The media frenzy that raged as a result of France in the 1890s contains some unsettling tradition-war parallels to our have time.
Henry de Groux, “Zola faces the mob,” oil on canvas, 1898. (general public domain)
Culture war is normally derided as an American innovation, but as with so a lot of things, the French obtained there first. From 1897 to 1899, France was torn apart by the arrest and demo of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish workers officer who was wrongly accused of spying for the Germans. Now a minimal historic footnote, the Dreyfus Affair was once an all-consuming controversy that divided a state and captivated politicians, journalists, and intellectuals throughout Europe.
Historic analogies can be crude and imprecise, but there are some irresistible parallels concerning Dreyfus’s ordeal and the eruptions that adopted the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis law enforcement officer. The United States finds by itself in the posture of France, a declining electric power that still has immense cultural sway. Our domestic lifestyle war has absent global, inspiring protests as much afield as Dublin, Berlin, and Mexico Town, just as international observers at the time obsessed over the spectacle of France at war with alone.
But the most putting parallel is the depth and intensity of the cultural animosities on equally sides, who are not preventing over coverage proposals but profoundly various political visions. In The Very pleased Tower, Barbara Tuchman writes that Dreyfus, under no circumstances a specially noteworthy character to start out with, turned an “abstraction” to his supporters and detractors. She summarized the stakes of the Affair thusly:
Each individual side fought for an thought, its thought of France: one particular the France of Counter-Revolution, the other the France of 1789, one for its final prospect to arrest progressive social tendencies and restore the aged values the other to cleanse the honor of the Republic and preserve it from the clutches of response.
It is really hard to believe of a far more apt comparison to the latest second. The language of existential conflict was mainstreamed on the American proper by the 2016 election. A now-notorious essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” in contrast voting for Donald Trump to a determined try to retake a hijacked plane from the 9/11 terrorists. On the left, the incremental liberalism of the Obama administration has supplied way to something much more radical, a thoroughgoing critique of American establishments and historical past that suggests—and often states outright—that innovative alter is the only route forward. From overall health treatment, the place plans for universal coverage have supplanted the modest reformism of Obamacare, to the American War for Independence, which has been reimagined by The New York Situations as a battle to protect slavery, the development is unmistakable.
The killing of George Floyd has thrown this existential conflict into stark relief. On the left, the slogan du jour is “Defund the Police,” a contact to action that would have been dismissed as crankish or absurd just a several a long time in the past (indeed, a prevalent grievance prior to Floyd’s loss of life was that minority communities suffer from a toxic mix of intermittent, state-sanctioned brutality and under-policing). But abolishing police departments is not a platform—it’s a provocation. There could be no peace involving the France of the Counter-Revolution and the France of 1789, just as there is no reconciling conservatives who nonetheless revere America’s history and establishments and a freshly ascendant remaining that issues their incredibly legitimacy. The liberalism of yesteryear, which emphasized fealty to the country’s ideals when urgent the urgency of reform, seems antiquated and obsolete.
In 1897, the Affair was fueled by the well-known push, making a feverish surroundings that expected our very own obsession with social media. The claims and counter-promises of the Dreyfusards and their opponents were being amplified until eventually the institutional legitimacy of the French military, which compounded its wrongful conviction of Dreyfus by refusing to confess error, was on trial.
“It was the press which developed the Affair and made truce impossible,” writes Tuchman. From reactionary monarchists to groundbreaking anarchists, each and every fringe political faction had its possess community bullhorn. This journalistic free-for-all has given that been changed by the madness-inducing algorithms of Twitter, Fb, and Instagram. Outrageous online video clips and inflammatory rates, usually edited or ripped out of context, are circulated on line in the identical method that Frenchmen at the time passed close to broadsheets and editorials.
There is 1 final parallel among the Dreyfus Affair and our present moment that is specifically terrifying. “Give me combat” was the struggle cry of a well known Dreyfusard, a sentiment undoubtedly felt by numerous quarantine-weary Us citizens, who have been primed for confrontation by a harmful mixture of social media, unevenly distributed prosperity, and a certain disenchantment with cold late-interval liberalism. A Frenchman of La Belle Epoque, another period characterized by inequality and ideological upheaval, would have recognized our predicament.
But that glamorous and uneasy interval inevitably arrived to an finish on the killing fields of Flanders. In 1914, the French Army marched to war in its regular red trousers, self-confident that System 17, a mad dash into the enamel of German fortifications in Alsace-Lorraine, would carry the day. The horrible slaughter that followed was considerably a lot more consequential than any of the petty disputes of the pre-war era. Dreyfus was a harbinger of an impending catastrophe. It is really hard to escape the feeling that our very own culture war is basically a prelude to a thing much more damaging.
Will Collins is an English instructor who lives and will work in Eger, Hungary.