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Covid and the lessons of the Dreyfus affair

September 18, 2020 - 19:23 -- Admin

One can tell many stories of how current times resemble some earlier historical period. The conflict between nationalism and internationalism, as personified by the controversies surrounding Brexit and Trump, has been seen as somewhat of a re-run of the conflict between fascism and socialism in the 1930s. The conflict between the West and radical Islam made many think of the crusades. The covid pandemic and its effects has been likened to the Plague, the Spanish Flu and the Asian Flu.

Though they are never perfect, I like looking for such analogies because they give some idea as to the outcomes and the dynamics that are possible. They tell us what humans have been capable of believing and of doing in similar situations as we have now. So I have looked for the historical analogy that best fits the “narrative” aspect of the current covid controversies.

Ask yourself: which historical event had the same combination of an official narrative that had great popular support but was just an ossified mistake versus a small minority narrative that gradually became more and more dominant? The clearest case I can think of is the Dreyfus Affair from 1894-1906. If we are witnessing a repeat of the dynamics of the Dreyfus Affair, there are sobering lessons for both sides of the covid debate. Consider the parallels from my point of view, ie as an avowed “lockdown skeptic”.

Albert Dreyfus was a proud captain in the French army at a time when France was very divided and its army command was very worried about German spies, still smarting from the German invasion of 1871. When it was discovered in 1894 that details of French armament were sold to the Germans, the secret police more or less randomly arrested Dreyfus who was promptly convicted by a tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment on “Devil’s Island”, a notorious prison camp with conditions few survived for long.

Albert’s brother Matthieu was a man with very powerful connections and could call upon Jewish solidarity with an accused member. For instance, the Rothschild’s of London took up Dreyfus’ case. So a lot of money lined up to fight Albert’s cause. The evidence in the case was so pitiful that intellectuals with all kinds of ideologies (socialist, anarchist, pacifist, etc.) got organised as ‘Dreyfusards’. They wrote petitions, held rallies, lobbied politicians, encouraged high-ranking officials to start new investigations, etc.

Initially, the Dreyfusards got nowhere. Over 99% of the politicians (but not all!) affirmed the conviction in a parliamentary vote. Books were written on the evil influence of Jews in France. Newspapers were full of disinformation. Officialdom celebrated Albert’s conviction. The population was totally on the side of the army. It was a time of hysteria.

In 1896 there was a breakthrough in that a new investigation actually found the culprit who even confessed to selling secrets to the Germans. How did the French army react? They posted the investigating officer (the head of the secret service no less!) somewhere far away, took no notice of the confession and even paid the culprit to stay away and keep quiet. In a new trial, they simply convicted Dreyfus again, dismissing the new evidence. Once more, the majority of the population rejoiced.

Now the Dreyfusards really got going, buoyed by their belief that they were onto a winner and that the case was all they hoped for: evidence of all the ills of authority and whatever else they thought was wrong with France at that time. They managed to improve the actual conditions of Dreyfus stuck on his island so that at least he’d survive, basically by bribing and threatening the key authorities involved. They organised more rallies, petitions, etc., the most famous of which was the “J’accuse” letter by Emile Zola, who was then the eminence grise of French literature. In that famous letter he accused the entire elite of France of all manner of evils, a libelous accusation he knew they would put him into jail for. Which they did.

The force of the argument, as well as that of the international press and the money on the side of the Dreyfusards built up the pressure, such that in 1899 there was another high-profile trial in which the commanders of the French army stood accused of stupidity, cover-ups, and all the other things they had actually done. The jury consisted of junior French army officers who exonerated their own army commanders and duly convicted Dreyfus again, despite the international media mocking their convoluted arguments. Mainly to get rid of the pressure, the French president then offered Dreyfus a presidential pardon, which he took, much to the chagrin of the Dreyfusards who wanted him to refuse out of principle and keep going with court cases.

The Dreyfusards fell apart a bit after that, particularly because it turned out Albert Dreyfus had no interest in being a rebel or to blame those who had him imprisoned unfairly for 5 years. All he wanted was to get back into the army and fight wars for France. He got that wish in 1906 when a 6th and last trial finally exonerated him, after which he promptly reapplied to the French army, which took him and gave him a promotion. Later on he got wounded by a fervent nationalist still smarting about the case, but he survived and fought in the first world war, getting all sorts of medals. He died in 1935. The anti-antisemitism that was fanned by officialdom during the 1894-1906 period has been seen as a factor in the vicious behaviour of the Vichy-regime of 1940-1944.

Now, I see many parallels between the narrative dynamics of the Dreyfus Affair and the covid debates now increasingly raging.

The modern Dreyfusards are all those railing against the imprisonment of the population (lock downs and social distancing), starting with very few initially but gradually growing in strength. They are a motley crew from all kinds of persuasions with totally different hopes for what happens once they are seen to be right. They have all kinds of beliefs as to what lead to the initial hysteria and the imprisonments, most of which are absurd conspiracy stories. They have some money and power behind them, namely from the businesses community and parts of the artistic and intellectual elites. They can all see the suffering of the population and the absurdity of the arguments concocted to keep the hysteria and imprisonment going, but they hit a solid wall of authority, the popular appeal of the hysteria, and legions of intellectual enablers.

The modern opponents of the Dreyfusards are authority, institutionalised health advisers, most of politics, and the institutionalised arbiters of truth. Whilst the French courts in 1894-1905 made absurd ruling after absurd ruling, today’s regulators, Lancet editors, and many ‘scientists’ equally contort themselves into bizarre twists to rationalise previous decisions and the instincts of the public. At least, from my perspective!

The discovery in April-June 2020 that covid was nowhere near as lethal as previously said, whilst the effects of the imprisonment were just as bad as foretold, is like the confession of the actual culprit in the Dreyfus case in 1896. And, like then, the revelation that the entire basis of all the previous decisions was completely wrong, something already known by a handful at the start, has made little difference to authority or the arbiters of truth. At least, not in the short run. Authority doubles down and uses covid for an increasingly destructive agenda, aided by the majority of the population who doesn’t want to believe they have been fooled.

Like then, the modern Dreyfusards initially have had to operate on the fringes of the media but are gradually becoming more mainstream. Like then, the early Dreyfusards  dreamed truth would prevail in a matter of months, disappointed at every turn at how long it takes and how intransigent authority and its intellectual enablers can be if their own honour is at stake.

I think this last element is what draws me most to the Dreyfus analogy: the involvement of a sense of honour on the side of those who insist the right choices have been made. It is not so much that they truly think they are doing the right thing right now, but more that they are incensed by the open suggestion that they f*cked up big time initially and have been covering up every subsequent step of the way. They feel their honour is at stake and they extend that personal indignation: to question them is to question authority, the nation, science, and reason itself. As with the Dreyfus affair, this time round a growing group inside authority know exactly what is happening, but at the same time a large group has convinced itself and will probably never recant.

The analogy contains a very sobering thought for the modern Dreyfusards, which of course includes me. If the same pattern holds now as then, the population will not be grateful for being saved from the follies of authority and the absurdity of their intellectual enablers, but will flock back to authority immediately after being released. The vast majority of authority and enablers will then survive in their position, wreaking more havoc at some later point. The hopes of the modern Dreyfusards will largely be proven vain, and the origins of the most memorable slogans of the fight (“J’accuse”) will be forgotten.

So I really do hope the analogy is less than perfect.