Thursday, May 29, 2008

The United States and France: Vive la Difference?

It wasn't that long ago that the relationship between France and the United States was, to say the least, a bit chilly. This was the era of "Freedom Fries" and calls to boycott anything that was French. For many Americans, the enemy was the rhyming two-headed monster of Chirac and Iraq. Now the two countries are friends again. Times have changed. France has a president with an extremely low popularity rating, they have huge economic problems, and... no wonder we're getting along so well.

I went out on the not particularly mean streets of Paris and the Dordogne area to ask the French people some questions. I thought my survey might help us better understand the French and learn what the French people think of us. Interestingly, I found no difference in the opinions of those who live in rural France and those who live in Paris.

My first question was: Who do you think will be the next president of the United States: Hillary Clinton? Barack Obama? Or John McCain?

Only 7% thought that John McCain will be our next president. Hillary Clinton was second with 38%, and Barack Obama was the "winner" with 54%. Because of this outcome, I assume that Hillary Clinton will vow to continue to campaign until I question every person in France.

I should point out that before our last presidential election, according to my French survey at the time, almost no one in France predicted that George Bush would win a second term.

Next question: Despite the unpopularity of both countries' current presidents within their own country, 100 percent of those surveyed felt that the president of France was a better president than President Bush. In sports parlance, they'd "rather have their bum than our bum."

When asked if they thought the war in Iraq would be over soon, about 11%, said, "oui." In some ways, the French are more optimistic than we are.

When I asked, "Who's your favorite American actor " every person gave me a different answer. Some of them were: Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington, Clint Eastwood, Samuel Jackson, Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Tyrone Power. Tyrone Power? I guess France really is an old-fashioned country.

I asked, "Which of the following foods do you prefer to eat: pizza, hamburger, or foie gras?" Nobody chose pizza, and while 80% preferred foie gras, perhaps the 20% who like hamburgers indicates a bond they have with Americans. Or it just shows that even in France, there are people who don't know good food when they eat it.

100% of the people interviewed said they would like to visit the United States someday. Let's just hope it's not all on the same day, or we'll really have an immigration nightmare.

When asked what is there about France that is better than the United States, the answers included food, history, and a slower –- and therefore, better -- pace of life. When asked what the United States has that they wished they had, answers included a positive frame of mind, more possibilities of advancing at work, and cheaper gasoline. That's right. Even if you adjust for the euro/dollar difference, gasoline is much more expensive in France. So we have that to look forward to.

The French are notorious cigarette smokers. However, a law was recently passed that prohibits smoking in restaurants and cafes. When asked if they were happy about the new law, 100% said they were. This even included people who were smoking while they answered my questions.

I got some interesting answers when I asked which country they thought was the strongest country in the world today. Nobody chose the United States or France. Understandably, China was one of the answers. However, so was Norway. Norway?! And no, this wasn't from the guy whose favorite actor is Tyrone Power.

I asked which government they thought was more dishonest, that of the United States or that of France. By only one vote, the United States edged out France. It's nice to be No. 1 in something, isn't it?

The preceding is by no means a scientific survey. Because of my selection methods and the fact that I asked the questions in French -- my French -- the margin of error might very well be in the neighborhood of 90 to 100 percent. But in France, that's still a charming neighborhood.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Prehistoric Prejudice

I don't think of myself as a bigot. I try not to pre-judge anyone or lump individuals into some negative category. I do these things not just because it's the right way to behave, but also because they lead to a fuller life. If I presumed that because someone is in a particular group he or she must be stupid, violent, or dishonest, then I might deprive myself of meeting a very interesting person. So I was disappointed in myself a few days after arriving in France when I learned that I had unwittingly been prejudiced against an entire group -- prehistoric men and women.

When our tour bus pulled into the area of France where many archeological discoveries have been made, one of the first things I saw beside the road was a sign that read, "Cro-Magnon Hotel." My reaction was, "Who would want to stay there?" I mean, when I'm staying in a hotel, I at least want the maids to walk upright. I don't want to stay in a place whose advertising slogan might be, "Our updated rooms come with fire."

