Photo by Peter Bennett

“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 du Hard, 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. Libération approvingly 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.”

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. The Washington Post’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.

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