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Sign out of place, but not criminal



Not many Americans follow women’s bridge – or that used to be the case. A spotlight of anger has fallen on the U.S. winners of a recent bridge tournament in Shanghai, China. Their “crime”? At an awards dinner, a team member held up a handscribbled sign reading, “We did not vote for Bush.”

Bridge fans sent e-mails accusing the women of “treason” and “sedition.” The U.S. Bridge Federation proposed several punishments, including 200 hours of community service and expulsion from next year’s World Bridge Olympiad in Beijing.

Over 160 years ago, the astute French observer of the American character Alexis de Toqueville wrote: “The Americans, in their intercourse with strangers, appear impatient of the smallest censure and insatiable of praise. … They unceasingly harass you to extort praise, and if you resist their entreaties they fall to praising themselves.”

The spectacle of an American daughter rapping her president in a foreign venue must have seemed sharper than a serpent’s tooth to the type de Toqueville described (shades of the flap over the Dixie Chicks’ swipe at Bush before a London audience in 2003).

That the bridge players were not criticizing their country, but a politician; that they did it in a lighthearted way; that they sang the national anthem and waved little American flags – none of this calmed those who took mortal offense at that toothpick of critique.

As a matter of taste, I’d prefer that American competitors not make political statements at awards ceremonies. Of course, they have the right to say anything. But they should understand that there may be consequences to president-bashing at international forums.

Flattering anything American, however, works wonders on the U.S. public. French President Nicolas Sarkozy virtually exploded with praise in his recent ode to America. Speaking before Congress, Sarkozy skimped on nothing “to express his love of America, of its history, of its values, of its heroes,” the newspaper Le Monde said.

Sarkozy paid tribute to Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Duke Ellington and Ernest Hemingway. He called America “the greatest nation in the world.”

Could you imagine George Bush saying that another country was better in any way? Could you envision his telling French lawmakers that Yves Montand, Bridget Bardot, Charles Aznavour and Andre Malraux inspired his generation? No way, no how. Some right-wingers beat up John Kerry just for speaking French well.

France’s punditry took the super-sized kiss to America in stride – perhaps seeing it as a useful application of child psychology. Our natural thirst for approval has grown dire with the rising anti-Americanism throughout the world. Sarkozy’s words were designed to comfort and encourage the United States to work with France on common interests, among them, stopping Iran from getting the bomb. Note that Sarkozy offered no help in Iraq. He’s not that friendly.

There was no bitter mention of Rep. Roy Blunt’s invitation to the White House dinner honoring Sarkozy. During the run-up to the Iraq war, the Missouri Republican made an extraordinary slur against French honor. “Do you know how many Frenchmen it takes to defend Paris?” he quipped. “It’s not known. It’s never been tried.”

(The next time Blunt goes home, he ought to visit the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo. There, he’ll learn that France lost 1.4 million soldiers in the conflict – and out of a population one-eighth the size of ours today.)

Why do Americans demand so much praise and rage at any criticism? De Toqueville had the answer: “It would seem as if, doubting their own merit, they wished to have it constantly exhibited before their eyes.”

Don’t bite me for saying it, but this is something we Americans should work on. ©2007 The Providence Journal Co.

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