Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Layer 324 . . . The LRB, Dreyfus, Zola, Truth, Justice, Blind Faith and Constructive Criticism

I’ve said this before, but for people who enjoy having their minds stretched and their thoughts stimulated by writing which has depth, clarity, wit, insight and originality the London Review of Books is a fortnightly treat.


Non-subscribers can access a fair amount of its content on-line, such as this superb article by Jacqueline Rose, which can also be viewed on the LRB website as a video lecture:


Her main concern is with the recent events involving Israel and Gaza, and with (mis)uses of State power generally. She uses the case of Alfred Drefus, and the subsequent trial of Emile Zola, to illustrate the way in which individuals can be persecuted by the State, and the way in which brave individuals can, and should, stand up for truth and justice in the face of overwhelming State power and public prejudice.

These quotes will give a flavor, but the piece ought to be read in its entirety.

What is a collective passion? And is it something we should want, or get excited about?

It remains to be seen whether [Obama’s] rhetoric can fully triumph over the crushing anomie of state bureaucracy and the realities of political power. And that is not to speak of the lethal counter-enthusiasm, the ugly, race-tinted hatreds also provoked by the election of the first black president, the dogs baying on the White House lawn.

Our era seems only rarely to be capable of marshalling collective affect in the direction of the common good. As Tony Judt has eloquently argued on several occasions over the past year and in his new book, Ill Fares the Land, the sense of mass belonging which characterised European and American politics from the late 19th century well into the last, doesn’t seem to be there any longer.

In an interview with Kristina Bozic in this paper, he laments what he sees as a failure of political vocabulary, the absence of a language that could inspire ‘collective ideals around which we can gather, around which we can get angry together, around which we can be motivated collectively, whether on the issue of justice, inequality, cruelty or unethical behaviour’.

One million marched against the war in Iraq: it made no difference. There is a fundamental ‘disconnect’ between the people and those who claim to represent them. As the last 18 months have so brutally testified, the anti-globalisation movement, though it is testament to something of what Judt is calling for, has had no effect on the clout and corruption of international finance across the world. Action on climate change seems to be in freefall. With no apparent awareness of the irony, we will save the banks before – or rather instead of – saving the world.

We have lost our capacity for political rage. Can passion be stronger than power? Do we want it to be?

Imagine now the Palais de Justice in Paris in February 1898. Emile Zola has been charged with libelling the army in his famous letter, which we know today under the title ‘J’accuse’ (it was a stroke of genius of the editor of L’Aurore, the left-wing paper in which it appeared, to splay these words in a bold headline across the front page). Zola wrote the letter in response to the acquittal of Major Esterhazy, a low-life womanising swindler, who had been exposed as the true author of the bordereau or missive that had precipitated the affair. Discovered in a wastepaper basket at the German Embassy in Paris by a cleaner working for French intelligence, the bordereau revealed that classified military information was being passed from France to Germany. Wrongly – wilfully, as it turned out – it had been attributed to the young Jewish artillery captain, the rising star at the headquarters of the General Staff of the French army, Alfred Dreyfus.

To put it simply, Dreyfus had been framed. In 1894, he was court-martialled, convicted of treason and then in 1895 deported to Devil’s Island, the tiniest of three tiny Iles du Salut, or Salvation Islands, off the coast of French Guiana, where the climate was so intense that to be sent there was considered a death sentence. By the time of Zola’s trial, Dreyfus had already been languishing on the island for three years, in inhuman conditions. It almost killed him (he had also been kept in complete ignorance of the campaign to free him). He would remain there for more than a year until he was brought home for his 1899 retrial, at which he would be reconvicted ‘with extenuating circumstances’ by a court set up by the army to vindicate itself. Given that by then everyone knew he was innocent, this was in many ways a more shocking conviction than that of 1894.

Zola was sparked into his famous protest when Esterhazy walked free. As the world watched the events in France with growing dismay, Zola, along with the rapidly expanding number of Dreyfusards, had believed that the inevitable conviction of Esterhazy would be the beginning of redemption. Instead, it was a whitewash for Esterhazy and for the army.
Dreyfus would finally be pardoned in 1899, fully exonerated and reinstated in the army in 1906, and made an officer of the Légion d’honneur in the First World War . . .

