Why can’t Americans argue like the French?

I could argue Americans don’t like to argue or more specifically, don’t argue well. For instance, too quickly, they may start to scream. Or worse, become violent. They might even use a gun. They like guns. Apparently last week an Alabama state lawmaker named Vivian Davis Figures’ house was shot 23 times in an early morning attack. I think the house is still alive.

It was not a major headline because it was not a major event – although police confirmed the gun shots were not random. Someone was very mad, and because they did not want to argue, or could not argue well, the house got hit 23 times. I think we can assume they were after Ms. Davis Figures and not the house.

One could argue New Yorkers like to argue, or rather, hurl insults. Like the English, the put downs come fast and easy. One could argue the English don’t play fair (lazer lights at Euro championship anyone?) But who cares about the English. They’re on their own. And Italy will beat them this coming Sunday @Euro2020.

Back to California, and the west coast, where I grew up – they really prefer not to argue and if they must, there’s always litigation. California, historically, is notorious for starting trends – they’re very good at that.

Americans aren’t even that great in debate. For example, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer had a famous feud for years. Then one day Gore Vidal decided to review Mailer’s book. Gore Vidal was highly supportive of the the women’s movement and Mailer was not, and proved it in this book. Vidal, the provacateur, suggested Mailer was as violently mysogynistic as Charles Manson. I know -the 60’s and Manson seem to be today’s theme.

Anyhow….the following week Dick Cavett had Mailer and Vidal on his talk show – and right before they went out to entertain the studio audience, Mailer, still fuming and failing to find a way to debate Vidal – decided to head-butt Gore, just like that, in the green room. Vidal was stunned but famous for his line, ‘never miss an opportunity to have sex or be on TV’, so he collected himself and proceeded to entertain the studio audience as he always did. Mailer did not ‘play’ or debate well on Cavett that night.

Yet Gore was right. He was always right. Gore’s 4 favorite words were “I told you so”…and he was right about Mailer’s violent tendencies – in fact, Mailer went on to stab one of his wives with a pen knife, just missing her heart by an inch. She lived to tell the tale as did everyone else who witnessed that argument at the party. And Mailer and Vidal eventually settled their feud. Or agreed to disagree. Either way, no more head butts.

Gore Vidal was rare because he liked to argue and he was an American who argued with ease, wit and facts. A voracious reader since the age of 5, Vidal spoke in complete sentences, always. He even spoke in perfect paragraphs before 9 in the morning. This really impressed London’s wittiest critic Kenneth Tynan, so much so, he wrote about it.

Unfortunately, there was also a man named William F. Buckley. A television executive from NBC thought it a good idea to get America’s most aristocratic duo to debate during the summer of ’68. The famous Vidal/Buckley debates were so fantastic and electric they made a movie out of these 10 meetings. Vidal and Buckley both chose a kind of midcentury mid-atlantic accent. It was slightly odd. Even the American moderator was nervous.

These debates were held during the Republican and Democratic conventions, respectively. Riot police and protests provided surround sound in the background. Eventually, Buckley being Buckley couldn’t take it. Vidal really got under his skin. Buckley decided his only option was to get personal. Suddenly, Buckley’s voice became shrill, as he threatened to ‘sock the queer’.

I suppose this could appear silly or weird today, however; this was not done back then. Apparently Paul Newman was on the scene, or rather behind the scene, and yelled angrily at Buckley after that debate, wishing to defend his dear friend Vidal. Think it’s pretty safe to say it was one of the few times Newman lost his cool. Paul Newman was the essence of cool, he was Cool Hand Luke for heaven’s sake.

We just can’t argue and no one argues as well as the French. When I lived in Paris I had dinner parties. Lots and lots of dinner parties. And whenever the French showed up, they loved nothing more than a good argument. It never became personal. They are quite the chatty tribe like Italians, but unlike the Italians, they love to argue. They love it more than any other culture or tribe I’ve found myself living in or around. But other people enjoy it, just not in the same way as the French.

For instance, once upon a time I lived in Bohemia. I decided to host a party for the Pirate Party. There was a world wide Pirate Party Conference in Prague. On the last day, that night about 50 people showed up at Chez Bay at our flat in Prague, representing a dozen cultures. Including the guy who started the party, Rick Falkvingue.

It lasted until about 4am; it was that good. The Germans argued with the Dutch journalists and not one single time did it get personal, just lots and loads of ideas exchanged, all in great spirit. When the Italians showed up they asked to see the wine selection. Cultural realities can be quite comforting.

But what about the center; does it still exist, will it not hold? Will Americans ever learn how to argue?

Growing up I recall dozens of social occasions, the kind where people showed up, asked questions of one another, took their political temperature, and made sure they were open and on the same page. Or at least we pretended to, not so much anymore – in person, or on Twitter…..it would appear the era of the troll has proved there’s money to be made in hate. And Americans love to make money.

Those lawyers sure have an awful lot of disputes to settle, and for a culture that doesn’t like to argue, or argue well, let alone in person, there’s always litigation; we’re very good at that.

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