Friday, October 22, 2010

Comparing Cultures

It’s one thing to offer cogent analysis of cultural differences on a blog or in a book. It’s quite another to see it played out on the evening news or in the streets of Great Britain and France.

The new British government, a strange mix of conservative and liberal politicians, has just introduced a new austerity budget. It will lay off nearly 500,000 state employees and cut public spending drastically. From the BBC to student subsidies, the British government will be cutting just about everything.

By all appearances, the British people are reacting stoically to this bad news. They are taking it all in with their own proverbial stiff upper lip.

And this, as Anne Applebaum reminds us, is essential to the British character and British culture. Link here.

As everyone knows, the British queue up; they have a strong sense of propriety and decorum; they attach great importance to good manners. Above and beyond everything else, but especially in time of trouble, Britain plays by the rules.

Their national stoicism does not allow them to complain, to protest, to express their deepest feelings, or to tear their country apart. It limits their capacity for self-indulgence and for life's more delicate pleasures. Britain is far better known for its beer; France for its wine.

Across the Channel the government of Nicholas Sarkozy has been trying to reform the pension system. It has proposed increasing the retirement age from 60 to 62 and moving the age at which one can receive a full pension from 65 to 67.

The result has been chaos. Labor unions have pretty much declared war on the Sarkozy government. Millions of people went on strike; most of the country has been shut down; the French economy has been crippled.

Students, seeing this as a reprise of the now legendary May ‘68 demonstrations, have joined the fray. They do not seem to care that if the protests succeed, they will be paying for the increased pension costs.

Student participation is not about self-interest. If I were to guess, I would say that it is a rite of passage that makes them feel authentically French.

If being English means adopting an attitude of stoic forbearance and learning to play by the rules, being French means storming today’s version of the Bastille. In other words, it means re-enacting one of the supposedly glorious moments in French history.

Again, the difference is primarily cultural. It shows how different peoples conduct their lives. In Britain what matters is sportsmanship. Win or lose you must observe the rules of proper decorum.

In France, what matters is drama. Young and old the French are masters of political theater. They love the arts. And they love sentiment and emotion. They do not believe that they were put on earth to work; they are here to enjoy the finer, more sensuous pleasures, and to show the world how to live.

The French love love; they are accomplished gastronomes; they are masters of fashion and style; they appreciate the finer things in life. They see life as a work of art. Life should provide exquisite pleasures, intense emotions, and as much enjoyment as you can squeeze out of it.

They do not much like playing by the rules because that reduces drama, and makes emotions less intense.

We are far more cognizant of what is happening on the streets of France than we are of what is happening in the British parliament. Strangely, we are so transfixed by the French strikes that we are only barely aware of what is going on in the French legislature.

Public theater will always attract the most attention. It lends itself most naturally to narrative. It leads the news; it is eminently cinematic; and it provokes extensive mythmaking.

In the end, it accomplishes little. Except that you can will have great stories to tell your grandchildren.

The British seem ready to buckle down, to put their collective noses to the grindstone, and to get back to work. The French, as Charles Krauthammer suggested, are indulging in political decadence.

Theirs is a fight against work. Strangely, the French protestors are fighting for more leisure. They are defending a culture that guarantees every full-time worker five weeks of annual vacation. They are expressing their deepest feelings in street protests and political drama.

As for the realities, the protesters seem to be wildly oblivious to the basic requirement to pay one’s bills. They, like their counterparts in Greece, seem not to be aware of budgetary realities. They want to enjoy life and they do not much care who pays.

That is why the French invented the concept of the Other. The Other is always the one who pays.

It is a strange culture, one that seems alien to America. But, then again, who knows which way America will turn when its bills start to come due.


Proud Hindu said...

Half off America's police force could be cut. There should only be 1 traffic policperson per town. Traffic police are a waste of tax payers dollars.

All the police who bust people for something as simple as an herb should also be cut.

All we need is REAL cops who fight serious crimes - not cops who harrass and extort people for going 10 miles over the limit or smoking a backyard garden plant.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

This sounds a lot like what the libertarians are proposing. Apparently, some towns have removed traffic lights, only to find that accidents are reduced.

I suppose that libertarianism works because people have their own moral compass, which they are happy to exercise if given the chance.

Retriever said...

Having grown up in England, and being of mostly Scottish and English descent (plus some French), I agree with you.

One factor in the students insistence on keeping the retirement age low is that it is their only chance of getting decent full time work themselves. Which the old people don't want to give up. It might be remembered that mandatory retirement ages, while hard on old people who have not had the foresight to save, or who like to work, do at least allow for job openings and promotions for the young. The European economies are not so large and are not growing as are own used to be.

It's an issue in this country right now with the teachers. One reason that young teachers can't find jobs is that as the economy has worsened, teachers aren't quitting their jobs when they start a family now, or retiring after twenty years, the way they used to. Perhaps because they can no longer count on their spouses to support them, as they used to.

There is usually a more complicated explanation than laziness or passion behind such student demos...

Nevertheless, amusing generalizations.

As to the police in this country?

I live in a suburb that wastes a fortune on police whose chief job is basically to guard our town from muggers and robbers and suspicious looking poor people from the surrounding impoverished neighborhoods. The rare violent crime in the town, our police tend to bungle the investigation. We don't need police, we need patrolling security guards. The overtime kills us. We are a safe community because they pull over people in scruffy looking cars and harass even our own teenagers and are a royal pain to anyone who talks on a cell phone in a car, but $10 an hour security guards could provide almost the same security.