2010 02 12
Recently read: Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

Louis Begley. Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, was accused in 1894 of selling secrets to a German military attaché. A note had been discovered indicating that someone was selling secrets to the attaché. The note was real; just about everything else that became associated with the case was not. The only actual evidence brought against Dreyfus was the claim that the handwriting on the note was his own. It was not. Dreyfus’s first trial, resulting in a conviction, was a travesty involving significant judicial misconduct, in which antisemitism played a crucial role.

And then things got really bad. As evidence identifying the real culprit started to surface and Dreyfus’s few supporters rallied against an obviously bad decision, Dreyfus’s superiors dug themselves into a deeper and deeper hole. As the 1890s wore on, the Dreyfus Affair became bewilderingly complex, with forgeries, suicides, conspiracies, missteps on the part of Dreyfus’s supporters, and stunning reversals on both sides.

The conservative, militarist, antisemitic response to the scandal was essentially to point out that for Dreyfus’s supporters to be correct, a deep rot would have to have infected the military, a pillar of French society, and parts of the political establishment. Since this was unthinkable, so too was Dreyfus’s innocence. They were wrong, of course, and it is a mistake that continues to be instructive.

Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters is a tightly written account of this affair, which so thoroughly rocked French society in the 1890s. I’ve just called the plot bewilderingly complex. Begley is to be commended for having written such a clear and engaging account of it. One highlight of the book is a brief but penetrating discussion of the Dreyfus Affair in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which should be accessible to people who haven’t slogged through it, but especially interesting for those who have.

I’m not sure Begley did as good a job explaining why the Dreyfus Affair matters. Begley finished his book just as Obama was elected. Begley, who is clearly no fan of the Bush administration, takes a few stabs at connecting the Affair to current events. The lack of due process and forms of incarceration found at Guantanamo are compared to the travesties of Dreyfus’ trial and exile on a remote island. A brief section on official reactions to whistle blowers connects a defender of Dreyfus’s to Joseph Wilson. This, I take it, constitutes the main part of Begley’s answer to the question raised by the title of his book.

This is weak stuff.* There are of course similarities between any two miscarriages of justice. But even if the similarities were more striking than they are, they wouldn’t tell us why the Dreyfus Affair matters today. You can be entirely ignorant of the Dreyfus Affair and still be offended by the scandal of Guantanamo Bay. All you need for that is a functioning conscience. If you’re not offended, you’ll hardly be convinced by a series of strained analogies with the Dreyfus Affair.

I’m not sure I’ve been able to get very deeply into the question of why any historical incident matters, but here are two fairly obvious (non-competing) answers as they bear on the Dreyfus Affair.

First, from history we (sometimes) find out why we are a certain way now. My understanding is that French society and politics is the way it is today in part because of the reverberations and aftershocks of the affair. Begley has nothing (that I can recall) to say about contemporary French politics or culture, focusing mainly on the United States. That’s fine, but I don’t believe the United States was shaped in significant ways by the Dreyfus Affair, and it’s an American audience that he seems mainly interested in addressing.

Second, studying history can broaden our sense of what’s possible. There are all kinds of contingent features of society and human nature that look fixed and permanent, and all kinds of things that seem certain at any moment that turn out to be thoroughly mistaken. I think the Dreyfus Affair matters, and not just in France, in this way. Many of those involved in persecuting Dreyfus, even after it was, or should have been, clear that he was innocent, acted in ways that were utterly irrational, stupid, and blindly defensive. It was unthinkable to many that such trusted figures of the establishment could behave this way. But it is an incontrovertible fact that they did. It was unthinkable in particular to people who thought a certain way: people with a streak of authoritarianism, who were reflexively inclined to give people in power the benefit of the doubt.

As I said above, this is instructive. It gives us a nice morality tale about the dangers of trusting officials in authority. It’s a story that ought to leave us a little more paranoid, a little less trusting of authority. But as instructive as it is in this sense, it would be a mistake to think that we can simply take the case and apply its lessons to contemporary political issues. As controversial as Guantanamo is, I don’t see how parallels between Guantanamo and some now unambiguous miscarriage of justice at the end of the 19th Century are going to be less controversial. The Dreyfus Affair, like most history, matters, but in a less direct and much more subtle way than that.

* Though Begley’s criticisms of certain French judicial procedures that worked against Dreyfus, such as an acceptance of hearsay, is certainly relevant to the issue of whether the American military tribunals contain stringent enough protections against abuse.

Howls of outrage (2)

2004 08 08
Nuclear proliferation

The NYT reminds us that we’re running out of time when it comes to nuclear proliferation. A world in which a whole lot of unstable, undemocratic countries have nuclear weapons is a world in which there is a much greater chance of fatal miscalculation.

I’m not a dove on this issue. The world would have to look very stable indeed before I could expect complete disarmament from anyone who has managed to arm. I can stand a bit of hypocrisy when the stakes are high enough. But the wanton hypocrisy of Western states on this issue is not especially helpful. You cannot lead a credible international movement against nuclear proliferation while resisting inspections for everyone. Nor can you lead a credible international movement while you’re pushing ahead aggressively in the development of new weapons systems like mini-nukes, as the U.S. currently is. You cannot, as for example France does, defy the entire world in nuclear testing, and then turn around and pretend to be useful in persuading other countries not to defy the entire world in nuclear testing. You cannot treat the possession of nuclear weapons as a mark of prestige that goes along with a certain stage of development and then persuade developing countries that nuclear weapons are not a mark of prestige that goes along with a certain stage of development. And so on.

