Illustration by Winston Smith
Shortly after Bushs dubious ascent to office, I drove my friend Dara Schlissel to LAX. She was, as she had been threatening to do, moving to Paris. Threatening isnt the right word. Weeks prior to her departure, even before Bush was elected, her theoretical move to the City of Lights was more something for us to discuss over coffee and cigarettes than a threat. After all, she wasnt petulant about moving. She was considered and sober, and of course I didnt believe her. I mean, Alec Baldwin had threatened the same thing and hes still around; it doesnt look like hes skipped a beat (or a meal) in three and a half years. Nobody really leaves anymore, do they? Besides, our friendship had been growing for less than a year, a blip in the lifespan of true friendship. I didnt want her to go. We were both underemployed and chatty who was I going to share afternoon cigarettes and coffee with? She rolled and brewed her own. Theres just not enough of that kind of thing in this world.
I was jealous of Paris. What did it have over L.A.? I said bad things about the French and Paris. I said good things about Americans and Los Angeles. I talked about all the Parisians I had met who were the most L.A. Angelenos I knew, with their thrift-store cowboy shirts and worship of Quentin Tarantino. Dara talked about an increasingly alienating culture both here and across the country gas guzzling, video violence, money for nothing, right-wing witch-hunts. She said it was a culture that was already fast moving toward moral bankruptcy even before the 2000 elections.
Then came Bushs coup détat, and while I stood across from the Federal Building in Westwood holding signs, Dara packed her bags. As I drove her to the airport, I remembered that during the height of Nixons hypocrisy in Vietnam, my parents sold the house in suburban New Jersey and moved us to Ireland. We came back when he was out of office. Now I wonder when my friend will return. I wish Alec Baldwin had gone instead. Following is an abridged version of an e-mail exchange in which I asked Dara about the nature of her ex-patriotism.
L.A. WEEKLY: Why France? Was it a romantic notion fueled by tales of expats past? Take me through the mindset that led you to flee.
DARA SCHLISSEL: Im not sure I would use the word flee. I have a long history with Paris, dating back to 1987, and had spent a semester here while in college. Frequently, I would go through phases where I was just pining for this city. While I started thinking about how I could have a more international life, I was also busy having no life in L.A., working constantly and not feeling in synch with my friends, just not finding my place, I suppose. Then, I launched EXPN.com [ESPNs extreme sports site] and immediately decided to take a quick break, to visit friends here in Paris, where I hadnt been since 1994. I arrived and it was like coming home. I saw a simpler, freer lifestyle, less encumbered by the acquisition of things and more rich where it matters to me culinary pleasure, socializing with friends and family, taking time to truly be where you are and experience life. Thats the personal side.
On the sociological and political side, the whole dot-com boom had started to repulse me a little, seeing 20-year-olds drive around in Mercedes SUVs and things like that. Despite the fact that I was a beneficiary of this boom, I just felt that something wasnt right, that people werent paying attention, that I wasnt even paying enough attention, and that at some point things would come crashing down to earth. Bushs ascension facilitated my disgust. I mean, the guy had never even traveled abroad. He didnt even know who the world leaders were, not their names. After all the information we had about how uneducated that man is, seeing the red-and-blue map the eve of the elections was something I found hard to swallow. By the elections I was already on my way.
Tell me about the different political and cultural atmospheres.
To respond to your question on a weekend such as this, one filled with editorials and opinions and reflections and personal anecdotes about D-Day and the Liberation, I have to warn you that Im feeling emotional. Having already shed tears twice while reading tales of a survivors American saviors and another of a German boys discovery of the GI with a gun and a smile saying, Hi, I may have a hard time remaining objective.
People here the newspapers and the people with whom I speak all feel similarly: Todays problems and fears are significantly more complex than the issues which divided and then united the Western Hemisphere during and after World War II. France, having lived through invasion and occupation and then liberation, is, simply put, more generally anti-war than its former liberator. This is a natural extension of what happens when youve been through it. And as a culture, the French manner of analyzing things is rooted in (and occasionally mired in) a much more spherical, multifaceted style than the American get to the point style of speech. That said, the countries share a great many traits that include cultural pride and a certain degree of arrogance. Most unfortunately, ignorance, stupidity and opinions are without borders. Simultaneously, the debate in Paris over domestic politics is certainly not the same debate taking place in the countryside, so my perspective is limited.
To be sure, however, politics is part of everyones conversations, everyones concerns. I think the current (perceived) apathy [in the States] is shocking and incomprehensible to the French. Every one of my friends is left, either Socialist or Green or even Communist. Work is important and, amongst the people I frequent, critical, but for many it is not the center of life. You can easily spend an entire evening talking with someone and never find out what he or she does for a living. The education system is intense, it is not unusual for children to be stressed over school, and as a teacher of business English I have seen many a traumatized former student.
A friend and I discussed some of the more general systemic differences the other day, and her analysis was very interesting. Protestantism, as we know the foundation of U.S. culture, has pillars in material gain or achievement as a sign of being selected, chosen, by God. In other words, the work ethic that binds Americans together and is responsible for the beauty of the American dream stems from the desire to be recognized and elevated by God and that in the afterlife this success, or achievement(s), will lead to heaven.
In France, the Catholic heritage is still, despite a much more clear and enforced separation of church and state, very present in the underlying behavior patterns of the people, especially pertaining to economic gain. For even if we take into account the riches of the Vatican, the underlying message retained and reinforced is that the meek shall inherit the earth, that those who focus on material gain will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
I dont have the theological or economics background to get into this argument in detail, but what strikes me as a truth is that somewhere between the unbridled capitalism and consumerism of the U.S. and the protectionist and socialist components of the French economic system sits something pretty interesting.
How did being in Paris on September 11, 2001, shape your reaction and your perception of that event, and how it has changed over time?
As a New Yorker, I felt personally wounded and terrorized by the event and, admittedly, deeply guilty for being so far away. At the same time, Im pretty sure being here through that period enabled me to maintain a certain degree of distance from the collective victimization complex and the demonization of dissent I was reading in the Times and other newspapers, which has greatly contributed to the U.S.s demise in standing vis-à-vis the rest of the world today. For example, Susan Sontags piece in the following weeks New Yorker on cowardice and bravery seemed to me to pose perfectly reasonable if philosophical and rhetorical questions. Yet she was declared a traitor for even daring to pursue alternate perspectives.
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Thomas Friedman, the highly esteemed N.Y. Times Middle East specialist, was writing in a tone that overflowed with his own pain, but it came across as someone standing in a corner stomping his foot in a tantrum, when in one of his columns he spoke about bringing U.S. history books to Saudi Arabian schools. I think these were moments when I saw hints of the consequences that this event could (and would) have on the press and its ability and desire to move freely, fulfilling its responsibilities to the public, and remain an objective information source.
Since then, the world has so obviously changed. What I experience now is through the filter of that dark day I imagine I am not alone. I work to not think about the state of things, and simultaneously I read more news online than ever before. The question of what would be different were I living in the U.S. looms large, mostly due to the global economic fallout and compounded by the cultural differences of the two countries regarding work.
But the U.S. as I knew and felt it doesnt really seem to exist anymore. The abuse and glaring dishonesty of the current administration have, for me, diminished most of the social and political pluses of the worlds foremost democracy. Had I been there at the time, perhaps I would have different feelings. But I wasnt.
Being exposed to other viewpoints and immersed in another way of living has enriched my life in myriad ways, which I wouldnt trade for anything. While logistical issues have obliged me to consider going back to the U.S. since then, I cannot say I have truly felt the desire.