What can the whole affair teach us in the process about public passion? I will track the main strands of the affair as I see them: the struggle for justice, the corruption of state and army, the outpouring of anti-semitism and the fate of the Jews. But the lessons I draw from them, the ways I see them combined, may not – by the end – be those most obviously expected.

What happens if . . . we run the line: because of Dreyfus, therefore justice, or rather the struggle for justice, crucially for the Jews a universal and endless affair? Today, following Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008-9, the question of justice in relation to Israel has become a burning international issue. What happens if, like Bernard Lazare, a key player in the affair, we make justice a defining priority of what it might mean to be a Jew?

The affair has three heroes: Zola, the less known Colonel Picquart, one of Dreyfus’s few defenders inside the army, and Bernard Lazare, the Jewish socialist-anarchist and critic who was the first to speak out publicly in Dreyfus’s defence. But we should also add a fourth: the radical, little-known literary journal La Revue blanche.

Dreyfus knew that he had been framed because he was a Jew. ‘My only crime is to be a Jew,’ he stated to the Cherche-Midi prison director, Commandant Forzinetti, as Forzinetti led him back after his first conviction; the fact that he looked like a ‘madman’ and could not be calmed persuaded Forzinetti, before anyone else, of his innocence.

The publication of ‘J’accuse’ in 1898, and Zola’s subsequent trial, were the occasion for the most vicious outpouring of anti-semitism across France. The day after the letter was published, anti-Jewish riots, attracting up to 4000 people in each town, broke out in Nantes, Nancy, Rennes, Bordeaux, Moulins, Montpellier, Angoulême, Tours, Poitiers, Toulouse, Angers, Rouen, Châlons and Saint-Malo, as well as in Paris. Jewish shops were attacked, synagogues besieged, Jews were assaulted in the street, effigies of Dreyfus and Zola were burned.
Imagine then the extraordinary spectacle of an army officer – a colonel no less – who had previously been considered an anti-semite, stepping to the defence of Dreyfus, and pressing his innocence at the General Staff. If Zola’s courage is remarkable and duly famous, Colonel Picquart, less known to posterity, can equally be described as a hero of the affair. It was Picquart who discovered that the writing on the bordereau, the sole piece of evidence against Dreyfus, corresponded with Esterhazy’s. He had originally believed in Dreyfus’s guilt, but faced with the evidence, he put prejudice to one side. When General Gonse said to him, ‘What do you care if that Jew rots on Devil’s Island?’ Picquart replied: ‘What you are saying, General, is abominable. I will not in any event take this secret with me to the grave.’

From the moment of his discovery, Picquart stopped at nothing, including, for ten years, jeopardising his own career, in his attempts to redeem an injustice which he saw as threatening the integrity, if not the existence, of France as a nation. For that he was hated, far more indeed than Dreyfus himself.

For Picquart, blind faith in army and/or nation was the enemy of justice and truth. If he did not quite raise this opposition to the level of an abstraction, nothing makes its import clearer and more powerful than the Dreyfus affair. Nor, given the army’s final and total climbdown, does anything show quite so clearly the price it had to pay for its own machinations, cover-up and self-deception. The army lied. And once its prestige and standing had been compromised by the first lie – the wrongful accusation of Dreyfus – it became even more important for it to lie over and over again. Crushed by defeat in the war with Prussia and the loss as a consequence of Alsace-Lorraine (home to both Dreyfus and Picquart), the army had to be infallible. That is why many anti-Dreyfusards believed that, even if Dreyfus was innocent, there must be no second trial. Reading the accounts of the affair is to watch an army dig itself deeper and deeper into a morass of its own making . . .

When we consider the issue of justice in relation to Dreyfus, a central question must therefore be – as it still is today – whose justice are we talking about? Under interrogation at Zola’s trial, Major Ravary of the Paris military tribunal declared in an extraordinary outburst: ‘Military justice does not proceed like your justice.’

There were indeed two justices, two conceptions of duty and honour, two mentalities, two nations of France.’ This distinction between summary military justice and the due process of law still has its advocates. In the words of Scott Brown, the Republican elected to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in January: ‘It’s time we stopped acting like lawyers and started acting like patriots’ (he was arguing against court trials for alleged terrorists).

