Sons of Liberty, Sons of Anarchy
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused armies of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
— Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”
In an article in The American Conservative (June 17), Will Collins suggests that the pandemonium surrounding the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minnesota police has become America’s version of the Dreyfus Affair, that fin de siècle brouhaha in France during which the Third Republic came apart at the seams over a cut-rate forgery and hit job against a nominally Jewish member of the French military.
In many ways, the analogy is apt. As Hannah Arendt explicates at length in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), the Dreyfus Affair rent French society, becoming a shibboleth dividing one half of France from the other. Virtually overnight, both “Alfred Dreyfus” and “George Floyd” became rallying cries. One side girds for battle, the other braces for the blow. In that sense, the Dreyfus Affair parallels what is happening in our streets today. Dreyfus, a most unremarkable person in his own right, happened to be standing right over the place where a fault line suddenly split France in two. The figure of George Floyd under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin has become the hinge on which America is now seen to turn.
But if the Dreyfus analogy is pursued a bit further, it leads us not deeper into the history of France but to the birth of our own republic. At stake is not whether we are to be a white-dominated or a black-dominated nation, but who we are as a revolutionary people. As with France, so with us: The “Affair” of the hour points to our national character much more than to the controversies at hand. We’re not fighting about what we think we’re fighting about. We’re just re-enacting, as we always do, the Puritanism that is the sufficient condition for revolutionary “liberty.”
The Dreyfus Affair, as Arendt points out, was only proximately about anti-Semitism and much more about the formation of a post-revolutionary nation-state. The bitter recriminations about Dreyfus — who came from a family of deracinated Jews, after all — had little to do with Judaism as a religion or set of doctrines and very much to do with who would get to be part of 19th-century France, in which the wild-eyed freedom-and-democracy mob kept up its battle against entrenched aristocrats and the monied classes. The fact that the Rothschilds and other nominal Jews funded the elites and seemed to perpetuate the rule by social betters over the sansculottes made the situation even riper for violence. But the deeper fact was that pretty much everybody was ultimately on the same side.
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