REMEMBER when the L.A. riots spun out of control, and engulfed the whole United States? The key moment was no doubt when police and Army commanders took fright and changed sides, throwing their support to the Committee for Public Safety led by Tom Hayden, along with Noam Chomsky, Barbara Boxer, Michael Moore, and Edward Said. After Hayden’s fall and execution, his successor, Marion Barry, insisted that President Bush and his wife Barbara be tried for treason. Their executions shocked the world but sparked wild celebrations in the capital, as the First Couple’s severed heads danced on poles in daylong parades. A crack whore was duly enshrined in the National Cathedral as the Goddess of Reason….
Of course, Hayden and Barry were each executed in due course, and replaced by the "incorruptible" Maxine Waters. The ensuing Terror killed tens of thousands including corporate executives, Indian software engineers, Korean grocers, many harmless courtiers and celebrities such as Liz Taylor, Goldie Hawn, Bill Cosby and Adam Sandler, and unnumbered professors, priests, ministers and cloistered nuns, all accused of "subversion."
When conservatives rose up in Arkansas and Louisiana, the Army crushed the counterrevolution, crowded its supporters onto rafts on the Mississippi, then sank them, drowning thousands of unarmed civilians. The Terror only ended when General Louis Farrakhan used a "whiff of grapeshot" to cow the mob. His ruthless secret police calmed the chaos at home ended the church burnings and massacres, for instance but his foreign policy adventurism started wars with Mexico, Canada, Great Britain and finally Russia, ending only with his ignominious defeat and exile to Staten Island. But all this is ancient history now. The Revolution and its wars have ended, at a cost of over 20 million lives, and the U.S. standard of living now equals Serbia’s. Was it all worth it?
That little thought experiment should give you an idea of what the French Revolution was really like a digestive eruption of all the basest instincts in the lowest elements of society, led by power-drunk ideologues of the radical Left. (If you click on the link for any of the imaginary events given above, you’ll find its real-life parallel in the French Revolution.) It was utterly unlike the American rebellion against the English colonial officials which amounted to a regional secession, led by the responsible members of the upper middle class. And for that fact we should be forever grateful as should other countries which emulated the American model of political reform, rather than the French, as Hannah Arendt and Wilhelm Röpke have written.
Of course, apologists for the Revolution will point to the inequalities and injustices of the Ancien Regime as justification for the bloodbath. So do revolutionaries justify every excess; so did leftists in Los Angeles, pointing to the genuine misery, squalor and stagnation lived by so many members of the urban underclass. Looking back, we see that black slaves in America at the Founding lived much worse lives than did poor Frenchmen, and had vastly fewer rights. Would that have justified a massive slave rebellion, ending with the murder of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and every other slave-owning aristocrat? Some far-left professors on American campuses might argue just this. Their position is not some racially-motivated eccentricity, but the logical outcome of the fashionable, conventionally accepted position that the French Revolution was a justified, progressive event in history. If you think French peasants had the right to guillotine King Louis, then you must say that black slaves would have been right to hang George Washington. To accept the American Revolution, you must reject the French.
Indeed, the gap in wealth, privilege, and power between a third-generation welfare mother and, say, a 1992 Hollywood movie executive, was probably greater than that separating a French peasant from an aristocrat. Would that justify throwing George Lucas into jail, then guillotining him? Not even Jar-Jar Binks merits him that.
Speaking of film, a new one by the French master director Eric Rohmer depicts the reality of the Revolution much better than I can, and without using belabored historical metaphors, as I must. In The Lady and the Duke, a gripping new drama in selected release around the country, Rohmer adapts the memoirs of Grace Dalrymple Elliot, a kind-hearted conservative English lady caught up in the nightmare that was Revolutionary Paris. A former lover, and still a friend, of the squishy-left aristocrat, the Duc d’Orleans, Grace watches in horror as the hard-left takes over the city imposing upon Paris, hitherto the sophisticated, cosmopolitan capital of Western Culture, a xenophobic, bloody, totalitarian state, complete with secret police, greedy informers, passbooks, political prisoners, and executions of the rich, the foreign, the dissenting, and the merely unlucky.