The contemporary parallels don’t stop there, and certainly reach British shores. On grounds of national security, the state prosecutors argued that the most incriminating evidence against Dreyfus, which in fact did not exist, could not be revealed in court. David Miliband recently used exactly the same argument to justify withholding details of Great Britain’s policy on and, the evidence suggests, complicity in rendition and torture. National security as the cover for the erosion of civil liberties is something we have all become familiar with since 9/11. This is to take matters one step further, however: national security, more straightforwardly, as the brazen cover for state secrecy and – I think we can confidently say – lies. (Begley gives a stunning account of these parallels with Dreyfus in relation to torture and whistleblowing.)

In all of this France’s humiliation by Prussia in 1870 was crucial, since it had insinuated the idea of treachery into a nation which, like any other nation, could not bear to see itself as responsible for its own defeat. That was why having someone who could be accused of treason was such a consolation. Idolisation of the army was the cover for catastrophe. This is also an essential lesson of the affair. There is no army more dangerous or ruthless, more prone to internal corruption, than one haunted by failure. It is often under conditions of disaster, past or threatened, that an army turns into a god.

‘I thought there was a better way to serve a cause than to wrap oneself in blind faith’: Picquart’s words at Zola’s trial received the strongest support from what might appear at first glance to be an unexpected quarter. La Revue blanche, an eclectic literary journal, founded in 1889, was home to some of Proust’s earliest writing and boasted Blum as one of its foremost contributors. Up until 1898, it seemed to share no aesthetic or ethical principles, no communal identity, except, perhaps – for some of its writers – the sense, in the words of one historian, ‘of belonging to the race of Israelites’. Thadée Natanson, its proprietor, was a Jew and friend of Reinach’s. Its writers included Gustave Kahn, Julien Benda and Bernard Lazare. On 1 February 1898, two weeks after the publication of ‘J’accuse’, the Revue published a ‘Protestation’ of its belief that Dreyfus was the victim of a judicial error and of its ‘nausea’ at the affair. La Revue blanche, one of the few public forums in which Jews were willing to speak out in defence of Dreyfus, provides a context which allows me to ask two questions which are, as I see it, among the most important legacies of the affair: what is an intellectual, and what is a Jew?

Almost overnight, the Revue went from being a literary journal whose only manifesto was not to have one, to a publication in the service of a political cause. In an outburst that nothing could have led one to anticipate, La Revue blanche picked up Zola’s baton and ran with it.
In the eyes of the Revue, it was the writer’s role to redeem the political disaster engulfing France: ‘Justice, like charity, like solidarity, must always be able to count on writers.’ It knew it was sticking its neck out. A basic mindset had taken hold of the country: unconditional faith in nation and army; a belief that any challenge to the army threatened the stability of all national institutions and would fatally weaken the country; and finally, the deepest suspicion of intellectual life, a hatred, in the words of Robert Gauthier, key chronicler of the affair, ‘of free inquiry masquerading as a call to action’ (to my mind, this is just about the best definition of anti-intellectualism you could hope to get). ‘To tolerate that an external force of intellectuals, professors, writers and unaccountable journalists – that is, the force of mere opinion – be allowed to exert pressure on decisions taken by our authorities, is to open the door to subversion,’ Gauthier wrote. For any public intellectual, a huge unintended compliment.
To write like this in 1900 was to attack a sacred object. More than a century later, there are parts of the world where it still is. ‘The famous special honour of the army,’ the Revue retorted to the anti-Dreyfusards in 1898, ‘is a cover for the privilege of lying, of treachery, of thieving with glory and assassinating with impunity’ (amazingly, they were not sued). France had become a military state: ‘All at once, we can see the state, in its terrifying power as military state … The rule of law is over … The despotism of the sword has begun.’ The government was no more than a ‘vain shadow, fading away in the face of the generals’. The Revue could already discern the seeds of a totalitarianism which would come to fruition in 1940 (the Israeli historian Ze’ev Sternhell has described the anti-Dreyfusard League of Patriots as the first proto-fascist organisation). France had submitted to the yoke of its generals. The rule of law was in thrall to the army, which had been raised to a ‘theocratic’, ‘sacerdotal’ principle, idealising itself in direct proportion to the violence it was meting out, and not just to its own soldiers: ‘To prove our indomitable courage, we go off and kill defenceless negroes … prey to the murderous insanity that fatally seizes a man with weapons.’ ‘Scrape beneath your national patriotism,’ Lucien Herr wrote in an open letter to Barrès in 1898, ‘you will find haughty, brutal, conquering France, pig-headed chauvinism … the native hatred of everything that is other.’ There was no way to stand back, the Revue insisted, ‘without degrading parts of the soul’. I think this can fairly be described as ‘counter-hegemonic’ discourse blissfully running away with itself and I found myself silently cheering in the British Library when I came across it.

