Sunday, May 20, 2018

House of Wits. An Intimate Portrait of the James Family. Author: Paul Fisher.


It is unusual for any nuclear family to produce one talented child who influences their culture. Henry James Sr. and Mary James produced three: William James is often called the Father of American Psychology and was the creator of the Pragmatic school of philosophy. Henry James Jr. was a successful novelist whose works were bestsellers in the 1800s and are classics today. Alice James was an acerbic diarist, whose repressed life and insightful writing have influenced 21st Century feminism regarding its view of middle class women’s lives in 19th Century America. Many individual biographies have been written about these three siblings. But Paul Fisher does something that has never been done before; he writes a biography of the entire family. This permits a reader to see the environmental influences on these three and examine what elements came together to precipitate such intellectual talent.

At the very beginning of the book, Paul Fisher makes an important blunder that throws a damp washcloth on a reader’s enthusiasm for his project: he spends more than 100 pages on Henry James Sr., the father of this clan. Henry Sr. was a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg. He was a theologian, a lecturer and a writer, who was neither successful in his lifetime, nor influential after it ended. He wrote a dozen volumes of arcane religious philosophy that were little noticed when published and are of little importance today. If it were not for his three famous offspring, it is safe to say that Henry Sr. would not be remembered at all. That a figure of such modest consequence should consume so much of a book which includes his three more influential children, is a waste of time. Surely, his importance lies in his impact on these children. A more useful beginning would have involved an abbreviated chapter on Henry Sr. and Mary that discussed their individual lives and how they came together.

Fisher writes with an ease and informality which allows his book to flow. He can be amusingly sarcastic with his subjects’ flaws. When Henry Jr. squanders family money in European spas, rationalizing that he must “get thoroughly well” so he can work, Fisher writes “Harry bled with self-sacrifice” (Fisher, p. 259). When William’s insecurity causes him to continually fail with women, Fisher comments that his “would-be liaisons struck one wet match after another” (Fisher, p. 304). It is this informality and refusal to hold his subjects as sacred, which permit him to delve into their lives in a way that holds nothing sacred.

The author exposes the worst about the Jameses, holding-up each nasty secret like an exterminator bringing a homeowner every poisoned rat: William is “living with depression” (277), has “quirky, skittish methods of human interaction” (442), and was “cut off from reacting, empathizing, and relating to others’ emotions” (Fisher, p. 439). Henry Jr. is a vain, self-involved social climber, “tipping his hat like a marionette” in high London society (Fisher, p. 432). Alice is a neurasthenic shut-in, whose fits of “hysteria” are part of a “long career as an invalid” that brings her “much attention and solicitude” (Fisher, p. 461). With such debilitating psychological problems, one wonders how they accomplished anything.

None of these revelations are new. Biographers have been analyzing this family for over 100 years and, given William James’s vocation, a number of those have been psychologists. So throughout the book Fisher is reaching for new insights that, due to the competence of his competition and the obsessive letter-burning practices of the Jameses, may simply not be available.

But because this author is examining the family as a whole, he has the benefit of everyone else’s biographies and his own research. He does spend time on the two ignored James sons Wilkie and Bob, which adds an interesting dimension to the family dynamic. Early in their lives, Henry Sr. and Mary determined that those two had little intellectual promise and were cut-out for the world of commerce. So they did not receive the privileged educations of William and Henry Jr. In addition, the two less promising Jameses both serve for the Union in the Civil War, whereas Henry Jr. and William dodge service with ailments. The war service and unhappy journeyman lives of the two unsuccessful Jameses leave the privileged sons with lifelong guilt.

Fisher does have an evolved social conscience through which he views the Jameses and their period. He spends a good deal of time on Henry Jr’s alienation due to his being a closeted gay male. Henry’s fears of discovery affect his responses to his sister’s “Boston Marriage” with Katharine Loring. A special focus on the status of women is unavoidable given Alice’s penetrating diary. But even with avoidable issues, like anti-semitism and the condition of the poor, the author makes sure to expose the era’s injustices.

