Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bastille Day

For all the French-bashing that goes on in USA, it is damn hard not to love the historical French.  Without them, there would be no USA.  My S.O. has gotten interested in the events of Revolution-era America and has just finished Walter Isaacson's bio on Franklin.  It is his contention that Franklin's love for things French and their love of him had a LOT to do with the French navy showing up to save Washington's mediocre butt.  Of course, the same can be said for Jefferson.

And then there was Lafayette.  His bravery and generosity was so significant that there are now hundreds of cities and streets across the land that bear some variation of his name.

And the French are so very much like us.  I had a Finnish scholar once say to me, "those large revolutionary countries share one important feature--they all think the rest of the world wants to emulate them."  And?  The reason we quarrel with the French is because they don't seem to understand that there can be only ONE beacon to the world and it isn't going them--ask any freedom-fry-eating politician.

In many ways, the French Revolution is the most interesting.  The American Revolution wasn't much of a revolution because it left the property nobility running things and didn't lay a glove on the problem of slavery.  The Russian Revolution was certainly experimental enough and did rearrange the social order but it was SO bloody that people just cringe at the thought of repeating something like that.  But the French Revolution was just bloody enough to satisfy the anger of producing classes while introducing real enlightenment reforms that really DID make the country a better place to live.  As a result, the French are still more willing to take to the streets to challenge institutional power than any other society you can name.

I find myself watching the Tour de France this summer mainly for the spectacular camera work.  The historical outlines of French society can be seen from the helicopter shots--those spectacular chateaus and cathedrals tend to be surrounded with agricultural land and the peasants who could be exploited to work it.  So resentment of the French nobility was truly warrented--it was not a happy experince to watch your children go hungry so some pig could have a summer home like Fontainebleau.

Tour de France reminds us what endures about French culture--the love of beauty in the countryside, the simplicity of something like a long bicycle race, and the stylishness of the lovelies that hand out the daily winning jerseys (yes, even the polka-dot dresses that look like umbrellas).  Turns out, the French have a lot to emulate from their TGV to their food.  But their greatest contribution to human development was their notion that life must be lived with style.  It's why I called my book Elegant Technology.

Happy Bastille Day.

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