Trump’s War On Intellect Is Actually An Old French Tradition

If there’s the first rule of political journalism it is that one should never start an article with the pronoun ‘I,’ and if a second rule exists, then it would be that if you absolutely must mention Greek philosopher and all-around smarty pants Plato, you should not do so until the second paragraph.

Leaving it to the third is even better.

The fact is that Plato’s belief – that a show of hands is a lousy way to resolve disputes is so fundamentally undemocratic that it tends to send even the hardiest of political constitutions into spasms as if they had Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Those of us who like to believe that democratic institutions are the bedrock upon which our society and indeed our entire sense of self-worth is based upon flared nostrils at one another at the mere suggestion of political elitism nee expertise.

Democracy is, after all, in our blood. It’s the way we do things. It’s a workable system, a wholemeal system filled with whole grains of truth and bowel friendly roughage.

And yet.

Few of us, if seated on a Boeing 747, would be encouraged if the pilot – via the crackle of the intercom – asked what their preferred altitude was. Consternation would morph to overt biliousness if the next vote centered on which of three promising-looking levers operated the landing gear.

In a medical crisis, we turn to doctors. Electricians wire our houses; chefs soufflé, kittens mewl, preachers preach, and game show hosts engage in the kind of asinine banter that only people who apply to go on game shows seem to enjoy. We rely on pharmacists to curate our medicine, farmers to rear our venison, and countless others to dot ‘I’s and cross ‘T’s to ensure that bridges continue to bridge and computers continue to compute.

We live in a world of interconnected disciplines and if that world were to end – were we to return to the state of nature so familiar to our ancestors — we’d be screwed. The wonders of the modern world are the product of collective ignorance. The average Apple genius has about as much chance of constructing a microchip as a Palaeolithic orangutan has of winning a Michelin Star for a truly top-notch Baklava.

We know this. Ever since we moved out of the caves and began to try our hands at farming, humanity has embraced the concept of specialization. Potters, weavers, blacksmiths, gunsmiths, scribes, clergy, nobility and peasants. Our history is rife with not so informal caste after willingly informal caste that knew their place, their limitations.

And when to look to others for advice.

Modern Family Feud

Not so with the modern world. Today one field appears exempted from perceived expertise. In politics, the opinions of those trained in the implementation of skills specific to the task at hand are barely listened to.

Indeed, they are often greeted with snorts of derision.

When it comes to politics, there can be no experts. Political scientists ply their trade in a twilight precinct of shabbily constructed discourse. Wedged uncomfortably between the asymmetric butt cheeks of academic rigor and ill-informed opinion, the dissonant is vetoed by the ego. Sure, political academics write their books, attend their conferences and whore their erudition to rolling news networks.

They get the same $600 a pop as all the other academics.

But they never get invited to do TED talks.

Because political science is the white foam cresting a wave of anti-intellectualism that has been growing for some time. What began as a proto-democratic tendency to favor one ‘wing’, over another descended – over the course of the twentieth century — into the kind of rampant tribalism that gave the Vandals such a bad name.

As a veritable Valles Marianas opened up between political factions, other disciplines got dragged into the quagmire. Kicking and screaming, they too mired in the funk.

Evolutionary biology. Climatology.


Ok… So maybe not that last one.

But such related disciplines were only ever a support act; the Amazon equivalent of the #567 bestselling book in the category of ‘invertebrate fiction.’ The headline was always writ large as a war between the opinion-crafters and the opinionated.

A battle the ignoramuses tend to win at the best of times.

Best ‘Worst Candidate’ Ever

Trump is a bad idea we told them. He’s a blowhard, an amateur, an incompetent peddler of reeking snake oils with known mafia connections.

They would not listen.

He’s a womanizer, a pedant, a liar, and a fraud.

They ignored us.

For God’s sake – we opined – he looks like someone fucked a sweet blancmange dessert and poured it into a cheap suit.

They elected him anyway.

They flipped the bird to the so-called experts—scoffed at the would-be-pundits and went their own way instead. We were so aghast that we upgraded our emotional state to agog. Facts became fake news; reality became subjective. Not that this new wave cause célèbre of stubborn stupidity, this cluster-fuck of willful ignorance was restricted to the United States. That might have at least made sense.

But no; over in Europe, the United Kingdom delivered a hefty kick to its own nut sack in the form of Brexit.

Italy toyed with the notion of returning to its fascist routes. Turkey opted to vote for incumbent president Recep Erdogan a suite of powers that would make Superman Kryptonite-green with envy. Nobody could figure out what the hell Hungary was doing to itself either.

What to do? Where could urbane snowflakes trapped in an elitist bubble made of avocado pits and college degrees turn to for advice? Was there no precedent for this sort of thing? Where are the allegorical or literal lessons that could help us make sense of all that had befallen us?

They are in the usual place of course, in France.

Specifically, Paris in December 1894.

The Dreyfus Affair

One might be forgiven for thinking that the affair in question must have been a sex scandal. This is France we are talking about here a nation so rife with a licentious scandal that even their constitution has semi-regular check-ups at the VD clinic. But no. The Dreyfus affair was an instance of duplicity so atrocious in its application and intent that its odor has lingered elevator fart- like for much longer than anyone would wish.

In September of that year, a French Housekeeper working at the German embassy in Paris stumbled upon a somewhat remarkable letter. Addressed to Max Von Schwarzkoppen – the German military attaché assigned to the embassy – it was unsigned, undated and written on a piece of tissue paper torn into six pieces. It stated that confidential French military documents were about to be sent to a foreign power.

French Counterintelligence was soon informed and — rather grandiosely—chose to name the document the ‘Bordereau.’ That means ‘the slip,’ to those of us not conversant in French.

The French Minister of War — General Auguste Mercier – took personal charge of the investigation. Both he and the press had long suspected that his department was compromised. Indeed, it had been leaking like a cold sore in the tropics. Sensing an opportunity to redeem himself, he launched two secret investigations into Bordereau; one was judicial in nature the other purely administrative. Both arbitrarily restricted their search to suspects who either held positions on the General Staff or had recently departed from such a post.

They soon found an ‘ideal’ candidate.

Of course, their criteria for what was and what was not ‘ideal’ might be somewhat confusing to the modern observer.

We cannot understand politics without first understanding history, and we cannot understand history without knowledge of geography.

Two Strikes

Case in point.

Captain Dreyfus had two strikes against him from the get-go.

Firstly, he was from Alsace.

The province is known today as French King Louis XIV annexed Alsace during the seventeenth century. Its neighboring state –Lorraine — fell behind French borders during the eighteenth-century reign of Louis XV, Both areas lay within what the French understood as their ‘natural borders’ specifically their eastern border which they maintained ran all the way to the Rhine. The dictates of nationalistic geography, however, circumvented a somewhat inconvenient point of order. The people who inhabited both regions were not really all that French.

In fact, they were positively Germanic.

The German language dominated – overwhelmingly so – but so too did other Germanic traditions; cuisine, modes of dress, military tropes and cultural norms. All stemmed from Teutonic mores. In 1871 the newly created German Empire demanded – and received – Alsace-Loraine. They were in effect taken as reparations for France’s humiliating defeat during the Franco Prussian War of 1870. Thus ‘Germanic France’ was returned to Germany and the people of Alsace made the transition from provincial oddities to actual foreigners.

So, there was that.

Secondly, he was a Jew.

Just as Karl Marx would have been surprised to learn that it was Russia who would first implement his radicalism so too would early students of Jewish history have been surprised to discover that the Holocaust was a crime of German design.

Jewish France

In the late nineteenth century, France seemed the most likely candidate for a backlash against its Jewish community. Anti-Semitism had been on the rise ever since the 1886 publication of La France juice (Jewish France), by Édouard Adolphe Drumont. The book – which sold 150, 000 copies within its first year – was a work of sickening prejudice.
Across 1200 pages, Drumont developed thee separate strands of anti-Semitic thought. The first, was racial in origin suggesting that a conflict between Jews and non-Jews -or Aryans as he labeled them was an inevitability.