Occasionally, Fisher can be a bit melodramatic in pursuit of deeper Jamesian problems. He uses the word “incest” or “incestuous” so often that one is certain he’d love to discover some. In one silly passage, the author describes seven-year-old Alice selecting colors for a new hat with a London milliner. He characterizes the resulting color clash as causing “distress and confusion” (Fisher, p. 132). The shopping trials of an over-privileged child seem hardly worth mentioning in a city where her fellow seven-year-olds were working in factories and wearing rags. Fisher also uses literary devices to create dramatic tension. Sections often end with premonitions of doom as entrees into the next section: “Quincy Street harbored a grim secret” (232), “The winds were already gathering” (422), “a more immediate drama was unfolding” (510). Such breathless, gothic style can become tiresome.

But, for all of his melodrama and faux suspense, Fisher strives with some success to pierce through the Jamesian wall of stolid Puritan/Victorian repression and self-regard. One feels a sadness pervading the book as the Jameses struggle against their common, depressive, inner darkness. Because they are not portrayed as the paragons of their earliest biographies, one sees them as human and roots for them to succeed in love and work. The author’s unique approach, to the household as a whole, reveals how the environment produced three individuals who were highly intellectual, driven and emotionally problematic. His angle has produced a compelling read.

Fisher, Paul. House of Wits. An Intimate Portrait of the James Family. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements. Editors: Clifton Ross & Marcy Rein.


Until the Rulers Obey is a selection of interviews with South American social activists from organizations that are not affiliated with any government or party. Occasionally, their concerns and resulting popularity have resulted in their becoming an opposition party, but that is a rare occurrence. This is an extensive project involving 400 pages of interviews with individuals and groups of courageous activists. Their differing issues cover a broad range which includes indigenous rights, women’s rights, environmentalism, LGBTQIA rights, and poor people’s movements. Almost all of the interviewees have faced violence from governments, paramilitaries, or thugs hired by multinational corporations. Without these interviews, their concerns, persistence and contribution would have remained unknown outside of their own nations. Some remain anonymous so that their activities cannot be tracked by the state. The interviewers themselves faced significant danger in their efforts to gather some of these stories.

Each chapter represents a different South American country. After a brief overview of the social issues facing the populace of that nation, a series of interviews with activists working on those issues follows. Their approaches are creative, and as wide ranging as their topics: opposition newspapers, underground abortion services, protest, sabotage of mining equipment, occupations of land, public anti-homophobia education, creation of worker cooperatives; these are just a few of their differing responses to oppression.  

Though their issues and approaches differ, there are some commonalities among them. Aside from the aforementioned autonomy from government, these groups are, almost uniformly, opposed to multinational corporate interference in their national economies. This opposition was expressed by interviewees whose issues were not necessarily economic. LGBTQIA and feminist organizers also expressed that international capitalism was harming their nation. The authors employ the term “neoliberalism,” a re-emergence of 19th century classical liberalism which embraced free market capitalism and, in its South American iteration, included a component of colonialism. It is understandable that activists with compassion for the local people would oppose multinationals regardless of their area of work, given the pervasive damage caused by these companies. These giants, with the assistance of local oligarchs, have displaced indigenous populations from their homes, extracted minerals or agribusiness products and polluted the environment.

But be aware that the selection of anti-corporate interview subjects was a conscious choice on the part of the editors. They avoided interviewing organizations and individuals who lacked such a critique, and even subtlely derided activists who did not include anti-multinational ideas in their program. For example, Adrienne Pine, who wrote and performed most of the interviews for the Honduras chapter, stated “groups dealing with gender and sexuality issues organized primarily around a nonprofit model in the 2000s, and often found themselves limited by the priorities of their funders. Much feminist work focused on documentation of and service to women victims of domestic violence, ‘empowerment,’ sexuality trainings, and other narrowly defined women’s issues: LGBTQ organizations found themselves working primarily  on antihomophobia and HIV/AIDS prevention educational outreach work. (Ross & Rein, pp. 62-3). Pine’s statement is condescending towards South American activists, indicating that these people were not sincerely interested in correcting social problems like domestic violence and homophobia; but were “limited by the priorities of their funders.” One is lead to presume that, if not for their funders, these individuals would have been working on economic, anti-capitalist issues. The author gives no credit to the organizers themselves for having independent wills and perhaps choosing to fight domestic violence or homophobia because they or their populations were harmed by these problems. Pine’s statement also demeans the importance of LGBTQIA and women’s issues. Though the author may think of these concerns as “narrow,” or imported from above by white western funders, many women and LGBTQIA people feel that their rights and survival depend on solving these problems.

