The abyss separating what’s natural in the U.S. from what’s naturel in France grows even vaster when you consider the Middle East. Like our government, the American media clearly side with Israel, offering (for instance) far more coverage of suicide attacks on Jerusalem shopping centers than they do of raids on Gaza townships. Not so the French. It’s startling to see the Palestinians daily treated as an obviously tyrannized people (victims, as it were, of apartheid) and Ariel Sharon portrayed as little better than a murderous thug: He gets even worse press in Paris than Yasir Arafat gets in New York. The French see American policies toward the Proche Orient as somewhere between the clueless and the immoral, and I can only imagine how it would shift your preconceptions were you to be bombarded with such a perception every single day.
It is, of course, annoying to be hectored on the Middle East by a country so steeped in a tradition of anti-Semitism and so eager to keep profiting from its colonial connections to the Arab world. Still, the French attitude toward Israel and the Palestinians comes closer to general international opinion than anything Americans see on TV or read in any mainstream publication. What seems perfectly ordinary to us — supporting Sharon, shaking our fists at North Korea — strikes most of the globe as utterly unnatural.
Arriving back in the States, I spent a few days in Washington, D.C., regaining my star-spangled sense of what’s normal. The pay-TV in my hotel room was leeringly prudish, offering the familiar slate of bowdlerized “adult” films: All you see are the backs of bobbing heads and actresses giving orgasmic shrieks so unconvincing that even a Frenchman wouldn’t believe them. The Winter Olympics began in a flurry of commercials, not to mention the incessant babbling of “likable” Katie Couric and glib Bob Costas, who seemed to find it remarkable that the temperature would be in the 20s in Salt Lake City in February. Their fear of silence made me nostalgic for the dead time on the French Super Bowl broadcast.
D.C. is, of course, the world’s largest petrie dish for know-it-all pundits, and the commentators were busy troweling more concrete onto the conventional wisdom. TheWashingtonPost’s permanently furious Charles Krauthammer growled that “Arafat Must Go,” while Jim Hoagland and David Ignatius quickly acknowledged Europe’s grumbling about the “axis of evil” and le gigantisme militaire — then just as quickly dismissed it. Although Michael Kinsley did rightly object to Bush labeling North Korea “terrorist,” he did so with his usual A-student smugness, as if millions of people hadn’t noticed the same thing. Eerily, Bush’s policies have been more forcefully criticized by Republican Senator Chuck Hagel than anyone in the liberal press.
Although I’m told that Washington was near panic for two months after the plane hit the Pentagon, the city has largely returned to normal. Love-starved bureaucrats cruise Dupont Circle, The Palm is packed with lobbyists sporting mahogany tans. One morning I turned on the TV to watch one of those prayer breakfasts that politicians here never tire of attending. The group was addressed by Lisa Beamer, who, since her husband was killed on September 11, has become a media fixture — the plucky face of white, middle-class grief. Beamer is an attractive woman (she resembles Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive), and each time I see her, she’s slicker. Five months after her husband’s death, she has become as confidently plasticized as any network anchorwoman; her face appears hermetically sealed off from the pain she’s surely feeling. In a world full of unnatural acts, few are more invidious than the networks encouraging Beamer to bottle up her real emotions and become America’s Widow.