By William “Duke” Smither
“When the government violates the people’s rights then insurrection is, for the people and for every section of the people, the most sacred of their rights and the most indispensable of their duties.” – Circa 1790: Marquis de Lafayette, a French military officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War and key figure in the French Revolution of 1789.
Lessons of the French
Two years of high school French courses, coupled with being stationed in southern France for three years while in the Navy, was an awful long way from making me a skilled observer of French culture. But, the experience gave me a heavy dose of appreciation for the French people and the far-reaching legacy of the 18th Century French Revolution.
In fact, because we sang the French national anthem before each class, I was able to vigorously sing the “La Marseillaise,” replete with a crude French patois, whenever the opportunity arose, whether during soccer games or simply boozing or schmoozing with the French or French-Algerians during Bastille Day celebrations. At minimum, it was always a good conversation starter, since some wondered out loud as to how their friend, “L’Afro-Américain,” knew their customs so well.
I still feel somewhat close to and respectful of French culture and, to the dismay of a few friends, routinely cheer them on, as well as the United States and Jamaica, during Olympic games and FIFA-World Cup competitions in soccer. On the flipside, I’ve always felt that knowing a little about the complexities of the French Revolution gave me further insights into America’s own spirit of resistance, during the colonial revolt or American Revolution (1765 and 1783).
Inspirationally, they were similar, but also fundamentally different. More violent, the French were tearing down their “Ancien Régime,” their pre-existing socio-political system, long based on feudalism and fealty to the monarchy. It culminated in the guillotined death of King Louis XVI (born Louis-Auguste, August 23, 1754), dubbed “the last King of France,” before the fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution, on September 21, 1792.
Classroom– and, barroom– discussions revealed that members of the royal family were eventually captured and placed under arrest, before spending their last days jailed in the Paris Temple, said to be part of an ancient fortress being used as the old Knights Templar headquarters. King Louis XIV’s guillotine death took place on January 21, 1793. According to eyewitness accounts, his severed head was casually placed between his feet. The body was quick-limed and buried in an unmarked grave.
Nine months later (October 16, 1793), following trial and ‘guilty’ declaration by the Revolutionary Tribunal, Queen Marie Antoinette was rudely forced to change clothes in front of her guards, to don a white dress for execution. Her hair was sheared. Her hands were bound behind her. She was rope-leashed like a dog and, before jeering crowds, led to an open cart for public conveyance to the guillotine at the present-day Place de la Concorde, in Paris. She too was beheaded and her body later tossed unceremoniously into an unmarked grave. Some say that these events marked the end of monarchy and the emergence of the first French Republic.
Others contend that the events marked the beginning of the so-called the French “Reign of Terror” in which France, being surrounded by hostile armies, began taking harsh measures against suspected “enemies of the Revolution”, namely hoarders, nobles and priests, incited by dueling political ideologies of the “Girondins” (French moderate “republican” party) and the “Jacobin Clubs” (more radical and “democratic” in character). Reportedly, following this period of violence and mass executions (between September 1793 and July 1794), an estimated 300,000 suspects were arrested. Some 17,000 were executed and approximately 10,000 died in prison, many without benefit of a trial.
In the Shadows of Terror
In my own lifetime, various experiences have taught me how the ignorance of the aristocracy, within their unjust treatment of the peasantry, can launch public upheavals and transformative anarchy, although history usually points to an ‘absolute monarchy’, obscene national debt and food shortages as the primary reason for the social upheavals.
Sounds familiar? Any similarity to today’s racial and political climate? What about socioeconomic wealth and health gaps? Where is the leadership that once united us? Congress is definitely “missing in action,” useless, disjointed or just plain “feckless,” depending on whom you speak with. Certain factions and/or members of the political elite seem to be openly catering to racism and “dog whistle politics.” White supremacy and Neo-Nazi groups have more than resurfaced; they seem to be in vogue in certain corners of this nation.
Incredulously, le débat du jour seems centered around the idea of how Black’s Law Dictionary depicts the differences or similarities behind the meaning of “collusion” and/or “conspiracy,” as the political “speech police” and public relation attorneys play tag with their best political spin on the subject. Meanwhile, there’s no longer any lingering doubt about the “…time to take our country back” mantra. It’s now more universally understood.
