Tuesday, September 23, 2008


By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Saturday, my girlfriend and I took a tour of the Palais Royal in central Paris. Usually closed to outsiders, it houses the Ministry of Culture and Communication, the Constitutional Council, and the Council of State. Flat computer screens and fax machines were integrated into spacious rooms with gilded ceilings that since 1622 have seen a parade of cardinals and kings and duchesses, along with plenty of revolutionary fires and lootings.

The visit was part of the weekend celebration of cultural and historical heritage in France. Places like the Sorbonne University, and the Hotel Matignon, where the Prime Minister lives, threw open their doors to us barbarians and we traipsed through, gawping and snapping pictures with our cell phones.

Via the long lines and overheard conversations, I got the idea that celebration did what it was supposed to do. It reinforced among the French population, including those who are not white, a real feeling of family, of ownership of their heritage from the Sun King to the guillotine, and the modern French republic.

In the interests of full disclosure, the story of the French nation could have been told in other ways, but this is the shared story established little by little, with a process that involved banning regional languages like Breton or Occitan (until the 1960's), while local customs, except perhaps for the culinary, were suppressed. Besides language, that glue that held France together was this hugely successful national narrative embodied in the revolutionary tag line, liberty, equality, fraternity.

It's carved on every state house. And nearly every town has a statue of "La Republique." In Paris, one of the first actions of the feminist group La Barbe was to put an enormous beard on the statue of the female "Republique" in a kind of tongue in cheek statement about who was really running things. Later on, during the 14th of July celebrations, La Barbe arranged a nationwide outbreak of beards.

That kind of campaign would be impossible in the United States where we're more diverse than we admit, and almost the only symbols we share in common are the flag which can mean almost anything, and the golden arches of McDonald's.

Once, trying to explain myself to my New York-Cuban girlfriend, I drug her down to Kentucky where I grew up. We went to all the places of interest: the church where I got baptized and had my first revelations of hypocrisy, the high school that looked like a prison, the field where I played field hockey, the creek I waded in, the Ohio river.

We also drove a couple hundred miles to Sinking Springs, Kentucky where Lincoln was born and took my picture on the steps. Later, I regretted not being barefoot because I could have used it to mythologize myself (born destitute in a log cabin...). We also went to Mammoth Cave and wound our way up in the mountains where we almost got knocked off the narrow road by a succession of coal trucks on the switchbacks. We passed through Leitchfield, near what they call the Western Coal Field region of the state, where I had an uncle once who grew tobacco and shot, or so he said, across the fields at an annoying neighbor.

On the way down to Kentucky we stopped in Pennsylvania, went to Gettysburg and stared at the empty fields where more than 50,000 men were massacred in 1863. If we had stopped in Philadelphia and looked at the cracked Liberty Bell the trip might have summed up my conception of my country as kid. Pilgrims and Paul Revere, George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and Mark Twain after which came my church and school and grandmother, the mall and cinema, and the natural world of urban creeks and fields.

As adults, it wasn't satisfactory for either us. My symbols didn't really communicate. They still don't. There are just too many narrative threads. We've gone in different directions. The standard white English of the national newscasts, and the homogenized or demonizing movies of Hollywood are pure delusion.

After the 2004 election, when East Coast liberal Democrats were busy blaming Kerry's defeat on ignorant, inbred southern crackers that should all be drowned at birth, I felt like a Martian, or maybe a child molester. Now, because of Sarah Palin, the entire population of Alaska is getting the same treatment.

Nothing has changed. Real discussions of class and regionalism are practically unheard of in the marketplace of bigotry where they are forced to compete along with misogyny and racism and homophobia and all the rest. If only it would crash, too. America's a mess. To move forward, beyond this election, beyond the disastrous legacy of Bush, we need to find shared values. Even one. Liberty? Equality? Justice? Maybe we could start with mutual respect.

No comments: