Friday, December 30, 2011

How Dare They?

The Canadian Manifesto: How the American Neoconservatives Stole My Country

There has been a renewed interest in the famous Dreyfus Affair, that sent an innocent French military officer, of Jewish descent, to prison for treason in 1894.

Given today's media hyped "culture wars", this affair divided France, in the same way that we are increasingly being divided; with lines drawn between conservatism and liberalism; right and left.

Louis Begley's 2009: Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, reminds us of the anti-Semitism behind the affair, and he's absolutely right.  But he parallels the injustice with the Bush era and the practices of torture at Guantánamo Bay.

Dreyfus was indeed tortured by the inhumane conditions while imprisoned on Devil's Island, but the comparison ends there.

Frederick Brown's 2011:  For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus, traces the affair to France's humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, that split the country into "cultural factions that ranged from those who embraced modernity to those who championed the restoration of throne and altar."

The Eiffel Tower, built in 1889, stood taller than cathedrals, a visible reminder of the diminished stature of the Catholic Church.  More importantly was the financial threat imposed by the collapse of the Catholic investment bank, Union Generale, in 1882.  It  was blamed on the Rothschild banking firm, that had financed the reparations to Germany after the war, and was emerging as the dominant financial institute of the day.  Anti-Semitism heightened as economic woes continued, and a portion of the French public was quick to see the guilty hand of Jewish financiers at every turn.

Oxford University historian, Ruth Harris, in her new book: Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century, suggests that the affair that divided France was more complex and drawing on original letters, she showed that Dreyfus supporters were often critical of their "left-leaning" friends for not backing their fight, as the sentiment against the Jewish officer crossed many faiths and political beliefs.

That anti-Semitism was at the root of the Dreyfus Affair, is undebatable, however, I think there was also something else at play.  What I call the "how dare they?" factor.

While prejudice itself is the product of ignorance and fear, at the very heart of prejudice is a notion of superiority and power based on that superiority.  Whether race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, or social class, are at the core; power goes to the predominant societal group.  And to hold on to that power they must constantly prove that they are supreme, and therefore deserving.

The hierarchy of the French military at the time was predominantly Catholic and somewhat aristocratic, based on wealth and birth.  Alfred Dreyfus broke that mold.  The son of a peddler who had made a fortune in textile manufacturing, he was an "aristocrat" through education, paid for with "new money".   And he was Jewish.

When it was discovered that there was a spy in their midst, who was selling secrets to Germany, they automatically looked to Dreyfus, who not only spoke with a slight German accent, but fit an ill-conceived profile.  And there was a score to settle.   A superior officer, Colonel Pierre-Elie Fabre, while recognizing Dreyfus's intelligence and talent,  condemned his "pretentiousness, unsatisfactory attitude, and faults of character." (1)

As the only Jewish officer trainee on the French General Staff, he should have been more appreciative.  "How dare he" assume that he was entitled to this honour?  A spy scandal, presented an opportunity to put him in his place.

It was later discovered that the cash strapped Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy was the real spy and the fact that Esterhazy was never convicted, resulted in charges of a cover-up.  But it was too late.  Dreyfus was already guilty in the court of public opinion.

AFTERMATH - In the hyper charged anti-Semitic climate, many wanted it to be Dreyfus.  As a result, capitalizing on the emotions of prejudice, several right-wing groups found prominence, including the Action Française (French Action) counter-revolutionary movement, that fought for a return to the monarchist system, and a reversal of the achievements of the French Revolution,  that gave Jews and other minority groups equal rights.  They remained active until WWII, working as "Nazi collaborators", responsible for the arrest of Dreyfus's Jewish granddaughter, Madeleine Levy, by the Gestapo. Madame Levy was sent to Auschwitz, where she died in January of 1944.

The affair also saw the emergence of the "intellectuals" - academics and others who took positions on grounds of higher principle. (2)

A more profound result however,  came from an  Hungarian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl, who had been assigned to report on the trial.  Though opposed to organized religion, Herzl was responsible for the birth of the Zionist movement and the creation of the state of Israel.

The Knights of Mary Phagan

Fourteen-year-old Mary Phagan had been working since she was ten.  Her last job was at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta Georgia, where she worked 55 hours per week for a wage of $ 4.05; about a third of the national average.

On April 21, 1913, she was laid off, and on April 26, returned to the factory for her final pay, amounting to $ 1.20.

She was seen going in but not coming out. 

At about 3:17 a.m. the following day, her body was discovered by the night watchman, who called the police.

Unceremoniously dumped in the basement, battered and bruised, with wrapping cord around her neck, and her dressed hiked up; the police believed that she had been raped and then strangled so that she couldn't name her attacker.

After speaking with co-workers, they began to build a case against the company's superintendent,  Leo Max Frank.  Some of the girls had suggested that Frank was a bit of a flirt.

Though there was no physical evidence implicating him, the media spun the story to suggest that it was open and shut.  They even allowed the testimony of a black man, Jim Conley, to be entered against a white man,  a unique event in this region at the time.  But then that white man was a Jew.

Jim Conley was in all likelihood Mary's killer.  He was drinking heavily that day and was looking for cash.  Mary's purse with her wage packet was never found, and in later years, descendants of Conley claimed that he was indeed responsible.

So why was Frank convicted instead?  I believe that it was another case of "how dare they?"

Atlanta had the largest Jewish community in the South, many prominent business owners.  Frank himself was originally from New York, a graduate of Cornell, and president of the Atlanta chapter of the B'nai B'rith.

