April 15, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston
“We are all ashamed,” he said, about the president’s lack of interest in culture . . . . “Look, we need a president who is cultivated.”
Obviously, the speaker is not American. He’s French, a writer, and he wistfully “recalled the sophistication of earlier presidents.” (The story is here in today’s New York Times.)
Sophistication doesn’t play well in American politics and culture. Consider Obama’s recent gaffe in saying that some Pennsylvanians were “bitter.” The attacks by critics who most wanted to score points claimed not that Obama was incorrect (which he may have been) but that he was “elitist.”
Here, being sophisticated, cultured, or intellectual translates to negative qualities – snobbishness and phoniness. “Puttin’ on airs,” as a distant generation might have said. In America we have to think that all tastes are equal, that none is superior to another. Since everything is equal, the person who pretends otherwise, the person who prefers Chateau Margaux to Bud Light, is being a phony and doing so only for purposes of making himself seem superior. And that’s just un-American.
Here in the land where more is better, it’s O.K. to have more money, a lot more money. It’s O.K. to have bigger and more expensive stuff (cars, houses), a lot bigger, a lot more expensive. It’s even O.K. to have a lot more power. But it’s not O.K. to suggest that what you have might be inherently better, at least not if that implies sophistication. If you argue that Timbaland is better than Celine Dion, that’s cool. But if you prefer Brahms to Celine Dion, you’re a pretentious snob, an elitist.
I was reminded of this anti-elitism last week in class when I asked students to bring in artifacts of American culture for show and tell. One girl brought the DVD of “The Nanny Diaries.” She clicked on the scene where we see Annie (the nanny) in the kitchen struggling to prepare the complicated French recipe that her haughty employer has demanded. It’s the Cinderella scenario basically, but in the US version what makes the wicked stepmother figure really wicked is that she affects sophisticated tastes.
Annie also has to take care of the woman’s son, an insufferable brat (what else could he be with a mother who has such pretentious tastes?). Yet, in the span of this three-minute scene, Annie manages to transform the brat into a good , plucky American kid. How? She has him eat peanut butter. None of this fancy French food, and no plate or bread either – just peanut butter directly out of the jar. The moral is clear (though it’s spelled out again later in the film in case you didn’t get it): simple American kid-food, good; sophisticated French adult-food, bad.
Of course, things change – cultures are not monolithic, nor are they static – and there may some gradual movement towards convergence on both sides of the Atlantic. In France, they elected Sarko l’Americain, President Bling-Bling, who, shortly after taking office, married Carla Bruni, a pop singer with a relaxed-fit relationship to pitch. More recently, he visited the Vatican in company with “an exceptionally crude French stand-up comic.” For our part in the US, we now have Starbuck’s just about everywhere selling expensive coffees with names that we once might have rejected as too foreign sounding. “Latte” is becoming as American as pizza.