We are running out of time. The spread of fissile material and nuclear technology is unstoppable, but it is slowable. For the short and the medium term we need to slow it as much as possible. In the long term, the kind of stability that comes from genuine democracy and social justice is the only thing standing between us and some catastrophe too awful to contemplate.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2003 09 25
[France bashing on the right]

Much of the right has been foaming at the mouth for a year or so now over France. Question: Is there some consistent ideological basis for this, or do these chumps march in lockstep to the martial tunes emenating from the White House?

There’s actually a very easy test to settle this question: Find a country which has behaved in ways that are relevantly similar to France and see whether it comes in for the same kind of abuse in the right wing press. As I’ve said, this isn’t hard to do. Perhaps you’ve even heard of this country. It’s called Russia.

Russia presented as serious an obstacle as France to U.S. policy in the buildup to war, and for many of the same reasons: greed for oil, a fundamental lack of concern about human rights in its foreign policy, and the kind of deep resentment and rivalry that is felt particularly keenly by has-beens. Since then, besides making the odd friendly noise, Russia has been interested in one thing only, which is to drive a very hard bargain with the U.S. for its support on projects that are really to the mutual benefit of both countries. I suppose it makes sense for the U.S. to bribe Russia to curtail assistance to Iran’s nuclear program, for example. But it is beyond me how the U.S. does this without suffering deep resentment. After all, it’s idiotic for Russia to encourage an unstable nuclear power so close to home. Why does it need to be bribed for this kind of thing?

Now suppose that you think the U.S. has good reasons for these policies. Suppose that it actually makes sense to look the other way when it comes to Russia’s authoritarianism or its grotesque human rights abuses in Chechnya. It still doesn’t make any sense for the right wing press – which is free of the diplomatic constraints imposed on the administration – to look the other way. In fact, Russia has all the features that conservative commentators find so maddening about France, and a whole lot of other quite disgusting details thrown in gratis on top.

As long as neo-cons find France’s failure to provide decent air conditioning for its senior citizens less worrying than Russia’s crimes against humanity in Chechnya, or its deteriorating and corrupt economy, I’ll know I don’t have to take their outrage seriously.

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2003 09 13
[Powell rejects French proposal]

Powell Rejects French Proposal (

What’s going on here? Well, there are two questions: How much control of the occupation should the U.S. be prepared to hand over for now? And second, how quickly should the occupiers hand over power to Iraqis?

As far as I can guess, Powell seems right that the French proposal about turning over power to Iraqis is awfully quick. It’s easy for the French to go on about self-determination, but if things are turned around really quickly, they will disintegrate really quickly – and it will be the U.S. on the hook for the failure and not France. My guess is that the French are offering something they know the U.S. couldn’t and shouldn’t accept so that they will be rebuffed again. At least this way they will not seem obstructionist.

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2003 08 20
[France, the U.S., and Iraq]

How to make sense of recent French shenanigans over Iraq?? Well, Thomas Friedman now thinks that France is the enemy. He’s getting as loony as Safire (and that’s loony!), but he does have a point that France’s proposal – essentially a very rapid transfer of power to the Iraqi governing council – is a proposal whose point is surely to act as a poison pill in negotiations: France knows that the U.S. cannot, should not, transfer power so rapidly, and so it’s clearly trying to put itself into a position where the U.S. rejects one of its proposals. (Wish France had shown some interest in the will of the Iraqi people before!)

So, as far as I can tell, the French are deliberately sabotaging the negotiations. What motives do they probably have?

Well, partly it must be a desire to ensure that it looks like it’s playing a constructive role and not just a destructive one. Look at those rejectionist Yanks, the thinking must be, throwing out our perfectly sensible proposal.

It must also partly be a desire to ensure that it avoids any sort of troop commitment. Recent interventions in Africa have been costly to France, and its military is a bit stretched these days.

But I think the main reason is that France really wants the U.S. to fail in Iraq. This is not because, as Friedman thinks, France is turning into an enemy of the U.S., so much as that France turned a while ago into an enemy of G.W.B. It cannot have escaped the attention of the French that Bush has staked his reputation on his venture in Iraq, any more than the Bush admin’s visceral dislike of France went unnoticed in the capitals of Europe.

We were repeatedly assured by hawks in the buildup to war that, although Europe and the Middle East hated the war, if it was done and done quickly, they would get over it and come back to the table. One problem with this sort of assurance is that if Europeans or leaders in the Middle East get wind of it, they start to resent the obvious cheapness of their resistance to a particular policy. Unfortunately, I think, word got out.

It’s not just spite that’s driving the French policy. Folding too easily would confirm the view that, like it or not, the U.S. has only to persist in a policy to get everyone to eventually agree on it. In the long run, that’s a precedent no one wants to set.

Alas, I think all the tough talk convinced France that the only way to drive home, really drive home, the indispensability of the world community – and the U.N. in particular, where French influence is artificially high – is to turn Iraq into a burning shithole that represents a permanent stain on American honour and prestige. That’s the strategy.

The point, again, isn’t to take over America’s role in the world. It’s to scare a generation of Americans into the belief that multilateralism is good, and unilaterialism (i.e., doing something without the French) is bad.

Now, where does the well-being of all the Iraqis and American troops fit into this? They are, I’m afraid, to be sacrificed to this ‘larger point’.

One other thing: It’s possible to note all this and still think, as I do, that the Bush admin’s unilateralism was a complete screw up.

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