But I was completely wrong, totally prejudiced in these opinions. The next day we had a guide take us to a museum and to some archeological sites. Christine was an anthropologist, archeologist, and a paleontologist. For all I know she might have also been a proctologist. So I had to assume that everything she told us about Prehistoric Man was true. First of all, she defined things for us. She said that "prehistoric" did not mean primitive, savage, or uncultured. It just refers to a time before things were written. In other words, the following might be considered a prehistoric paragraph.

Christine explained that Cro-Magnon and other prehistoric men and women were people -- just like you and me. They walked upright, they were about our size, and there is nothing to suggest that they were stupid. I guess I can no longer think of "The Flintstones" as a documentary.

Cro-Magnon man – who is named for the place where his bones were found -- was not a club-wielding caveman. They didn't even live in caves. They lived in shelters near caves. There is also no evidence that they were violent. There is evidence that they had a great deal of leisure time. However, there is no indication that they filled this leisure time by taking Princess Cruises.

In the museum that Christine took us to, there is a reproduced figure of a boy. The interesting thing to me was that even though the boy was between 10,000 and 15,000 years old, he still lived at home. Obviously, the Cro-Magnon man had not yet discovered tough love.

One thing these prehistoric people were experts at was art. I was humbled when I saw their sculptures, drawings, and paintings. Sometimes they were realistic, sometimes representative. They even used perspective which wouldn't be used so effectively again until the Renaissance. I guess I expected stick figures like I draw, but there was nothing unsophisticated about their work.

We were also a pretty sophisticated group. Nobody giggled at the mention of "Homo Erectus." And we acted like adults when we learned that not all of these prehistoric folks were uh, high brows. They enjoyed a little "bathroom humor" – which I had always thought began with Homo Catskillikus.

When I mentioned to Christine that many of the horses and bulls reminded me of Picasso, she said that Picasso had seen the cave art and had admired it. In fact, he said that he had met his masters and that there was nothing that could be invented that the Cro-Magnon man hadn't already invented. (Obviously, Picasso could not predict the advent of the toaster oven).

I hope I've learned my lesson. Now that I've seen how wrong I was about Prehistoric Man, perhaps my feelings about other groups are equally misguided. You can't judge someone by the accent they have or the clothes they wear or the car they drive. Maybe I shouldn't be so disdainful, for example, towards people who say, "between you and I," or those who sit behind me at the movies and talk, or even Republicans. Well, maybe my goals have to stay realistic.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

My French Invasion

I'm in the process of getting ready for a trip to France. First off, just in case any of you works for the Internal Revenue Service, this is not a pleasure trip. It's for research so that I can better inform my readers of what's going on in the world. Of course, if I accidentally happen to have some pleasure while I'm there, it's not my fault.

As I've done in the past, I will try to get a sense of what the people of France think and feel these days. I'll talk to as many people as possible on the street, in the metro, and in caf├ęs. I really want to find out what the French think of our politics, our economy, and my new haircut. I want to know whom they think we'll elect as our President in November. And do they still think the war in Iraq was a mistake? And how can they eat all that rich food and not get fat? If you have other questions that you would like me to ask the French people, just e-mail your suggestions to

As with any invasion, preparation is the key to a successful trip abroad. One of the things I had to do before embarking on this journey was to get rid of the cold that I was suffering from a mere week before our departure date. As everyone knows, if you fly with a cold, your head can explode. Fortunately, the cold cleared up before I risked my head exploding somewhere over the Atlantic.

Something that I always do before a big trip is visit the drugstore. I go to the section which should be called, "Little Items At Ridiculous Prices." It's where you can buy the tiniest bottle of shampoo, that little package of Band-Aids, and a toothbrush that's so small you're guaranteed to lose it on the trip. I always rationalize that it's cheaper than if I bought these last minute travel items at the airport store. Of course, that doesn't stop me from buying a few more last minute items at the airport store.

I plan on filling up my car with gas before I leave, because I assume that by the time I get back, the price of a fill-up will be similar to the price of a two-bedroom house.

Many friends have warned me that as the dollar continues to plummet, things will be very expensive in France. But I have a way around this problem. At the moment, the dollar is worth about 65 "Euro Cents." That means that a Euro is worth 1.00 divided by .65. Since math has never been my strong suit, it won't be that easy for me to convert Euro prices in my head to dollars by dividing 1.00 by .65. Therefore, I'm choosing to ignore the exchange rate and just enjoy myself. Isn't that the American way?

