Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures


O beautiful for spacious skies

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is when something you’ve recently become aware of suddenly appears all over the place. This is an illusion created by the human brain since it’s predisposed to find patterns, even when none exist.

All that fancy neurological science talk doesn’t convince me so I’m sticking to my default explanation on how everything works; it’s either a) the Universe trying to tell me something or b) magic.

American exceptionalism is the thing that’s been following me around recently. Here’s the list of the occasions where it came up, surely signifying Something Important:

  • La séquence du consommateur
  • Culturally Discombobulated
  • Esquire Magazine (US)
  • Life After Top Chef (Bravo)
  • The Hour (BBC)

What does it all point to? I don’t know, but let me break each appearance down and see if we can make any sense of it all.

On La séquence du consommateur, the reporter was talking about how, from infancy, American kids are constantly peppered with “you can do it!” and “you’re the best!” even in places like playgrounds which aren’t geared towards developing excellence. She and the host back-and-forthed about how this creates a society where everyone actually thinks they can do anything and that they really are the best. (I can assure you that most Americans aren’t the best at anything.)

After the election, Culturally Discombobulated (a Brit in the US) wrote about finally coming across it and he wasn’t impressed.

In a post comparing Boardwalk Empire (HBO) and Downton Abbey (ITV), “Esquire” mentioned it in relation to the differences in depictions of contemporaneous lives in the US and the UK in the 1920s. They focused on the issue of the social class system and how part of the fabric of America is the belief that you can rise above the class you were born into. (You can’t really do this.)

Everybody wins! It's America!And then the Internet told me there was a short-run series about former Top Chef contestants and since I actually like that show, I watched Life After Top Chef (Bravo) and there it was again! The most competitive of the chefs, Richard Blaise, got angry after a challenge presided over by First Lady Michelle Obama because she didn’t pick one winner but chose all three teams. “Everybody wins!” she exclaimed to the group assembled in a school gym. “‘Everybody wins!'” Blaise repeated. “It’s America!” he finished. It’s hard to get across with just this image but he was pissed and thought the decision was total bullshit.

I’m inclined to agree with him. American culture coddles people too much and generally creates false hope and a sense of entitlement that I have a real problem with. People who buy into that fantasy are destined for disappointment which could be avoided if only they’d had more carefully managed expectations. You may never be the best at anything. You probably aren’t going to be president. Merit alone won’t get you the job you want. Just because you are American doesn’t mean anyone owes you anything. Suck it up, get over it and move on.

Finally, two great lines from The Hour (BBC) really made me really sit down and trace where all this rah-rah-America stuff had come from recently. The excellent Peter Capaldi (In The Loop), a recent addition to the show, said of my compatriots

In every American there’s an incorrigible air of innocence which in fact conceals a diabolical cunning.

Later in the show, Ben Whishaw says of his time in the land of opportunity

Being a nobody in a country where everyone thinks they can be a somebody is infectious.

So, what’s it all about Alfies?

[For more, check out Tom Junod, one of my favorite magazine writers, on American exceptionalism.