The Other McCain

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Le Mot Juste

Posted on | November 29, 2020 | 1 Comment

There are certain ideas that are best expressed in French, and some that can scarcely be expressed otherwise. Esprit de corps, for example.

What I have in mind today, however, is panache and savoir faire. The former suggests conspicuous self-confidence, particularly in matters of style, while the latter refers to knowledge of how to act appropriately in any given situation. These phrases come to mind in response to a Rod Dreher column about the movie version of J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy. If you don’t know the story: Vance grew up in a small Ohio town near Cincinnati, joined the Marines after high school, returned after his service to get a political science degree at Ohio State University and then went on to get his law degree at Yale. His memoir is a sort of sociological treatise about the problems afflicting Middle America, and particularly the plight of the white working class. Dreher calls attention to a critic who complains that the screenwriters “lay on the ‘country man vs. the elites’ details rather thick — is it really believable that this guy would’ve gone all the way to Yale Law School without learning which utensil to use for which course, or that there’s more than one type of white wine?”

Why does the critic find this incredible? Because there is an association between (a) parental wealth and (b) attending Yale Law School. Nearly all students at elite law schools are the children of college-educated professionals. Most of these students have also attended private prep schools and got their undergraduate education at elite universities. At Yale Law, there are very few students from Midwestern small towns, and fewer still who served in the military. What percentage of Yale Law students have ever fired an M-16? Perhaps a fraction of a single percentage point. So the Marine Corps veteran from Ohio was duck out of water in New Haven, where most of his classmates came from backgrounds where one is expected to know the difference between chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. It isn’t really surprising that J.D. Vance wouldn’t know this. There may be wine connoisseurs in the Marine Corps or at Ohio State University, but such people aren’t nearly as common as they are at Yale, because in America, elite is usually just a fancy word for “rich.” (And, of course, the word “elite” is originally French.)

It seems to be assumed by the children of the rich that their wealth is proof of superior merit. It is further assumed by such people that the Ivy League has a monopoly on academic excellence because everyone who is smart enough to be admitted to an Ivy League school would, of course, choose to attend an Ivy League school. Thus, to have attended a state university is evidence of one’s intellectual inferiority.

There are several problems with such beliefs. There are highly intelligent young people who simply disdain the competitive “grind” mentality necessary to be considered eligible for admission at Yale (Harvard, Cornell, etc.), and figure they’ll do all right in life without a degree from a fancy “elite” university. There is certainly more fun to be had as a frat boy at Ole Miss than as a Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard. Let’s face it — the prettiest girl at Harvard wouldn’t rate better than a “7” at Ole Miss. Academic excellence is not the only standard of merit; Jeffrey Toobin went to Harvard and look what scum he proved to be.

Now, as to one’s knowledge of wine varieties and formal table settings, these are deficits of knowledge that are easily remedied. The problem in J.D. Vance’s case is that he failed to anticipate the situation, which would have allowed him to be prepared. One’s first time at a formal dinner can be daunting, but “fake it ’til you make it” works as a general approach to all such situations. Just act like you know what you’re doing, and most people won’t be able to tell the difference, even at Yale Law. However, there is no shame in honest ignorance, and one would imagine that, in Vance’s particular situation, he could have played it off with a joke: “My squad didn’t get invited to any formal dinners in Baghdad. Now, which one of these forks am I supposed to use?” This is what panache is about.

Did you know that the word panache has a military origin? It can be traced back to the 16th century, referring to the feathered plumes that cavalry officers wore on their helmets. Thus, panache came to describe the quality of gallant boldness characteristic of that class. The most literal translation of savoir faire is simply “know how.” A worldly gentleman, well traveled and acquainted with social customs, conducts himself with savoir faire, knowing how to behave whether he is duck hunting or dining with royalty. Any ambition young man should aspire to possessing both panache and savoir faire, not in a snobby show-off way, but rather because exemplifying these qualities will recommend him as a valuable associate, worthy of comradeship among the best people.

(Hat-tip: Instapundit.)



One Response to “Le Mot Juste”

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