April 15, 2008

A sentence about French President Nicolas Sarkozy and American presidential candidate Barack Obama.

I'm not sure whether I'm bothered more by the form or the substance of this sentence. It's from a NYT article by Michael Kimmelman headlined "A Lowbrow in High Office Ruffles France," and it follows the line "'Sarko l’Américain' is another common insult."
The French, though, may soon have to think up a fresh one if (and you can almost hear Mitterrand starting to turn in his grave) the United States elects a president who delivers speeches like the one Senator Barack Obama gave on race while this country has its first modern leader not to have graduated from the country’s upper-crust schools, a head of state who on a recent visit to the Vatican arrived late, with an exceptionally crude French stand-up comic named Jean-Marie Bigard in tow.
There's a lot going on there, including imaginary prognostication by a French corpse and the assurance that someone we've never heard of is not just crude but "exceptionally crude." Is he?

But let's think about the way Barack Obama is shoehorned into that crowded sentence. I get the feeling that the NYT would like to excite its readers with the thrill of an erudite American President who would require the French to look upon us with admiration. The reference to Obama's race speech is supposed to cue us to think about Obama as someone who is the opposite of lowbrow, even though a speech about social psychology is not about taste in music, art, and literature.

Is there any evidence that Obama has highbrow tastes? I just read his memoir and I remember no references to lofty aesthetic interests. In the music category, there was a mention of Stevie Wonder. I don't remember anything about art or any difficult works of literature. He does say he watched a lot of TV when he lived with his grandfather.

But, okay, let's assume the race speech is exquisitely crafted and that delivering it is the equivalent of showing deep appreciation for high art. Does it help Obama that the NYT is enthusing over the prospect of one-upping the French in lofty attitude? This isn't the week when we're swooning over his well-honed rhetoric. It's the week when were worried about his professorial musings that the common people weren't supposed to hear. It's scarcely the time when Obama needs to be promoted as highbrow and Frenchy.


B said...


The New York Times prints an article with some pro-Obama bias in it? An agenda - not in an editorial - but in a "news" article? The TIMES!?

Who would have thought it?

Someone better tell them before the Times develops a reputation for being a "liberal" news outlet. People might even begin thinking that the Times is biased to the left like Fox News is biased to the right . . .

Naw- that'll NEVER happen.

Ron said...

The euro-thrall of the over-educated rears its ugly, but perfectly coifed, head yet again...

MagicalPat said...

It's interesting to me that as Obama is being pilloried for being an elitist, the New York Times runs an article stating how great it will be to have an elitist President. How nice that some day soon we can be snootier than the French!

Are they that deaf and blind to what is going on in this country?

Paul Zrimsek said...

We can be pretty sure that Obama looks down on Bach:

Such perhaps was the frame of mind in which the people of Leipzig listened to Bach's first church music there, Cantata 75.... In Part II, the librettist attaches a metaphorical meaning to the concepts of poverty and wealth: the Christian is also poor in spirit, and it is only Jesus who makes him rich, for whoever clings firmly to Jesus in faith and thereby overcomes the world is truly wealthy.

Drew W said...

I'm about to spend my day copy editing a long and clumsy manuscript. That sentence from the Times warmed me up nicely. Thanks.

I'm also going to start work today on a pilot for a reality TV show called When Clauses Attack!

Paul Zrimsek said...

The Times, alone of all you Americains, has not fallen into the, how do you say, the folly bourgeois of thinking that the art is only the painting, the sculpture, the symphony. The politics, is she not an art as well? In Barack Obama, the art political has found at last her Jerry Lewis.

Roger J. said...

This is easy: we take Sarkozy and the French get Obama. Win Win

PatCA said...

Sarkozy is pro-American and loves Bush. Mon dieu! Hence, we can expect more disdainful articles for the length of his time in office.

George said...

Highbrow tastes?

He has Grateful Dead music on his iPod. (Sure.)

So...he's got the high, but maybe not the brow.

Remember back when someone asked the candidates what their favorite TV show was?

Obama said "Sponge Bob" and that he watched it with his children.

(Of course, in a separate article his wife said that last year he only spent about 10 nights at home.)

He's probably secretly into Um Kulthoum.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

Someday the provincials of the New York Times will leave the Upper West Side echo chamber and visit America.

Richard Dolan said...

One can't even say that, even as Kimmelman packs all of the NYT's favorite cliches into one sentence, the mask has slipped a little. Kimmelman can't be bothered to pretend that Obama isn't the NYT's annointed one, just as he is too bored with his own prose to make it readable. Of course, unlike Sarko, Obama "graduated from the country’s upper-crust schools" and thus holds the key credential for Kimmelman and the NYT generally (well, at least when combined with the right (meaning left) opinions).

As for the "exceptionally crude" Bigard, he works in references to Socrates, Plato, Freud and Leibniz (!), as he jokes about the high cost of small living spaces in Paris on his way to making fun of "les pauvres." It didn't strike me as particularly funny, and the audience did seem to react much to it either. But there wasn't anything especially crude about it, and I can't imagine an American comic, let alone an "exceptionally crude" one, ever mentioning Leibniz. Perhaps Kimmelman is just recycling how Bigard gets reviewed by "people like us" in Paris.

rhhardin said...

I have to admit I don't speak French. I can work my way through written French sometimes, just from odd untranslatable words that have gotten footnotes in translations ; but the difference between perceived spelling and pronunciation has always struck me great comedy.


Un petit d'un petit
S'étonne aux Halles
Un petit d'un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu'importe un petit d'un petit
Tout Gai de Reguennes.

(pronounce in French, listen in English)

What is the answer to the question whether the French comedian is crude?

Taking him as Marcel Marceau doesn't work for me; or my Dictionary of French Hand Gestures isn't working, at least.

rhhardin said...

I can't imagine an American comic, let alone an "exceptionally crude" one, ever mentioning Leibniz.

Dennis ``It's like Mesopotamia out there'' Miller. real audio

fabius.maximus.cunctator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
fabius.maximus.cunctator said...

France`s elite schools / universities are not "upper crust", just highly selective on academic merits.
Sarkozy was a student at "L'Institut d'études politiques (IEP) de Paris" (Sciences Po) where he failed to finish because his English was not up to standard. Sciences Po is highly selective though not a "real" Grande École.
He is a fully trained lawyer with a postgraduate degree. His two brothers are a senior manager and a doctor, btw.
His predecessor Jaques Chirac (nicknamed Le Bulldozer) wasn`t highly cultured either and never pretended to be. He is very fond of Sumo wrestling, however and a great hit at agricultural shows.
Sarko l`Americain is supposedly a veiled reference to his foreign roots and the fact that he is part jewish.

So much for facts. With respect, you should be bothered more or at least as much by the inaccuracies and general lack of knowledge displayed by the author than by the execrable English.

I might add that Obama`s great speech was nauseatingly corny for a continental European ear like mine. I suspect the French will not look up to you if you elect Obama, just shrug their shoulders and shake their heads.

Paul Zrimsek said...

I suspect the French will not look up to you if you elect Obama, just shrug their shoulders and shake their heads.

Since that will also be their reaction if we elect Stephen Hawking, Paris Hilton, a collie, God, or a can of chunk white tuna in water, I recommend that we not lose any sleep over it.

Nichevo said...

At 3:45 on the tape he says "Merde" which means "shit" in French. That was about it for crudity that I could detect. Was this guy the evil minister in Banlieue 13?