Who’s Zoomin’ Who?
Recently, defying belief further, individuals sighted at a political rally, sporting t-shirt slogans claiming “I’d rather be Russian than a Democrat” simply added new meaning to the head-scratching aftermath of the so-called “Putin-Trump Helsinki Summit” (July 2018). Frankly, my immediate thoughts turned to Aretha Franklin’s first-ever Platinum recording, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”!
And, judging from some of today’s boneheaded responses to current street protest in the United States, including the deadly “Charlottesville 2017 Rally,” I’m beginning to wonder if some of our public officials should take some remedial high school-level history lessons on the root causes of rebellion or resistance against established government.
Do the radical 18th century rebellions contribute to 21st century political chaos, today? You betcha. And, there are probably many answers. Among them: exploitation of the politics of fear, widening differences between ruling class or wealthy elites and working class, declining accountability of politicians, political and corporate greed, ideological polarization, compromised societal values by political leadership, and fear-based anger of the masses, to name a few.
But, apparently, the sociopolitical constructs of racism and political disorder in the United States are so complex that the experts– political, social, religious, economic, etc.- continually fail to put forth any ongoing successful strategies of value for such a culturally, ethnically and racially diverse nation which we have evolved. In my opinion, racism has been a solid part of our national psyche ever since the arrogant, racialized, invasion and colonization of the Americas, during the 15th century. Such horrendous expansion of European powers remain part of the missing discourse or head-in-the-sand issues on race and cultural differences still lingering, today.
Yes, it’s complicated. Yet, we simply haven’t been honest about it to ourselves… and, the seething rage beneath the surface of racial subcultures and countercultures continue without any constructive conflict resolution. No wonder the national sense of trust in people and institutions seem to have all but evaporated. The dynamics of truth and politicized lying have obviously reached new heights. Racial animosities and political partisanship now seem more weaponized within the borders of the nation once identified as the “leader of the free world,” the United States of America.
Cracks in the Liberty Bell… and, Cockroaches?
The approach to the 2018 mid-term elections has become noteworthy. The playing field is unique. It features a deep, declining trust in politicians, festering gerrymander-protected congressional districts, generous “dark money” campaign contributions, growing wealth inequality, fragmented national unity, growing sense of police brutality among so-called ‘minorities’, illogical gun control legislation and, in my opinion, a questionable consent of the governed.
Furthermore, the nation now seems even more capable of drifting towards the once unthinkable, unprincipled dictatorship, as political chaos increasingly appears to be some new fangled ‘normal’, while the metaphorical crack in the iconic Liberty Bell might be growing once again.
If anything, the lessons from the “2017 Charlottesville protest anniversary” and the recent rise- and surely, eventual fall– of white nationalism and neo-Nazism within our borders remind me of an earlier, childhood observation. It’s about cockroaches:
They mostly dwell or hide in the dark, and in or around sewers… until the light is turned on them. Then they scatter in fear. They are nocturnal. Doing business in the dark enhances their survival. Some can even flatten or camouflage themselves between cracks in the floors or walls. Otherwise, they simply become the prey for birds, cats, people and rats…
Meanwhile, my fellow countrymen, let us hope that this behavior of society’s “cockroaches” remain consistent with what millions of years of evolution has brought them, thus far: remaining in the dark or being destroyed when light is shown on their activities.
High school classrooms and foreign barrooms may not be the best means of determining the magnitude of a nation’s character, but they served me fairly well for starters. And, later coupled with college and independent studies in history, it certainly taught me a lot about the moral fabric of our nation: it simply seems that certain memories or components, thereof, of civil strife or civil war continue to divide us along politicized racial and cultural lines, further staining and obscuring our national character.
Yet, despite what obviously divides us, there’s a heckuva lot more which unites us, the way I see it. This too is permanently etched in our hearts and on our memories, not the corruption or cockroach-like behavior of an aristocracy or ruling class and wealthy elites. Shucks, even I know that the soul of America is better than that!