His second accusation centered on his belief that the Jews controlled the world’s financial institutions. His theory in this regard was nothing new and based on centuries-old facile observations. Christians financiers had long been hampered by the fact that charging interest on loans was something of a taboo. Worse than that, it was a sin of ‘thou shalt not,’ vintage commonly referred to as ‘usury.’

The problem was that the Bible was somewhat conflicted on the issue. According to Deuteronomy it was OK to lend to a foreigner but not to your brother.

In Exodus charging loan interest to rich people was just fine and dandy. But woe betides those who exploited the poor to turn a profit. Meanwhile, Ezekiel asked and answered the question as to whether it was even permissible to let bankers live. Spoiler alert: Zeke thought it best to butcher them pretty much on sight.

The Jewish Exception

Jewish law was less ambiguous, as lending to other Jews was a serious no-no, but to Gentiles? That was another matter altogether. The modern banking sector was a thing of the Renaissance, but it was during the Enlightenment that it came into its own. Drumont, observing the growth of Jewish banking families such as the Rothschilds, Montagu, and Schroders saw conspiracy where there was in reality only historical anomaly

Lastly, Drumont proposed a religious reason for the hatred of Jews because they were complicit in the death of Jesus.

With rabid anti-Semitism at fever pitch in France, the somewhat German, defiantly, Jewish Dreyfus did not stand a chance.

That his on-file handwriting did not match that of the Bordereau hardly seemed relevant. An officer—with the improbable name of Charles du Paty de Clam was wheeled in to provide his expertise on the matter. As an amateur practitioner of the pseudoscience graphology – second only to phrenology in the list of nineteenth-century judicially mandated deception – he was well placed to throw reason to the crows.

Du Paty de Clam insisted that the reason that the handwriting on the Bordereau lacked any similarity to Dreyfus’ own script was that he had cleverly disguised it. Despite the fact that such wild and unsubstantiated speculation flew in the face of basic levels of jurisprudence the suggestion was taken seriously.

Miscarriage Of Justice

A total lack of tangible evidence notwithstanding, on October 29, 1894, General Mercier summoned Dreyfus to a meeting and demanded a confession. Dreyfus denied all knowledge of the affair. Mercier then suggested that Dreyfus should shoot himself, kindly offering him the use of his own revolver. Dreyfus declined the invitation.

The press went wild.

The La Libre Parole (Translated: The Free World) – a newspaper owned by none other than Édouard Drumont himself – was the first to break the story. They told tales of a licentious life. Day by day they spun lurid tales of non-existent gambling debts, of Dreyfus’ ‘insidious’ Germanic heritage. They sought always to weave the narrative of bad fiction towards those very same anti-Semitic sentiments they had been espousing for years.

You were warned — they told their readers—of the dangers of allowing Jews in the army.

The trial began on December 19, 1894, and a closed court was immediately pronounced.

The whole thing was a disgraceful sham.

Dreyfus defended himself with vigor. A dozen witnesses came forward to corroborate his protestations. There was no motive; Dreyfus was a patriot with an unblemished military record. He was rich, a hard worker and he had earned respect — and the support — of most of his peers.

The General Staff — aware that the evidence against Dreyfus was as insubstantial as a fruit fly’s flatus — panicked. The very lack of evidence, the prosecution insisted desperately– was proof of the man’s guilt. He had – they told an incredulous panel of judges – cleverly destroyed it all for the very purpose of making a conviction impossible. At the eleventh hour, a secret file prepared by the High Command’s own statistics section was submitted to the court by order of War Minister Mercier.

100 Percent Proof

It contained within it four ‘absolute proofs,’ of Dreyfus’ guilt, so secret that revealing their contents was out of the question. The court would just have to take it on faith that there was some juicy stuff in there.

As would the defense team.

On December 22, the seven judges came to the unanimous conclusion that Dreyfus was guilty of collusion with a foreign power and was sentenced to permanent exile within a walled fortification.

On January 5, Dreyfus was marched out before his peers where an adjutant tore off his badges, shredded his stripes and removed the cuffs and sleeves of his jacket. His sword was then broken. Shipped initially from one prison to another on April 14 he, at last, arrived at the infamous Devil’s Island in French Guiana.