There is nothing wrong with having a book that primarily examines economic issues and takes a stand against the damage done by multinationals. In addition, the editors are to be complimented on their open-minded inclusion of women’s and LGBTQIA concerns. However, intersecting with other movements requires respect for, and sensitivity towards, their issues. At times, it appears as if some human rights concerns are drawn into the narrative as a way to entice readers for whom those issues are a priority. In another situation, editor Clifton Ross interviews Paraguayan feminist Liz Becker. Becker opens with a two page criticism of government and neoliberalism before even beginning to discuss women’s rights. She then gives women’s issues slightly less than a page of analysis (Ross & Rein, pp. 351-4). Again, this is a book intended to combat international capitalist abuses. But there is a strong flavor to this discussion reminiscent of a doctrinaire 1970s Russian Communist Party technique: they would send-out female comrades to women’s organizations, allegedly to discuss feminism, but with talking points about how capitalism enslaves women, whereas the Party’s program would make women free. It is propagandistic, co-optive and disrespectful.

The pictures of these mostly tiny, non-violent, autonomous organizations, (struggling against worldwide capitalist money, wealthy oligarchs, colluding governments; who employ violent paramilitaries and armies), is compelling. Occasionally, we see victories: The retaking of land by indigenous communities, the defeat of a mining or hydroelectric project, an autonomous movement fielding an independent parliamentary candidate who wins. But, if there is an eventual victory against this array of powers, it’s a long way off and a long shot. This overview of South American anti-multinational struggles is a window on a set of movements rarely seen outside of their localities. It broadens our world, opens our eyes, and provides perspectives from individuals working in small, sometimes anonymous ways, to carve-out a little justice.

Ross, Clifton & Rein, Marcy (eds.). Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements. Oakland: PM Press, 2014.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Haiti. The Aftershocks of History. Author: Laurent Dubois.


An educated reader, seeking to expand their understanding of Haitian history, will likely not be expecting a light romp through the centuries. The first half of this book covers from Haiti’s war of independence in 1804, up until its occupation by US forces in 1914. This was a nation born out of the world’s first successful slave revolution. It was surrounded by powerful slave-owning nations who took turns invading with the intention of reintroducing slavery. Those efforts were repelled with great loss of life on all sides.

In addition to external enemies, the majority of the population was oppressed internally by successive military dictatorships. These regimes functioned from the very inception of an independent Haiti until the US invasion. The original leaders of the revolution, Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, became despotic. They created a tiny, wealthy elite of Haitians, by holding agricultural workers in a state of semi-slavery and forcing them to remain on plantations. Anyone attempting to escape was punished severely. Rebellions were crushed mercilessly.

Laurent Dubois manages the difficult assignment of presenting multiple points of view that currently exist within Haiti regarding that nation’s early history. The author presents equally the thoughts of patriotic apologists who felt that money from plantations was necessary for defense against invasion; and the depictions of suffering under this semi-slave condition. Of course, all ideas are not equal. Louverture and Dessalines committed a grave injustice when they forced people, who fought and sacrificed for freedom, to work the plantations. An obvious solution would have been to offer the euphemistically-named “cultivators” more money to remain on the land; but this solution would not suit the greed of the dictators or the elite.