By contrast, many of the white Protestant citizens in the region were poor, uneducated farmers, who had left near destitute conditions in the Georgia countryside to find work in the city, and for many that work meant toiling for Jewish bosses.  The resentment was there, if not always visible.

Now they were being given an opportunity to put one of them in their place.  Jim Conley was a poor drunk who posed no threat to their standing as descendants of the "conquering race", while Frank was a symbol of the "foreign" exploiter making money from the labour of their children. 

Originally given the death sentence, the judge, who had doubts that Frank committed the crime, commuted  his sentence to life in prison.  Publisher Tom Watson, fanned the flames of anger, calling on the citizens of Georgia to take justice into their own hands and inflict the death penalty on this "Yankee Devil."  A virulent racist, he hurled anti-Jewish epithets at Frank, while making wild, unsubstantiated charges.

What happened next, was predictable.  On August 17, 1915, a caravan of eight vehicles with 25 armed men, arrived at the Georgia State Prison where Frank was being held. Calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, they cut the telephone lines, surprised the guards and kidnapped Leo Frank.

At Frey's Grove near Mary Phagan's girlhood home, they hung him. Photographs were taken but newspapers refused to publish them since they implicated many prominent citizens. Frank's body was put on public display and postcards made of the lynching sold by the thousands. "Justice" was served.  The white Christian was still boss.

AFTERMATH - Tom Watson, the publisher who had helped to incite the perpetrators, began calling for the reorganization of the Ku Klux Klan.  So on November 25, 1915, the Knights of Mary Phagan met atop Stone Mountain, burned a cross, and initiated the new invisible order of the Ku Klux Klan.  Soon after, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith was founded in New York; its creation based largely on the Leo Frank case. (3)

And in 1920, Tom Watson was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Black Wall Street Goes up in Flames

During the oil boom of the 1910s, the area of northeast Oklahoma around Tulsa flourished, including Greenwood, an all black neighborhood.  Because of segregation laws, despite being affluent, residents of Greenwood were forbidden to shop in white business sections, so instead created their own commercial district, that was so successful, it became known as Black Wall Street.

By 1921, Greenwood boasted 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores, a hotel, 2 movie theaters, a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, a half dozen private planes and even a well organized bus system.  In all 600 businesses thrived.

However, what was also thriving at the time, was the Ku Klux Klan, whose recruiting came easy with the affront of  the people of Greenwood believing that they could be successful on their own, without the help of white masters.  "How dare they?"

Things came to a boil on May 30, 1921, when a black man named Dick Rowland, stepped into an elevator operated by Sarah Page, a white woman. Rowland worked in a shoeshine store across from the building, and had been given permission to use their washroom.

The story goes that he stepped on Page's foot, throwing her off balance. When he reached out to keep her from falling, she screamed, and nervous, Rowland ran from the building.  The media sensationalized the story, by turning it into a full blown sexual assault, and like the Leo Frank case, began calling for "lynch justice".

The next day, Rowland was arrested and held in the courthouse lockup.   Outside the courthouse, 75 armed black men mustered, offering their services to protect Rowland, but the Sheriff refused the offer.  When a white man tried to disarm one of the black men, the gun discharged, sparking one of the worst riots in American history. (4)

Led by the Klan, the community of Greenwood was destroyed, most businesses burned to the ground.  As many as 176 people were killed, mostly black, including Dr. A. C. Jackson, who had received praise from the Mayo clinic for his medical skills.

Hundreds of  photographs were taken and again sold as postcards, including the one above:  'Runing (sic) the Negro out of Tulsa', though this was not so much about the negro, but the successful negro.  Had this been simply anger over a black man assaulting a white woman, they would have lynched Rowland, but there was a bigger score to settle. 

Louis Begley compares the Dreyfus Affair to the Bush Administration and the removal of civil liberties at Guantánamo Bay.  However, if we wanted to give any of the above stories a modern context, it would be when Rush Limbaugh referred to Michelle Obama as "uppity".

According to the Urban Dictionary,  the term is used to denote someone "Taking liberties or assuming airs beyond one's place in a social hierarchy. Assuming equality with someone higher up the social ladder."

How dare she assume that she can share status with the other 43 First Ladies, who were white?

Alfred Dreyfus, Leo Frank and the citizens of Greenwood were also "uppity", and paid heavily for the crime, not of believing that they were better than everyone else, but only equal to other military officers, plant bosses or business people.

How dare they?

In his 2008, White Protestant Nation, Allan Lichtman traces the Conservative movement to this time in history, when the "national identity" was being threatened.  Hannah Arendt referred to it as the "conscientiousness of common origin".

The right-wing mobilized and went from an assortment of fringe groups to what Lichtman called "the most powerful network of media, fundraising and intellectual organizations [think-tanks] in the history of representative government."  He also reminds us that the conservative ideology is not as many believe, lower taxes, limited government and the free market, but rather a "vision of America as a white Protestant nation".

Canada's conservative movement now represented by the Conservative Party of Canada, shares that vision.  From Sun TV's "white people", "Christian nation" rhetoric, to the new direction taken by immigration head Jason Kenney, and the renewed prominence of the Monarchist League

We are taking a huge leap backward.


1. "Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters", by Louis Begley, The Denver Post, November 8, 2009

2. Dreyfus Affair, Wikipedia

3. Website Names Alleged Lynchers of Leo Frank, Cobb Online

4. The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, Montgomery College

5. Of Passionate Intensity: Right-Wing Populism and the Reform Party of Canada, By Trevor Harrison Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995. ISBN: 0-8020-7204-6, pp 170-171

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