Locked in a hut that was only 13′ by 13′ Dreyfus – the only person on the island aside from the guards – was subjected to a miserable existence. Isolated and feverish with tropical diseases he would remain in solitary confinement for over four years.

Meanwhile — as Dreyfus’ physical state deteriorated – all hell was breaking loose back home.

Two State Dissolution

The trial had created something of a rift in French society. On one side there were the Anti Dreyfusards – infested with the rabid anti-Semitism of the masses. Dreyfus’ guilt was tightly wound up in his Jewishness. He was guilty because the Jews were ‘guilty’ of a multitude of imagined slights, crimes, and depredations. He suffered for the sins of others.

The theological irony went unnoticed by most.

In the other camp were the Dreyfusards; those who saw the trial for what it was. A cover-up.

Dreyfus’s bother Mathieu led the way. He worked tirelessly to force a re-trial. He risked reprisals from the military establishment and spent a fortune. He planned to make as much noise as possible in the hope that somebody would listen to him.

Somebody did.

In 1896– as pressure to review the case mounted – Lieutenant Colonel Georges Piquart was ordered to review the case and was granted access to all documents including those in the secret file. He came across a telegram later to be dubbed ‘petit bleu.’ A German Military attaché Max von Schwarzkoppen wrote and addressed it to a French military officer called Major Walsin-Esterházy, His interest piqued Piquart decided to dig a little deeper and to his astonishment realized that there was something oddly familiar about Esterházy’s handwriting.

It looked exactly like the writing on the Bordereau.

He alerted the authorities.

Piquart was ignored then monitored and ultimately transferred to Tunisia for his troubles. Documents were forged, and petit bleu was doctored to make it look as if the original name had been altered. Despite overwhelming evidence that a miscarriage of justice had occurred the General Staff refused to budge. In 1897 Piquart returned to Paris and went public with his findings.

The Dreyfus affair was born.

The Wrong Side Of History

The reactionary anti- Dreyfusards led by men such as the novelist and politician Maurice Barrès and writer and critic Ferdinand Brunetière heaped scorn upon the Dreyfusards a disparate group of free thinkers led by Playwright Émile Zola, Anatole France, and Lucien Herr, et al.

The reactionaries dismissed them as – and in doing so popularized the term – intellectuals. They were derided as liberal dilettantes and political amateurs. These people were — the anti Drefusards alleged — so ensconced in their elitist bubble that they were inured from simple, common-sense logic.

They also just so happened to be right.

This odd collection of artists, writers and scientists were way ahead of the curve. The general public chose to follow narrow-minded prejudice and dance to the tune of a conservative overtly racist press. The progressives danced to their own tune.

With the knowledge of petit bleu now public domain Esterházy was put on trial for the crime that Dreyfus was currently serving time for. Future prime minister Georges Clemenceau accused the General Staff of cowering before Esterhazy. A former mistress came forward with letters in which Esterhazy outlined his hatred of France and its army. In the closed court, the accused was applauded, the witnesses booed. After three minutes of deliberation, Esterházy was acquitted.

Piquart was arrested.

Headline Act

On January 13, 1898, Zola published what is arguably the most famous – and certainly most damming – political headline of all time.

J’accuse…! – I accuse – was an open letter that appeared on the front page of the socialist newspaper L’Aurore. Zola’s accusations were fierce. He accused the French government of anti-Semitism of the unlawful jailing of an innocent man and of other heinous crimes. He highlighted the judicial errors and deviations from jurisprudential norms. In a blistering attack upon the media he wrote that:

“It is a crime to poison the minds of the meek and the humble, to stoke the passions of reactionism and intolerance, by appealing to that odious anti-Semitism that, unchecked, will destroy the freedom-loving France of the Rights of Man. It is a crime to exploit patriotism in the service of hatred, and it is, finally, a crime to ensconce the sword as the modern god, whereas all science is toiling to achieve the coming era of truth and justice.”

The paper sold 300, 000 copies a tenfold increase in its regular circulation.

For his troubles, Zola was accused of libel, found guilty on February 23, 1898, and received the maximum possible penalty of one year’s imprisonment and a fine of 30,000 Francs. He fled to England.

You can probably see where this is going.


Featured Image Via Europeana-Newspapers



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