The second half of the book examines the early 20th Century up until 2012. It begins with the US invasion of Haiti in 1914, which initiated a 20-year occupation. This period was marked by violent suppression of Haitian revolts for freedom, individual acts of brutality against black citizens by racist white soldiers, and the policies of forced labor. A moment of hope occurs in the narrative when Haitian resistance finally breaks the grasp of US domination, and Haiti is regained by the Haitians. But euphoria quickly reverts to terror, with the re-emerging pattern of dictatorships. These bring with them modern, Orwellian trappings: control through propaganda, secret police, torture of opposition and murder for the slightest (even unintended) provocation. The Duvalier dictatorships represent the last of this harrowing period, ending in the 1980s. They are followed by Aristide’s election, and a depiction of Haiti’s condition into the 21st Century. That condition is not a happy one, even without the presence of frightening despots. The country remains in poverty with all of the associated problems of health, housing, nutrition and education. The environment is unforgiving, with natural disasters and depleted soil, creating an unfriendly situation for human habitation. “State institutions are weak and largely unresponsive. And the population has no control at all over foreign governments and organizations, which in many ways call the shots in contemporary Haiti” (Dubois, p. 365).

Throughout the book, Dubois maintains a stubborn optimism. He invokes the persistence of the Haitian citizenry: “Generation after generation, they have demonstrated their ability to resist, escape, and at times transform the oppressive regimes they have faced” (Dubois, p. 369). Hearkening back to the nation’s birth, he states “out of a situation that seemed utterly hopeless, they created a new and better world for themselves…if it happened once, perhaps it can happen again” (Dubois, p. 370). What else can he do? As an author who has invested both years and emotion in a project, delving deeply into a devastating history of slavery, dictatorship and poverty, he has two choices: He can intone a splendidly jejune “tomorrow is another day,” or find a high ledge for an air dance. One can empathize with the choice he has made. However, a reader, whose investment is considerably different, may experience a more reserved enthusiasm based on her perusal.

While the circumstances and history of Haiti may cause one to question Dubois' optimism, it also gives us reason to admire the people of Haiti. They have struggled against powerful forces, within and without, that have attempted to control their lives, their nation's resources and their political freedoms. This book shows that they have consistently fought those forces through rebellion and resistance; from their nation's founding to its present. Their history is a lesson in fortitude.

Dubois, Laurent. Haiti. The Aftershocks of History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC. 2012.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Unquiet Grave. The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country. Author: Steve Hendricks.


The Unquiet Grave begins with the 1976 discovery of a body in the South Dakota Badlands. She was Anna Mae Aquash, an American Indian Movement (AIM) activist. She was executed by fellow AIM activists, allegedly on orders from the organization’s leadership, because she was falsely believed to be an informer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The rest of the book describes how AIM, an ardent Civil Rights entity, arrived at a place where it could order and carry-out this murder and several other acts of violence.

The author, freelance investigative journalist Steve Hendricks, is well-versed in the historical and current injustices against Native Americans. Throughout his narrative, readers see ample illustration of betrayal and genocide directed against the original population of North America, along with the poverty of modern reservation life. Hendricks makes no secret of his sympathy for the Civil Rights goals of AIM. But he follows the evidence where it leads. Though Hendricks does not absolve AIM of violent, criminal behavior, he presents the FBI as an intentional contributor to AIM’s descent.

During the 1970s, the goal of the FBI regarding political movements was to quell what they saw as insurrection. In doing so, they frequently violated the constitutional rights of citizens seeking social justice. Most of the book’s activity occurs in the vicinity of the Pine Ridge Reservation. There, Hendricks offers a portrait where repressive forces are aligned against AIM: Tribal President, Dick Wilson, is a corrupt leader who creates a “goon squad” that terrorizes residents. He sees AIM as competition for leadership on the Reservation, which results in violence between supporters of Wilson and supporters of AIM. The Bureau of Indian Affairs Police, charged with maintaining order, viewed AIM as a disruptive influence. The FBI used both Wilson’s gang and the local police to dismantle AIM. They colluded with Wilson by refusing to prosecute his employees when they injured or murdered AIM supporters, but arrested AIM activists who retaliated. Several instances of FBI agents directly threatening the lives of Native American rights activists are recounted. In addition, the FBI planted agents provocateurs within the Native Rights organization. These individuals disrupted AIM by agitating for greater violence, accusing innocent people of being FBI snitches, and performing actions that would cause residents and Wilson gang members to despise AIM.

