normal part of life, just as we Americans now think it’s normal to watch previews and postmortems of Super Bowl commercials (not to mention the commercials themselves) and find it natural that our TV channels, even supposedly sophisticated ones like Bravo, will cut a classic film rather than show the most harmless glimpse of a nipple or penis.
We had left America amid an unsettling blizzard of boffo reviews for Bush’s state-of-the-union address. But in France, we entered a world in which Bush’s “axis of evil” line was no longer admired as a sly hybrid of World War II idiom and Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech. The French media were aghast at what seemed to be our administration’s scattershot bellicosity. Foreign Minister Hubert Vidrine won vast praise by calling Bush’s vision of the world “simplistic.” Le Monde’s front page featured an article with the derisive headline “President Bush Names His Enemies.” It was accompanied by a caricature of the president decked out in camouflage gear and a pretzel-induced bandage on his cheek.
The press grew even nastier when Bush proposed his $48 billion boost in the Pentagon’s budget, an increase that is itself 50 percent more than France’s total annual expenditure on defense. The papers were filled with complaints about “le gigantisme militaire de Bush.” The conservative daily Le Figaro (whose editorial pages bristled with disdain for the anti-globalization meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil) bridled at America’s arrogant grandiosity; the weekly magazine Marianne devoted its cover to photos of “Les Terroristes” — you know, Carlos the Jackal, Ayman Zawahiri, George W. Bush. I suspect you won’t be seeing anything like that in the checkout line at Ralphs.
To be sure, some of this is simply the knee-jerk anti-Americanism that’s long been a distinctive feature of French culture — as early as the 1850s, the Catholic utopian Phillippe Buchez was already calling the U.S. (yep) “evil.” Yet, rejection of the so-called Bush Doctrine isn’t only some frenchified pique over dwindling national importance. As Salman Rushdie pointed out in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, anti-American feeling is becoming increasingly routine throughout much of the planet, even among our closest allies. In London, Rio or Bangkok, it’s now reflexive to scoff at America’s claims to represent virtue and to resent the way the Bush administration insists that you’re either for us or against us. Libérationapprovingly quoted a foreign diplomat who said, “We’re told we have the responsibility to fight terrorism, but we don’t get to be part of the decisions.”