There is value in learning about the past for its own sake. But when a situation in history corresponds to one in the reader’s current society, it can inform in additional ways. Such a narrative has the ability to show us error in our own society, paths to take and paths to avoid. Observing a similar event of the past, in which we are not swept-up, can allow insight through emotional distance. This is the case with Frederick Brown’s For the Soul of France. With its focus upon the culture war between liberal cosmopolitans and conservative nationalists, it in some ways mirrors the United States of today.
These two nations are not exact mirrors of each other. But instructive similarities are present: 1) The unreconciled tribes of liberal cosmopolitanism and conservative nationalism in both cases. 2) The damage of conservative religion interfering in the public sphere (Conservative Catholics in France. Conservative Catholics and Protestants in the US.). 3) A convenient, immigrant enemy perceived as foreign even when they are citizens (Jews in France. Islamics and Latin Americans in the US). 4) Attempts to replace scientific method with belief-driven propaganda (French parties favoring Catholic Monarchy which they believed would confer divine intervention and raise-up France after the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War. Groups in the US that deny global warming and evolution). 5) Competing media (in each nation a mainstream media seeking evidence to draw conclusions and a right-wing media attempting to fabricate alternative facts by simply pronouncing what they wish were true). 6) Rising hate groups committing acts of violence (In France, organizations who proudly labeled themselves “anti-semitic.” In the US, white-supremacists, modern-day Confederates, anti-semites and violent anti-immigrant assemblages). 7) The denigration of intelligence (In France, “Rationalism and individualism were seen as the baggage of an alien culture to which the bourgeois…held France hostage. Intelligence undermined an organic historical community” [Brown, p. 122]. In the US, the supporters of Trump, whose mindless enthusiasm for their leader permits them to ignore evidence of his harm). There are more, but the space of this review does not permit full elucidation.
Frederick Brown is an enjoyably lucid writer. With such complex conflict, it is of immeasurable value to have a historian who can present facts in an organized manner and narrate with color. His ability to detail the competing cultures, so that one understands their ideologies and acquires a sense of their separate social compositions, is useful to the reader. Brown organizes his book in a series of chapters, each of which describes a particular event and the responses of the two socio-political sides. The building of Sacre-Coeur Cathedral, the rise of the secular republic, the crash of the Union Generale, the rise and fall of General Boulanger, the building of the Eiffel Tower, the Panama Scandal, the Dreyfus Affair and the burning of a charity bazaar, all of these chronologically presented events produce reactions on both sides of the divide. Because Brown takes-on these events within individual chapters, one is able to concentrate on the event, its significance to each side, and which side advances its cause.
A history that reveals similarities to our own time can also instruct us by how it is different from our own. France’s racists and conservative nationalists experienced a day of reckoning with the Dreyfus Affair. Their prejudices and wishful thinking met reality in a way that caused their national decline. Comparable forces of prejudice and regression in the US have not experienced, and may not experience, a decline.
The standing of our nations is also quite different. In France, during the late 1800s, its cultural and political prominence on the European continent had already been usurped by Germany. But for the United States, (who is watching China in its rearview mirror, gaining on us economically like a monster in a horror flick), it is not necessary to surrender our position in the world. Though there are deep divisions within our nation, we have the capability to work together where we must. I can think that my neighbor is a superstitious fool for believing in an invisible superman in the sky, who instructs him to interfere in the private lives of LGBTQ people or women seeking abortions. But I can still understand that, when it comes to economics, we need to put down our clubs and work together. My neighbor can believe that I’m going to hell and take pleasure in picturing me there. But she can still work with me while we reside in this more temperate clime. We can have our differences, can but agree that a Communist dictatorship that uses slave labor might not make an acceptable world leader. Likewise, Congress can cooperate, culture war or not, to compromise on domestic and foreign policy issues that would promote US interests. The fall of every empire is inevitable, but that does not mean that our fall has to happen now. The cultures battling in For the Soul of France call to mind a Zen parable where two tigers are fighting, go over a cliff, and continue to claw each other to death on the way down. The harm in France was that each side saw the other as un-French. Nationalists thought the cosmopolitans were selling-out their nation to the Jews. Cosmopolitans thought the nationalists were incapable of change or reason, therefore out-of-step with a continuing progress that began with the French Enlightenment. Each saw the other as an enemy who was harming the nation, so could not imagine partnering with them to preserve it. As a result, even though the cosmopolitans won the internal war, France never again regained its prominence. The United States can read Brown’s book as a warning and a choice.
Brown, Frederick. For the Soul of France. Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.