The environment was clearly one of suffocating repression, paranoia and violence. Still, AIM could have made different choices. When AIM activists (Leonard Peltier, Dino Butler and Bob Robideau) had a shoot-out with FBI agents, they did not have to walk several hundred feet down a hill to execute the two wounded agents who were begging for their lives. When AIM thought that Aquash was an informer, they did not have to murder her. In fact, AIM did not have to be at Pine Ridge Reservation at all. They were, and still are, a national organization. There were numerous reservations throughout the country, without oppositional goon squads; reservations where the vast majority of residents and leaders were in alignment with AIM’s program. The FBI would have had fewer allies among the populace. Activists could have remained focused more upon their pursuit of justice, rather than defending themselves against violence. In effect, AIM members sat in one end of a canoe, rowing in one direction, while Dick Wilson and his gang sat in the other end rowing in the opposite direction.

Some apologists for AIM have said that “the stratum of Indian Country from which AIM sprang was too angry, too ‘ghetto,’ in the words that AIMers often used, to answer the provocations of the FBI by turning the other cheek” (Hendricks, p. 360). But that is a racist argument: it requires a belief that the cultures of “Indian Country” are inferior, in both morals and intellect, to other cultures who also faced oppression and whose movements for justice did not become paramilitary. While one cannot always control one’s circumstances, one can control how one responds to them.

Hendricks’ conclusion is a balanced assessment of accountability. He begins by writing “Aquash was murdered because the government of the United States waged an officially sanctioned, covert war on the country’s foremost movement for Indian rights” (Hendricks, p. 360). He finishes that paragraph by writing “AIM leaders” were “criminal not merely in the legal sense but in their betrayal of the thousands of their race who had entrusted their hopes to AIM. When AIM’s leaders killed Aquash, they killed their own movement as surely as the FBI did” (Hendricks, p. 361).

The Unquiet Grave is a warning to Civil Rights organizations to remain steadfast about their goals while facing both covert and overt opposition. It is also another reminder to the citizens of the United States that they cannot uncritically trust the FBI; and to citizens of all nations that they cannot uncritically trust their governments. Hendricks’ thorough, carefully researched inquiry, is an engrossing read with much to say about politics and abdicating responsibility.

Hendricks, Steve. The Unquiet Grave. The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Wars of Watergate. Author: Stanley I. Kutler.


The Wars of Watergate is an examination of a president and an event that profoundly, lastingly eroded public trust in both the Executive branch specifically and the US Government in general. It was the culmination of a decade of challenge to traditional authorities, as well as the undeniable proof that suspicion of those authorities was warranted. While Watergate stands alone as a worthy subject of study, a most readers during the Trump presidential era who choose to learn about this period are doing so with attention to their own era. Watergate provides comparative background information on the process of investigating or dissolving a purportedly corrupt presidency.

Stanley Kutler organized his book as a historically evidential, rather than a politically partisan, assessment of an affair. He begins with the formative information of Nixon’s life and career from his childhood, to his first years in the Senate, through his bids for the presidency and his first term. Only then does he recount the crisis itself. The historical continuity does not end there; this writer provides extensive post-Watergate analysis of its impact up to the end of the 20th Century.

There is a meticulousness to this study which readers will find alternately gratifying and frustrating. Frustrating, for example, is Kutler’s depiction of the House Judiciary Committee. He evaluates not only each of the congressional members (which is useful), but even some of Majority Special Counsel John Doar’s staff, who are nothing more than office functionaries. While trudging through such compulsive sections, one should keep in mind that a historian must consider more than simply informing their audience. More important, especially for one writing about fairly recent event, is to create as complete a historical record as possible. Who knows what bits of information will aid future historians in their research? However, Kutler’s thoroughness pays-off for a reader when he presents White House interactions among Nixon and his staff. He has carefully perused the White House Transcripts, offering extensive excerpts.  Here, the inner workings of an administration steeped in constitutional violations and cover-up is a fascinating glimpse into a once hidden history.

