The NY Times gets misty-eyed for France: yuck

In a guilty sort of way, I enjoyed Roger Cohen’s (@NYtimescohen) heavy-handed article extolling the virtues of idyll (idle?) rural France, where the people have the gall to imagine a life beyond profit. Yes: there are things to be valued beyond the most efficient way to conduct a transaction. It is certainly possible that French people explore this line of reasoning more regularly or more explicitly when making decisions in their daily life. (I would, however, consider Cohen’s inability to find a British or American parallel both a failure of imagination as well as an unfortunate dearth of eccentricity in his social and business circles.)

What bothers me is the elevation of this notion. Humans are not exclusively rational economic beings – “Econs” as Daniel Kahneman termed them. Economists have accommodated for this with the concept of “utility” i.e. what brings the best GAIN to our lives, but even that is an incomplete description of human behaviour. We regularly make seemingly irrational choices, we regularly act of emotion or are motivated by a certain bias, or we even act generously. People give to their church, they give to their charity of choice, they volunteer. People choose not to stay late at work or to work a second job because they like (or at the very least, feel socially obligated to appear to like) things like going to their children’s sports events, seeing their friends, cooking, reading, crafting, knitting, whatever: all activities with relatively little economic output.

To idealize the notion of choosing emotional and personal well-being over economic vitality and efficiency further plays into the idea that economic vitality should be and IS our baseline assumption. Even in the most capitalistic of countries and homes, time is made for leisure and family.

“Efficiency for the French is a poor measure of the good life, just as making a buck from the sale of a house pales before the expression of feeling about what a house may represent.” Rather, I believe humans across the globe have complex motivations they must navigate before making decisions. I am not denying the concept of “French culture,” but that the benefits attributed to it are really quite global notions.

Cohen’s argument is not wrong, I am merely disappointed with the simplicity of his narrative. Further, this simplicity combined with the lilting language to describe the French countryside (albeit “rustic” and “bucolic” both conspicuously absent), makes this article readable for only a very narrow type of liberal, middle-class reader. The concepts he is discussing are more expansive than that, and I would like to see them more broadly acknowledged.

I recognize that he is also interested in making the connection between the effects of globalization and the extent to which some aspects of culture have been seemingly immune, relative to others. This is an interesting thesis, one which is lost, unfortunately, in the sentimentality of the article.

What really makes the article, for me, is the closing paragraph. A supposed “ah-HA!” moment to give the reader – perhaps an energetic, career-trekking undergraduate at Columbia with a mean arts-and-crafts-streak – a truly profound sense of the glory of human interactions that can be found in the spaces of French countryside which “the work of centuries” has insulated from the pernicious reach of economic globalization.

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