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Volume III, Number 13: 7 April 2003

Speaking French

James Ryan

My dear fellow Americans:

How dare we speak of the French that way.

Just where do we think the ideas of liberty and justice and the rights of all people in the United States came from?

Just what do we think inspired Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson?

The answer is France, and its philosophes, in particular, Diderot, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau.

And just who gave the first and truest of American patriots aid and comfort during the Revolutionary War?

Who made commercial and political alliances with our embattled Colonies?

Who sent a fleet to engage the British navy at the mouth of Delaware Bay?

The answers are: France, France, and France.

And our United States Military Academy at West Point is modeled after L'École Polytechnique.

And surely we remember Lafayette?

Or have we forgotten our history so completely?

Then why do we spill the wine of France into the streets of America?

Don't we remember at all A Tale of Two Cities, and therein the prophecy of Dickens? "The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there." We must remember well our metaphors and our symbolic gestures.

And by the way, just where do we think our Statue of Liberty came from?

France... under the original name of "Liberty Enlightening the World," and a gift from the French people, literally. No corporate funding or political largesse here. No corporate branding.

And why this gift? To commemorate the centennial of our freedom from England, that's why.

And do we know that a smaller replica resides beneath the Pont de Grenelle in Paris, and faces to the west? And do we know why?

Surely we do.

So exactly what sense of liberty are we enlightening by renaming French-fried potatoes, "freedom fries?"

But we know that this is an old trick, don't we?

Don't we know that in 1918, dachshunds were renamed "liberty pups," and that the teaching of German was prohibited in the New York City public schools?

And that the City College of New York reduced all German language courses by one credit? And that a congressman named Walter Kehoe from Florida proposed that all German aliens wear a yellow (yes, yellow!) armband with "REGISTERED ALIEN ENEMY" plainly printed thereon?

And that the Reverend Newell Dwight Hillis of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn prayed one Sunday: "Dear Lord, forgive the German people just as soon as they are all shot. If you would give me happiness give me the sight of the Kaiser, von Turpitz, and von Hindenburg hanging by a rope."

We must remember well our patriotic tricks too. And we must remember that in our pious, politicized prayers, God might just bless all people and all nations. And that America, while now virtually alone in the world regarding international morality, is not the only beneficiary of God's grace.

And speaking of grace and spirituality, just where do we think American writers and artists and musicians and dancers went to experience artistic freedom and inspiration after the so-called War-To-End-All-Wars? Not Paris, Texas... Paris, France!

When Gene Kelly danced in Gershwin's An American in Paris he may have been in an MGM studio, but he was absolutely and spiritually in Paris.

And when Sidney Bechet first played "I Had It Once But It's All Gone Now" on his blessed clarinet, he was in Paris.

And Humphrey Bogart fell in love with Ingrid Bergman in Paris, not Casablanca.

We have entered a new world of darkness and dis-enlightenment. We must begin to remember things, important things, using our minds and not just our hearts, remembering the many things that unite rather than the few that sunder. Now, perhaps more than ever before on this planet, we must think, deeply and seriously. Then perhaps instead of hurling ridiculous aspersions, we will embrace our common heritage rooted in liberty, equality, and the brotherhood of all people. For if we continue in our not-remembering, and bash and banish France, I say, as Shakespeare might have, "Banish France, and banish all the world."