Although many of the writers at La Revue blanche, as well as its proprietor, were Jewish, they did not write as Jews. ‘It was in spite of his origins,’ Proust’s biographer Jean-Yves Tadié writes, ‘that a Jewish intellectual took the side of Dreyfus.’ The fight for justice, the critique of ethnic hatred, the case for Dreyfus, were all mounted in the name of universal humanitarian values in which we can already see the outlines of today’s human rights discourse.

What happened in France at the turn of the century was in many ways a forerunner of Vichy. But it is not the only story, and those who tell it risk blinding themselves to what Israel as the nation for the Jewish people did to the Palestinians in order to become a nation, and no less to what Israel has become. If the only lesson we learn from anti-semitism is more and more anti-semitism – of necessity, eternally, and as the core and limit of Jewish life – then we have learned nothing. A different version of the story would instead take from the Dreyfus affair a warning against an over fervent nationalism, against infallible armies raised to the level of theocratic principle, against an ethnic exclusivity that blinds a people to the other peoples of the world, and against governments that try to cover up their crimes.

Judge Richard Goldstone . . . was chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda between 1994 and 1996. In 1991, at the request of Nelson Mandela, he chaired an inquiry into South Africa’s political violence. None of which requires us to excuse his actions as a judge under South Africa’s apartheid regime (of course detractors who seek to highlight this era make no mention of Israel’s deep military involvement with that regime).

[Goldstone and his co-authors have published Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories – Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.]

To my mind, the Goldstone Report . . . affords Israel a unique possibility, I would say an obligation, to take responsibility for its own actions and to recognise the injustice of those actions, not just during Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-9, but on a daily basis against the Palestinian people. There will always be a better way to serve a country ‘than to wrap oneself in blind faith’. All comparisons are invidious, but we could say that we already have our Zola. We already have ‘J’accuse’.

‘I belong to the race of those,’ Lazare said, ‘who were first to introduce the idea of justice into the world’:
All of them, each and every one, my ancestors, my brothers, wanted, fanatically, that right should be done to one and all, and that the scales of the law should never be tipped in favour of injustice. For that, over centuries, they cried out, sang, wept, suffered, despite the outrages, despite the insults spat at them. I am one of them and wish to be so. And that being the case, don’t you think I am right to speak of those whom you haven’t even dreamed of?

For me, there is finally no more important lesson to be learned from the Dreyfus affair.


In this week’s LRB there’s another article that has some relevance to the above.


Diarmaid MacCulloch reviews:

Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius
Oxford, 811 pp, £25.00, February 2010

Having given a positive review to the first part of this book, which does exactly what it says on the label, MacCulloch says this:

So far, so admirable in Julius’s long account; yet already one is struck by the difference between medieval murderousness, Tudor literary stereotypes of a people far away, and the later uncomfortable relationship between a majority Anglican culture and the minorities which it found itself forced to tolerate – Jews alongside Protestant Nonconformists and Roman Catholics, who made matters even more annoying for Anglicans at various periods with the swelling crowds of alien immigrants who were still more obviously not One of Us. Indeed, Roman Catholics have been much more consistently feared and abused in post-Reformation England than Jews. If everything that Julius chronicles over the centuries is anti-semitism, then anti-semitism starts to resemble that definition of a camel as a horse designed by a committee.

Then at p. 441 the reader encounters a turn in Julius’s book: ‘And so we come to the fourth of the English anti-semitisms.’ The rest of his work is devoted to directing the feelings of revulsion aroused in any right-thinking reader by what has gone before towards an equal revulsion from any criticism of the modern state of Israel. [My emphasis] Some of that criticism might indeed be seen as anti-semitic: it comes from Islamist groups who echo the malice of President Ahmadinejad in denying the truth of the Holocaust or advocating the annihilation of Israel. But Julius seems to regard any criticism of the policies of Israeli governments as impermissible. It is difficult to see how one could make any pained remark about the ‘Security Wall’ or Israeli settlements in the West Bank or the behaviour of the IDF in Gaza without incurring his censure; in fact, even Jews who criticise such episodes are classed as anti-semitic in Julius’s taxonomy. Plaintively, in his long and commendably confessional introduction, he remarks that the anti-semitism of which he seeks to construct a portrait ‘overstates, on every occasion, and beyond reason, any case that could be made against Israel’s actions or policies’.

