^^ Mob rule in the French revolution
We in the United States no longer discuss much about the French Revolution, but in my youth, some 60 years ago, it was still an intense topic of recrimination and musts to avoid. It had taken place some 160 years prior, yet we all knew, or were taught, to study its excesses of zealotry and to never forget them as we graduated into our adult lives in and amongst the American public.
There was much to abhor. The king had ruled all France from an utterly. centralized bureaucratic despotism in which some thousands of nobles and their families were exempted from all sorts of taxes, tolls and fees, while the rest of the nation paid every one of them, with some regional exemptions entirely ad hoc and always liable to withdrawal on the whim of a monarch and his few courtier favorites.
Then came the great upheaval; even the minor nobility had had enough; the “national convention” met and began the process of curbing the king and, eventually, abolishing almost the entirety of French custom, law, and culture. The world watched in horror as the convention set up tribunals where, without process of law or a bare sham of it, condemned to death first nobles and priests, then those who opposed the tribunals, then members of the “convention” itself battling to their mutual beheadings at the “guillotine.” Religion was abolished; religious monuments torn down; the graves of monarchs desecrated; the homes of aristocrats burned and looted, their occupants forced to flee or, if caught, imprisoned and in thousands of cases, guillotined. Even the calendar was abolished, the twelve months renamed (Priarial, Thermidor, Vendemiaire, Brumaire, Pluvoise, and the like) and a ten day week imposed. Mob rule terrorized all Paris and many of the provinces. An estimated 40,000 people were judicially murdered, thousands more imprisoned and impoverished, or forced into exile.
It all ended, of course, in a twenty year burst of Napoleon’s kleptocratic, military dictatorship, world war, and the utter ruin of all France and much of Europe. It took a coalition of England, Prussia, Russia, and the “guerillas” (a word then invented) of Spain to defeat him and to restore legitimate government to France — which never recovered its governmental equilibrium, really, until, in the 1950s, General, then President, Charles DeGaulle won ratification of the constitution that ever since has governed French politics and law.
I am hardly the first conservative to make a French revolution allusion to the ominous trends in our nation’s current public life, but the reference has enormous pertinence despite its recent frequency. So, please bear with me.
I do not want to see anything like it befall the United States, yet as I look at events, I see an undertow sucking us in that direction :
( 1 ) the Republican party of Trump attempted a coup d’etat that, had it succeeded, would have begun a civil war at least, just as the storming of the Bastille on July 15, 1789 initiated the French conflict. Much of the Republican party remains loyal to autocracy today — a religious fanatic autocracy supported those whom the media and academic worlds have stamped with the scarlet R of “racist.”
( 2 ) cultural revolutionaries are, if many reports are to be believed, imposing self-loathing orthodoxies and race-based tribalisms on teachers, administrators, and school managers as well as on employees in major corporations, sports teams, and public figures generally where they can. If reports such as this one –>> https://bariweiss.substack.com/p/i-refuse-to-stand-by-while-my-students?utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=twitter — are at all true, we are well into the fanatic phase of a revolution as ominous as the French one of 230 years ago.,
I have read many, many reports similar to the one I have linked you to. I have not visited campuses to research for myself if they are accurate. yet in my own experience of big city politics recently, I have certainly encountered zealotry of the same type : preachy, condescending, sure of its own utter righteousness and of the perfidy of anyone who in any way opposes it. The zealotry is especially virulent when questions of race are on offer. The preached view — “anti racism,” they call it — is the only correct one and anyone who disagrees the slightest is to be coventried, or worse, as a racist.
That this sort of demand-politics generates enormous push back, does not give them pause. Sure now, via social media, that they can intimidate businesses, faculties, and many politicians, and even economically extort them, the demanders seek to impose their racially sequestered, self-agitated manifestos upon public policy generally.
Fortunately, the framers of our constitutional republic so divided sovereign powers that almost no movement, no matter how zealous or extortive, can overtake the entire system. Trump could not do it, and — so far — his much better organized opposites seem to fall short of their take-overs except at the State level in some States in which they command veto-proof majorities. (Last week in Maryland the zealot legislature enacted, over Governor Hogan’s veto, a bill, much of it unconstitutional, which will make policing almost impossible in that State.) Nor is this zealotry limited to the “left.” Legislatures in some Republican States have enacted bills that would seriously erase the civil rights of LGBT people, or unconstitutionally interfere with women’s control of their own pregnancies.
Tragic mistakes by police as well as police overreaction lead now not to judicious reform, or to fair trials in court, rather than in the media, but to riots, threats, and calls for abolition. Do we have the moral fortitude to say No to these impulsive responses ?
At the Federal level, no such impulse or law sweep seems enactable, yet how close to the tipping point we are ! An unconstitutional voting bill, styled H R 1, fall short of passage only because Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia refuses to abolish the Senate filibuster — guarantor of the legitimacy of minority viewpoints against majoritarian rule — and thus prevents said bill gaining sufficient Yea votes. The filibuster also stands stalwart against the Democratic left’s impatience to pack the Supreme Court with political Justices.
Equilibrium, the fundamental societal principle underpinning our Constituition system, is defended by the filibuster as well as by our other obstacles to tyranny : the electoral college, the provision giving two Senators to every State, no matter its population.
Equilibrium breeds and fortifies the freedom of the citizen. It is the Nay to every sort of attempt to curtail diverse opinion. It sanctions multiplicity of method, plurality of policy, and contradiction in the culture. It sanctifies every citizen’s assessment of public experience and wards off all attempts to silence or shame anyone for who he is or what she thinks about whatever he cares to think publicly of.
Equilibrium is the driving wheel of equality. It is the platform of freedom.
Without equilibrium, we are the tools of whichever mountebankery happens to prevail momentarily. One may live for the moment on a dance floor, where the jolt of a beat or the thrill of a riff takes us high, high, high: but public policy is not music, nor is a governmental system a dance floor. We lose sight of this at our peril.
— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere