Monday, August 1, 2016

The Contemporary Relevance Of The Dreyfus Affair

Back in the spring of 2010, amidst the Tea Party onslaught, I wrote something on my old blog about the parallels I was seeing in the United States and fin-de-siecle France. The last six years, especially the Trump phenomenon, have only strengthened my belief in this comparison. The current political scene in America is a conflict between two vastly different and mutually irreconcilable understandings of the nation. One a pluralistic collection of people with complex identities, the other a closed circle delineated by blood and soil. Khizr Khan's rousing rebuke of Trump and the response to it have put those different visions in high relief. Below is my original post. You can replace "Tea Party" with "Trump Supporters" and it will fit right in with today.


As I've said before, the current American political scene reminds me very powerfully of Third Republic France. Recently I've given a lot of thought to the Third Republic's greatest drama, the Dreyfus Affair. My students are reading an excellent documentary history by Michael Burns about the Affair, and in reviewing the text I found some eerie echoes of contemporary America.

First, for those of you who don't know, Alfred Dreyfus was a French army officer convicted of espionage and treason in 1894 based on faulty (and later fabricated) evidence largely because of the fact that he was Jewish. His trial unleashed a wave of latent anti-Semitism, including mobs chanting "death to the Jews" in the streets of Paris. After tireless work by his brother Mathieu and prominent figures like Emile Zola, the true culprits were uncovered and Dreyfus was exonerated. The entire ordeal was marked by political violence (including assassination attempts on Dreyfus and one of his lawyers) and exposed the deep division between those who supported the legacy of the French Revolution and those who rejected it.

The Dreyfus Affair appears to be relevant to me today for a host of reasons, not least of which being the issue of national identity. The Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards were both motivated by their own particular ideas of France. Those who fought to destroy Dreyfus thought of the French nation as a community of blood, faith, and soil, whereas his supporters rallied behind the revolutionary principles of citizenship, liberty, equality, and fraternity. The anti-Dreyfusards thought of themselves as the representatives of the "true" France, and anyone who Jewish, Protestant, Socialist, or a Mason constituted the "anti-France." This phrase was used by Charles Maurras, one of the intellectual leading lights of France's radical right in the first half of the twentieth century and a rabid anti-Dreyfusard.

Need I even connect the dots for you? The Palin/Teabagger/Oath Keepers gang constantly talk of themselves as the "real America," and are quick to doubt Barack Obama's birth and to question whether he is really "like us." Nativism, long a scourge in American life, has come back with a vengeance, and the likes of Pat Buchanan using phrases like "national suicide" (i.e. "race suicide"). Just as the anti-Dreyfusards contended that France was a Catholic nation and that Jews and Protestants could not truly be French, the radical right in America has been insistent in claiming that America is a "Christian nation." This blood/soil/faith perspective is exactly the one that the Texas Board of Education recently imposed on the state's history curriculum: it omitted as many Latinos as it could, cut deists like Thomas Jefferson out, and brought in John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas. I truly think that we today are confronted with a question similar to that raised by the Dreyfus Affair: is America a diverse agglomeration of equal citizens, or is it a mystical community tied together by race and religion? By declaring this month Confederate History Month, Bob McDonnell gave his own answer to this question. If I may draw the metaphor out, the Civil War is our French Revolution, and its principles are still being fought over today.

Not only does our unspoken conflict over national identity resemble that of the Dreyfus Affair, so does our current political style. The right-wing press in France fanned the flames of hatred and termed Jews and Dreyfus' supporters to be an enemy within, destroying "true" France. Although our current talk radio hosts are not quite as ugly as the likes of Maurras, the basic accusation remains the same. Glenn Beck talks of progressives as a "disease" and a "cancer" and Michelle Bachmann wants to root out those she considers "un-American." Furthermore, anti-Dreyfusards committed mob violence. As I mentioned before, they screamed "death to the Jews" as Dreyfus left the courtroom. At a steeplechase race an angry mob surrounded and shouted threats at president Loubet before a reactionary nobleman knocked his hat off of his head. An angry mob showed up and hurled abuse at the burial of Emile Zola, the great writer and passionate defender of Dreyfus. Reading of these incidents reminds me of nothing more than the teabagger mobs who have screamed at town halls and spat on American Congressmen.

Although the Dreyfusards and their vision of France won the day, French politics remained bitterly divided, and those who thought of their nation as an entity of blood, soil, and faith found their salvation in 1940 via the collaborationist Vichy regime. Nevertheless, we ought to remember Emile Zola's slogan during the Affair, words that ought to give us hope and motivation today: "truth is on the march!"

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