Yet Julius’s own assumptions seem the mirror-image of this bogeyman: on his extended argument, there can be no reasonable case for criticising Israel constructively. Surely, given our species’ record of folly, selfishness and stupidity stretching over millennia, no polity in the long history of humanity has been in the enviable position of standing beyond criticism. Julius, who is nothing if not a superb rhetorician, is fond of the rhetorical device of concessio: that is, stating his opponents’ case in order to give an appearance of balance, and then ignoring it. He is, additionally, not above using the subset of that same rhetorical device which dismisses a strong counter-opinion as a ‘tedious riposte’ – what may be termed the ‘that old chestnut’ gambit.
There seems no place for a candid friend of Israel in this account of a long history when a territorial state of Israel did not exist, followed by a very different period when it has existed. Recently, as I dealt with a large volume of mail reacting to my presentation of A History of Christianity on television, it became apparent that one of the greatest sources of offence that I had given was to stand in Auschwitz-Birkenau and remind Christians of the centuries-old heritage of anti-semitism festering in the memories of countless ordinary 20th-century Christians. This poison led not just Germans but Lithuanians, Poles and many others gleefully to perpetrate bestial cruelties on helpless Jews who had done them no harm. Without the Christian centuries of characterising the Jews as Christ-killers, the Nazis would not have been so easily able to manipulate otherwise decent people. Many viewers, otherwise sympathetic to some of my criticisms of the Christian past, found this too much to take, and said so, often forcefully; equally forceful was my response in providing them with chapter and verse on the subject. Might I have saved myself the bother, and simply referred them to Anthony Julius’s account of anti-semitism? Regrettably, I couldn’t, at least not without a health-warning that in this long book a good deal of sound historical analysis is spoiled by a non-sequitur.


On a much lighter note, but still on the theme of constructive criticism:

Sex and the City 2 may just be the most radical and challenging film of the year, says Victoria Coren in the Observer.


What have you heard about Sex and the City 2? That it's bad? Let me tell you: this may be the most radical, challenging film ever made.

The first oddness of the film comes from the fact that the creators of the TV series were evidently kidnapped, bound and hidden in a cupboard while the entire project was taken over by the hardline, religious right.

Misogynists . . . have been quick to explain how much they dislike the characters in the film: venal, vacuous slags, the lot of them. Commentators have written this up as though it is their own unique take. But this is Hollywood, the great manipulator: if your misogyny is tickled, that's because it is an intensely misogynistic movie. If you despise the women, it is because the film wants you to despise the women.

It would be impossible not to. Samantha (Kim Cattrall), once a confident, funny female character who enjoyed casual sex, is, in this film, demeaned, humiliated and punished like no woman has been since the great days of the Victorian novel. She is made grotesque.

Meanwhile, her friends race around in an unnecessary fleet of gas-guzzling Mercedes, shrieking and salivating over hotel suites and shoes. Their souls are gone; nothing remains but cold, hard acquisition.

This must all be tremendously satisfying for those who disapproved of the single, self-motivated and sexually liberated women from the series. Look how it all turned out! The married ones find some happiness, once they surrender to joblessness and stop questioning their husbands' lust for large-breasted young nannies, but the one who stayed single? Ah, yes, she has developed into a desperate, shameful old whore.

Hence my assumption of a takeover by the American Christian right. As an ending to the story of these women, it reads like an extreme Calvinist pamphlet.

In order to hammer home the women's vapid, degenerate existence, the story takes them out of New York and contrasts them with normal, right-thinking people . . . It takes them to the United Arab Emirates.

The film confirms the darkest prejudices of the man or woman who despises sexually liberated New Yorkers . . . In one stunning metaphorical moment, the four chums are trapped in a souk, endangered, and dressed insensitively in shorts and plunging tops. Their escape comes – freedom is theirs – when they climb into burqas. Thus, its message is both the most conservative and the most radical we have seen in a Hollywood movie, possibly ever.

This morality tale appears to have the enormous ambition, the brave and culturally groundbreaking aim, of building bridges between religious extremists of east and west.

Sadly, it will take more than a rubbish film with bad puns to bring those groups together.

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