Another area of preparation deals with the fact that many people in France speak French. My French isn't terrible. Here is an accurate description of my linguistic expertise: When I speak French, a French person knows that I'm trying to speak French. I have a plan for a crash course. I probably shouldn't call it a "crash course" since it involves our flight. Because we are flying Air France, I've decided to only speak French to the French flight attendants. Therefore, I assume that when we land in Paris, I will be perfectly fluent.

We will also be visiting an area of France called Dordogne where there are some prehistoric caves. I find that very exciting. Of course, I'm always happy to hear about something that's older than I am. As part of my invasion preparation, I've been looking at photographs of the prehistoric cave drawings. They are fascinating. I'm looking at one right now with a magnifying glass. The scrawlings actually look like writing. I'm no expert in this field, but the words appear to be, strangely, in English. Apparently, thousands of years ago, a caveman or cavewoman wrote a message. This is amazing. It sure looks like it's saying, "Give it up already, Hillary."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Do Polls Steer The Voters?

It's hard to go for even a day without seeing the latest political polls. I often wonder how they change so much from day to day. Why did so many people who thought that Candidate A was a jerk yesterday think that he's okay today? And then there are those "exit polls" that are taken after people vote. In this country, voting is probably considered more private than sex. Sometimes people don't feel like telling their children, their spouses, or their best friends whom they vote for. But they're perfectly willing to tell a stranger with a clipboard?

Everybody knows that clever pollsters can word the questions to force the results to be just about anything they want. Who is not going to say "yes" to the question, "Do you want a President who is dedicated to keeping this country safe?" Who won't say "no" to, "Do you want a leader who just cares about rich people?"

Knowing their manipulative nature, why are so many people willing to participate in political polls? I'm sure some people just want to be nice and help the pollsters. Others probably take pride in being part of the process. I suspect that still others do it because it makes them feel important. When they see that 63% published in the paper tomorrow or on television tonight, they can call their friends and tell them that they are part of that 63%. In their eyes, they're just a little bit famous. They're like the people who hold up signs for the camera at ball games or wave outside morning news shows.

Regardless of the reasons why people participate, polls are getting more and more pervasive. They're conducted not just by news organizations, but by candidates' campaigns. Imagine how those admittedly biased pollsters struggle over every word they put in every question. That's why I think manipulative polls are only going to grow. Soon polls may be used as cruel political propaganda without even mentioning names. For example:

Which person would make a better President:

_____Someone who gets confused about the names of Mideast countries and sects?


___Someone who can recite the Greek alphabet backwards?

But they won't have to be that mean or blunt. They're more likely to try for less direct attacks and, at the same time, spread false rumors: For example:

Hypothetically speaking, would you rather vote for:

___Someone who may still have secret ties to a crazed pastor?


___ Someone who has a very sweet daughter?

By using the phrase "hypothetically speaking," they can claim they weren't really referring to anyone specific. Another example is:

Hypothetically speaking, are you more likely to vote for:

____Someone who will say anything to get elected?


___Someone who is a war hero?

The poll of the future might also be used to minimize a candidate's baggage. Let's say, a candidate had once been involved in a minor financial scandal. A question might be:

Are you more likely to vote for:

____Someone who had a lapse of judgment many years ago?


____A serial killer?

Of course, the poll doesn't say that the opponent is actually a serial killer, but by bringing up such a heinous crime, it minimizes the candidate's scandal. And maybe it does get at least a few people thinking, "I didn't know that other guy was a serial killer. Maybe I shouldn't vote for him."

A danger with political polls is that people like to back a winner. Voters enjoy being able to say after the election that they voted for the person who won. That's why they don't show the results on TV until the polls have closed. If a poll says that Candidate A just moved ahead of Candidate B, there are people who will climb on the bandwagon and vote for Candidate A just because the poll says he or she is ahead. When that happens, the poll turns from being a way to measure public opinion to a device that forms public opinion.

So how would you answer my poll question which is no less fair than many we see these days:

When it comes to political polls, do you think they are:

_____ A perfect tool we should all be grateful for?


____ The cause of much poverty in the world and the greatest threat that we face today?

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