by Jacqueline Feldman
French people I meet sometimes have not heard of Connecticut, and can never pronounce the name.
They ask, “Where are you from?”
I say, “Connecticut.”
They say, “Oh, yes, Canada.”
I say, “No. Um, near New York.”
They ask me what it’s like and I say it’s beautiful.
Today I looked at the French news, and the state’s police chief was on TV.
The way I describe Connecticut to the French is like the way I describe Connecticut to New Yorkers whom I’m trying to get to visit: I live nearby, and it’s pretty here. The bus to Hartford costs twenty-five dollars, and I’ll take you on a bike ride: North along the river and corn and the hill that glows orange Octobers; left at the state’s largest sycamore into Simsbury; North again toward the pedestrian bridge local ladies keep covered in flowers on their days off. We’ll pause at farms for cheese or zucchini or flowers, leaving a few bucks in a mason jar. The farmer’s handlettered sign requests his customers’ honesty.
The director of the German Marshall Fund’s Paris office presented at Fulbright orientation about perceptions of the United States in France and in Europe. About eighty percent of French polled before the American presidential election would have voted Obama if given the chance.
Later, furthering my familiarity with the French, I watched the November 1 episode of “Le Petit Journal,” the Canal + show roughly analogous to “The Daily Show,” about the American Republican Convention. Here’s the clip.
Yann Barthès, the show’s host, says: “We will begin with our portraits of American Republicans, who are doing their ‘Woodstock’ in Florida.” He asks, “Who are they? Who are these Americans?”
Amid his commentary, the show cuts images of fat Americans, Romney buttons, tacky red-white-and-blue sandals, T-shirts that say “TRUST JESUS,” a truck plastered with a photo of a bloody fetus against abortion rights, and an interview with a Republican who says provocatively dressed women are asking to be raped.
A correspondent with bad English talks to a woman in a cowboy hat who incoherently extolls the American right to carry guns. She says, “That’s why we came to this country, for the freedom to determine what is best for us, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.”
The show first struck me as condescending, problematic if funny.
Today, it is grotesque.
The American and French governments are paying me to be a cultural ambassador, but some things I can’t explain to anyone, not the French, not myself. The French would use the passive: “Ça ne m’arrive pas.” It doesn’t happen to me; it doesn’t occur to me; the words don’t come.
My roommate and I are not from Newton, but our French landlord emailed us condolences anyway, and his instinct was correct. The tragedy is American, in us — and requires our action.
Adam Gopnik wrote online at The New Yorker: “Gun massacres have happened many times in many countries, and in every other country, gun laws have been tightened to reflect the tragedy and the tragic knowledge of its citizens afterward. In every other country, gun massacres have subsequently become rare. In America alone, gun massacres, most often of children, happen with hideous regularity, and they happen with hideous regularity because guns are hideously and regularly available.”
(Good opinion writing of this general drift now abounds, by Collins, Kristof, and Jezebel’s Katie J.M. Baker in “Fuck You, Guns.” If you are American, you can sign petitions demanding action on gun control at whitehouse.gov, like this one.)
I took a class at Yale called Oratory in Statecraft. The teacher, Charles Hill, described the peculiar characteristics of American political discourse. Here’s one: it is religious. Our politicians are practically required to say, “God bless America.”
Normally, I think of this quality as a little silly, if not totally backwards. Certainly it’s seen this way by the French, whose policies of laïcité, secular-ness, prohibit burqas and discourage talk of religion in schools; whose polltakers are forbidden to ask about race; whose sensitive citizens do not say they are patriotic because the association is with Vichy.
Today, it seems to me necessary and beautiful, and that this is the obvious phrase: God bless America.