Arab News (Saudi Arabia), Wednesday, May 11, 2005.
"Can There Be a Future for the French?"
The French are up in arms again to protect their language and culture. The perceived threat this time is books -- 15 million volumes from elite libraries, which Google aims to put on-line. The clamor in France to counter this "crushing domination by America" looks so curious from over here on the other side of the world in Taiwan.
It comes as little surprise that the French should take on Google. When I arrived in Taiwan from New York City a couple of years back, the French were taking to the streets over McDonald's. What a contrast I found in Taiwan!
While the French marched against the American hamburger, the Taiwanese busied themselves mastering the art of franchising their own many native and imported Chinese cuisines. One day soon America may find itself invaded by franchised Taiwanese dumpling stands, noodle places, rice shops or teahouses. A threat to America? Hardly. Nothing from the outside can threaten a culture as vitally and creatively alive from within as America's or Taiwan's. Like America, Taiwan absorbs whatever comes its way, assimilates it right into the core of its rich mix, and then goes it one better -- by an act of creative transformation it issues forth with something novel, a new thing never before seen. The innovation leaps out across cultural and linguistic boundaries, and spreads everywhere at once.
Coming from New York City, I didn't expect to find Taiwan so creatively alive. To protect their culture and language, the French feel obliged to make up new French words to replace every single English one that slips into their language. The Taiwanese couldn't be bothered with something like that. If there's a word, or a product, or a concept from Japan, from America or from France for that matter, that they don't have -- they just soak it right up as their own. The language here, in that respect, is like English. Much of English derives from French. "No problema", friends of mine joke back in New York, in bad Spanish slipped into English. Linguistic purity isn't what a language is about -- not one that is still alive and growing, vital and creative. Languages exchange words like viruses do genes.
What, then, is wrong with the French? Why have they thrown themselves into policing something fundamentally creative like language or culture that doesn't need to be policed?
My own hunch is that the French have fallen prey to an idea they have of themselves. It's a false idea which they're at pains to protect, by any means possible. It seems to me that what the French see as "their" culture has less to do with the French language or the nation of France than it has with a wonderful creativity that surged up in that language and in that country when Paris was the global center of high learning and art. The French take that linguistic and cultural advantage that is the residue of it to be their very own national trait and possession. Americans are repeating, in their own way, the French mistake.
America is free, yes; and it is big and rich. Consequently, it attracts the best and brightest from everywhere. Like France before it, and England, and a long lineage of other cultural and economic capitals stretching back around the world to antique cities and civilizations we don't even have names for anymore, America mistakes the greatness pouring through its veins for its own when it in fact belongs to the whole world. Because of its misperception of itself, America acts, at times, in selfish, narrow-minded ways that offend just about everybody else.
If it's any comfort to the French, pundits predict the center will shift in this century from New York to Shanghai. Hoping to make a fast buck, the whole world has rushed to build China's economy. The whole world has made China start to happen. Little, free Taiwan played an oversized role. But see how arrogantly China puffs itself up now and plays the mean bully to its small neighbor. And look how China postures itself toward Japan, another major contributor to its prosperity. Quite evidently China has forgotten, already, so early in the game, to what an extent so much of the good that is happening within its own borders derives from the rest of the world.
In the past, way back into history, the entire world has again and again surged like this with freedom, prosperity, and culture, through one nation, one language, one people and made that people, and their nation and language, great. Always, it seems, that nation, and its people and culture, has grabbed for itself, in one way or another, what properly belonged to all. If China were to do this it would be a tragedy not just for little democratic Taiwan, but for every single nation on earth.
There's reason to hope, though, that this scenario will not materialize. The fact is that the world is tending toward a more creative form of organization where the center at any given moment might be anywhere, everywhere, several places at once, or even nowhere (that anybody can tell). The unprecedented might just become the norm. Vertical hierarchies may find themselves undermined, replaced or, in some cases, altered beyond recognition by powerful lateral networks. The future, even in the very short term, may just turn out to be remarkably complex, interesting, democratic, prosperous and peaceful.
In an environment like this, Taiwan may yet stay free and keep doing what it does so well. And this new order of free interconnectivity would also stave off the global catastrophe of a big brute China, tone down an overweening America, and afford the French a world in which Paris will be as much the center as anywhere else. Then, if only the French can accord their language and culture the freedom which that delightful language and that wonderful culture so richly deserve, these won't be threatened at all.
What we are really capable of, we are only now just beginning to discover. One thing we do already know is this -- what unites is greater by far than what separates. Our power during the coming century will be a function of our ability to discover this and to come together in peace, harmony and good will -- not for one, or another big nation, people, language or culture; but for the benefit of all nations, peoples, languages, and cultures.