There is little chance that non-fiction bibliophiles, reading The Wars of Watergate while living through the crises of Trump’s administration, could ignore the important similarities between Trump and Nixon. Both lied with frequency and ease. Both attacked the news media for exposing their indiscretions. But more significantly, both failed The Two Part History Test: To paraphrase Mark Shields, Lesson One of Washington scandals is that the cover-up, not the initial crime, causes presidents the most legal trouble. Lesson Two is that they always forget Lesson One. For Nixon, the break-ins at DNC headquarters and Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office were crimes; but neither was as great a violation of the Constitution as the Obstruction of Justice charge with which he was eventually hounded out of office. For Trump, the picture may be slightly different. If it is true that he personally colluded with an enemy foreign power attempting to undermine our democratic elective process, that’s more serious than a simple break-in. However, it is unlikely that US citizens will ever have the truth there. What we do have is a bold, repeated, unapologetic admission that the President fired an FBI Director who would not stop an investigation against him. In an interview with Lester Holt, Trump claimed that “he had been planning to fire Comey even before he received Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's recommendation to do so.”^^ In a May 2017 meeting with Russian officials, Trump stated "I just fired the head of the FBI...I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."^^^ Both Trump’s and Nixon’s inability to absorb Lessons One and Two caused them to commit Obstruction of Justice. Our best hope, for maintaining the integrity of our Constitution, is that Trump’s presidency follows the same course as Nixon’s. But that is far from certain. During our troubled period, Kutler’s careful examination can be a useful, calm source of information regarding the anatomy of administrations that break the law and how justice is subsequently pursued.

Kutler, Stanley I. The Wars of Watergate. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990.



Saturday, March 3, 2018

Strapless. John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X. Author: Deborah Davis.


Strapless is a story about John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of socialite, Amelie Gautreau. While it provides biographical background on these two figures, its main focus is on the years these two US expatriates lived in Paris and collaborated on a work intended to increase the cachet of both individuals. The “Madame X” portrait, which currently hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, became the subject of scandal when exhibited at the 1884 Paris Salon. While there was wide criticism of the sitter’s position, her gown and Sargent’s technique, the foremost complaint revolved around the sexual suggestiveness of the model’s fallen right shoulder strap.

Davis begins with Gautreau’s family (the Avegnos) in the New Orleans area. Like most slave-owners of the time, they had an estate in the city and a plantation on the Louisiana agricultural lands. While the family owned over 100 slaves, there is only one reference to them: “tending to the animals and the crops were 147 slaves, watched by an overseer” (Davis, p.13). It is shocking that a book published in 2004, (one that details shopping in Paris over four pages), dedicates only one sentence the lives of those who were owned and mistreated by the Avegnos. Information about these particular slaves would not have been difficult to exhume from the historic record. Family correspondence, records of punishments or escapes, oral history of former slaves, archaeological excavations of slave quarters on family property, artifacts (like whips, torture devices, manacles), all of these methods were available to the historian. But Davis, in a pattern typical throughout the book, avoids topics of human rights, politics or suffering. The majority of the book concerns Belle Epoch Paris between 1870 and 1900. Remaining consistent with her evasion of the slavery issue, this author is able to talk about Parisian history without mentioning the primary culture clash between traditionalist nationalists and cosmopolitan modernists; an issue that divided French society among all classes, including that of her subjects. She mentions Alfred Dreyfus as a patient of the doctor who introduced Sargent and Gautreau, but ignores the Dreyfus Affair that was so central to that culture clash. She spends three pages on the presence and musical significance of Richard Wagner in society, without any reference to his influential anti-semitism. To indicate that Ms. Davis is not very political is like saying ISIS is a tad impertinent.

Of course, this is a story about Parisian High Society’s horror regarding a painting transgression of proper mores. While the author may exhibit deficits of conscience, anyone picking-up this book and expecting to read riveting social commentary is not paying attention. It is a book one reads as a break from worldly concerns; much like the reasons why someone would take time-out in an art museum to admire Sargent portraits in the first place. This does not excuse lapses in historical content or social conscience, but it does explain it.

While Davis exhibits little political awareness, she does show a touching affection for Sargent and Gautreau, as well as a concern for the trajectory of their lives before and after the scandal of 1884. She tells a good story. One empathizes with the rise of these two outsiders and their dramatic fall; then watches them intrepidly dust themselves off and struggle to revive their reputations. It’s a real life personal drama with all the importance of a fallen strap.

Davis, Deborah. Strapless. John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2004.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

For the Soul of France. Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus. Author: Frederick Brown.

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.