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Acknowledging the Lessons of History



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Many writers I much admire have offered accounts of their reading habits, and most that I have seen have suggested they read more than one book at a time. My own habit is similar, as I often find myself reading three or four books at a time. I also keep a “pending” pile of texts I look forward to reading. Typically, I have browsed most of these titles, dipping into their arguments and familiarizing myself with their warp and woof to gain a better idea of which volume I shall address next. One new and disturbing book on my “to read” list is by Yale University historian John Merriman, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune of 1871. Merriman offers a detailed and often searing account of the politics and street level unfolding of the May 1871 attack by 130,000 well-equipped members of the French Army on a ragtag group of citizens in Paris. When the incursion was over a week later, the army had killed approximately 10,000 people and arrested 36,000, of whom roughly 10,000 were executed (without trial), deported or imprisoned.

The Commune movement, as it was called, was led by a group of self-employed artists and minor professionals and was not radical in character. Instead, its members felt betrayed by the nation’s government, which had sued for a harsh peace with Germany following France’s ill-advised war with that country the prior year. But the conservative government in power saw this relatively small group seeking increased autonomy and the redress of economic grievances as a revolution, and acted with unfathomable savagery against its own people in consequence. The national force that attacked the Commune outnumbered its “foe,” so the outcome of the “battle” was never in doubt. Nonetheless, the French forces systematically killed armed and unarmed individuals alike and shot prisoners with impunity. All of this resulted from a government-created campaign of fear and anger that led to a shocking view of the Commune townspeople and dehumanized them. The regime and ruling party then acted on the basis of their own invented trope concerning those they attacked.

This moral outrage was markedly sad on its face, but it is still more deeply ironic and unsettling, as Merriman makes clear, when one understands that its perpetrators soon accepted the Commune’s aims as their own policy and direction. In short, the killings were purposeless and predicated on a fear built of a constructed and imagined foe and a persistent drum beat of supposed nefariousness that never existed. The Commune’s members and aims bore little resemblance to the lurid portrait that “justified” the regime’s actions.

While our nation’s politics has certainly not descended to systematic slaughter of its own people, this extreme episode of the potential consequences of socially constructed fear and anger sounds too familiar not to serve as a warning to our own citizens and leaders concerning how easy it can be to slip into dehumanizing and demonizing one’s foes, even when these are a portion of your own citizenry. In fact, in ways large and small, many of our country’s leaders are engaged in forms of such behaviors. For example, we have recently witnessed a Republican congressional staff member criticize President Barack Obama’s children on social media for what she called their lack of decorum at a White House ceremony, while also demeaning the President and his spouse as beneath contempt as role models and national leaders. We have also seen leaders of that same party oppose virtually everything Obama has proposed during his tenure, not because they actually have always disagreed with those steps, but because they believed (rightly, as it happened) that citizens would blame the President and his party politically for the resulting perceived inaction. Both of these examples reveal an unsettling pattern and habit of mind.

Unfortunately, there are many other examples of this Republican propensity. For instance, the GOP has now launched multiple “investigations” into the tragic events in Benghazi with no evidence to support anything reprehensible, but the claims of outrage nonetheless continue as a way to characterize the administration as feckless while arousing a partisan base to oppose former Secretary Hillary Clinton, should she run for the Presidency in 2016. Fear, hatred and rage, it seems, even when they are without any relationship to reality and are cynically propounded, are strong motivators.

If this stance has characterized Republican efforts during the current presidency, it was surely at play, too, in the nation’s reactions in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Thereafter,

  • Then U.S. President (George W. Bush (R)), announced that these events could be seen only dichotomously, and nations and peoples around the world could only either be for us or against us;
  • The United States shortly launched two major and very costly wars that continue as I write, by invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq to address the fear of continued terrorism;
  • The President pressed for and received permission to curtail American civil liberties significantly and to permit much greater surveillance of that population by its government on the grounds that such was necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, i.e., to mitigate fear;
  • Tens of thousands of American citizens were persecuted by their fellow residents on the basis of their perceived national origins or religious faith, out of fear of their perceived difference;
  • The United States government developed a rendition program to handle alleged “terrorists,” and also engaged in the systematic torture of many of those prisoners, while seeking to keep both efforts secret. All of this was “justified” as necessary to prevent future terrorist attacks.

That is, in our own nation and time, the Republican Party leaders’ reactions to world events and the GOP’s hypercritical treatment of Obama have helped to foster an atmosphere not unlike that of France in 1871. These actions have included an unwillingness to call out conspiracy theorists in the GOP’s ranks and people who question Obama’s citizenship, along with a companion willingness to “other” immigrants and minorities in order to galvanize specific groups to the polls. Millions in the U.S. are fearful as a result of long-term economic changes spawned by globalization and have been told repeatedly and falsely by the Republican Party, which has systematically played on those fears, that certain population groups and their own government’s incompetence are to blame for their situations. Now, as in post Franco-Prussian War France, these assertions and this narrative have been deliberately constructed and bear little relationship to a far more complex reality. Nonetheless and more to the point, the citizens at whom these efforts are aimed often do find them credible and they serve to reinforce the fears on which they rely.

A combination of public hysteria and scapegoating based on a constructed narrative led to mass murder in France in 1871. In the United States a similar combination of fear, loathing and phantasm has constructed an atmosphere that has thus far led to secret rendition and torture, mass discrimination, poorly considered and conceived wars and a Party’s systematic effort to prevent effective governance. The U.S. has already ignored several lessons of the Commune tragedy, and now a share of this nation’s governing officials and leaders, many of whom were architects or agents of its past misguided efforts, have an opportunity to avoid additional damage to the polity they serve. The allure of power and the strength of scapegoating strategies targeted to a fearful public here in the United States are by now obvious. What is less clear is whether the path the Republican Party has charted in the past will continue under a new condition of GOP congressional control. It certainly may. Alternatively, there is some hope that the party’s leaders will now assume responsibility for governance, rather than continue to create imaginary narratives that allow it to scorn and “other” governance, officials and citizens in ways that energize fear and loathing and undermine regime legitmacy, but accomplish little else. History, in the guise of the Commune tragedy, teaches that the costs can be enormous when those who construct false narratives to mobilize come themselves to believe and act on them.

Note to Readers: Max Stephenson Jr. is taking a break. Soundings will return on January 5, 2015. Happy holidays!

Publication Date

December 14, 2014