We wear their baseball caps, sometimes back to front, we eat their disgusting hamburgers, watch their immature, violent films, listen to their rubbishy music, mimic their manners and speech, and watch agog as the man they call Mr President lowers himself slowly into the dustbin of history amid shrieks of global laughter.
But do we understand the Americans? Do they understand themselves, for that matter? They have little history to speak of, and therefore little to bind them as a nation. They still bubble away in that melting pot, and no one yet knows for sure what manner of cultural homogeneity or common identity, if any, might result.
In the absence of a hereditary ruling class, they have constructed an ersatz aristocracy from the roll call of riff-raff and chancers who become film stars. Tourists are taken on coach trips around Beverly Hills and invited to gawp at, and photograph, the house where Betty Grable once lived.
And yet US citizens can be strangely lovable people. There is a side to their nature which is naive and eager to please. They are open to new ideas and idiotically optimistic. If there is one problem they cannot abide it is death. Mortality is an affront to the American way of life, which has yet to be properly explained or accounted for.
Perhaps that’s why Americans are determined never to grow up. Adults dress like teenagers and dotards stoically cleave to their childhood. Hence the enduring phenomena of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and the rest of Walt Disney’s sentimental menagerie. It is no exaggeration, and no joke, that Mickey Mouse is an American aristocrat, fit to stand in their pantheon as the Duke of Wellington stands in ours.
How appalling, then, that the embodiment of American whimsy, cuteness, and downright clean living should be physically attacked on French soil. Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and several other “cast members” whose task is to prance and gambol around Disneyland, Paris, generating that blend of joy, magic and escapism that old Walt sought to distil, have appealed to a French government agency to protect them from children who daily punch and pinch them.
On one black day in August, security guards had to escort Mickey and Minnie to safety. According to the letter sent by cast members to the Inspection du Travail: “Tigger, too, left the park of his own accord after being hit several times”. Others who suffered included Stromboli, Baloo and King Louie, who were reported to be badly bruised.
This is indeed a rum business. How can it be that in Los Angeles and Orlando people dressed up as Disney characters occasion life-affirming joy, but in Paris provoke dark emotions and calls to violence?
One possible explanation is that, whereas the Americans have too little history, the French have too much. Their national story is up to its oxters in bloody conflict and revolution. It is a tale of a heartless, hedonistic aristocracy toppled by a heartless, vengeful mob; a litany of intrigue, betrayal, and barbaric cruelty interlaced with exquisite cuisine, refined manners, excellent wine and an insufferable air of superiority.
The French see themselves as the most civilised people on Earth, from which elevated position they may do as they please in the matter of agreements, treaties, conventions, understandings, protocol and all the rest of the tiresome nonsense that, if heeded, would stand in the way of French interests, which are, needless to say, paramount.
Superiority permits paradox, since what may seem to inferior beings illogical or inconsistent, in fact betrays ignorance on their part. Thus a French diplomat may arch a sardonic eyebrow and wave aside tiresome protestations while, out on the streets below, lorry drivers are blockading half of Europe under the gaze of a narcoleptic gendarmerie.
When paradox is woven into the fabric of national life, nothing surprises. Hence the Gallic shrug. “What if a man dressed up as a cartoon mouse is beaten up a little?” is the likely French response. “What does he expect? If I were to dress up as a mouse, I would be surprised not to be molested. Vive le sport.”
Remember, too, French children have to prepare themselves for the trials of adulthood. Today’s infant who sticks his thumb in Baloo’s eye may be the grown-up of tomorrow who strangles an English lamb with his bare hands. To the French, kneeing Mickey in the groin is a rite of passage. That, of course, does not make it any easier for the cast member from whose testicles French youth ascends to higher things, but we were not put on this Earth for pleasure alone.
To American ears, however, the most shocking aspect is revealed in a description by a Disneyland employee of life in the rest room behind the scenes. “It’s weird to see Winnie the Pooh arrive, remove his head, utter a few oaths and stick up his feet to smoke a cigarette.”
When Pooh Bear’s genitalia come under systematic assault from the junior sans-culottes, all God-fearing Americans feel his pain. And if he takes off his head and utters a few profanities, so what? We’re all adults, aren’t we? But when he lights up a cigarette, he’s right out of line. If Minnie Mouse died of passive smoking, it would spell the end of the American dream.