"Death to the Austrian woman," the blood-crazed rabble cried, marching through burning streets to demand the murder of a queen and they got it. Why was Marie Antoinette executed? (Hint: She never said "Let them eat cake" that urban myth had been invented 100 years before, to defame another foreign Queen of France.) The lovely, brave, devout Marie Antoinette who as a girl had flirted with the boy Mozart while he played the piano was caged like an animal for months, watching her maltreated boy, Louis, die slowly of disease. Then she was dragged off to be beheaded. Why? Mainly for being foreign, and having had more wit than her husband, enough to try to resist the collapse of her adopted country into subhuman chaos. But most aristocrats depicted in this film have no such good sense or courage.
At the heart of this exquisite movie is the relationship between Grace and the Duc d’Orleans. The latter is a pampered, ambitious, not very bright cousin to the tragic King Louis XVI, a Duke who throws his weight and wealth behind the Revolutionaries, in the hope that they will place him on the throne. He spouts, and no doubt believes, the new rhetoric of hysterical, xenophobic revolutionary patriotism which would soon spread to Germany and Italy, planting the seeds of both the Nazi and Fascist movements. You can taste blood in the lyrics of the loathsomely catchy jingle Le Marseillaise:
To arms, oh citizens ! Form up in serried ranks ! March on, march on ! And drench our fields With their tainted blood! Supreme devotion to our Motherland Guides and sustains avenging hands.
The "tainted blood" of class enemies anyone born an aristocrat, whether rich or impoverished, and any priest loyal to Rome and racial enemies (principally foreigners) did indeed flow. The Duc d’Orleans defends the Terror, as necessary to "purse" the French nation of impurities and treasonous elements; that is, of anyone who refused to march behind the totalitarian leaders of the Revolution, who refused to subsume his individuality in the "general will" of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the theologian of society-as-anthill. (For Star Trek fans, Rousseau’s political philosophy can be summed up in two words: The Borg.)
Grace was appalled, keeping alive her friendship with the Duke in order to exert some influence on him, to urge him and his other "moderate" revolutionary allies among the aristocracy and the army to crush the rebellion before it turned on them. Even as Orleans votes for the judicial murder of his own cousin, the King, Grace risks death repeatedly to save the life of a hunted aristocrat whom she barely knows simply because it’s the right thing to do. The moral contrast between this pious English émigré and the scheming, foolish Duke, points up the contrast between the aristocrats who led the American Revolution, and those who launched the French. Our leaders were sound, sober, cautious and moderate, grounding their grievances against the British king in English Common Law, the rights of local governments, and countless carefully reasoned judicial and legal precedents. The French aristocrats who voted with the ideologues and the Mob to murder their king were irresponsible, frivolous, and finally cowardly and most of them ended up on the scaffold, like the poor Duc d’Orleans. Every radical revolution eats its young as the intellectuals of France, then Russia, Germany, and Cambodia (to name a few) would learn.
There were reasons why the French upper classes were so irresponsible, and they went back to the 17th Century. Even as British kings were forced by Parliament and people to revive and respect the medieval privileges of local liberty and limited government, King Louis the Fourteenth, the "Sun-King," trampled and crushed local elites, herded the aristocrats into Versailles, persecuted religious minorities, defied the Pope, squashed the liberty of the French church, and gathered all power to Paris, into the hands of an absolutist executive. He turned the once rich and complex political fabric of France, celebrated by the great Montesquieu, into a brittle autocracy, which would collapse at the first hammer blow. That blow would come when his descendant King Louis XVI bankrupted his kingdom ironically, by financing the American Revolution. By then, the upper classes of France had been dilettantes and parlor philosophes for generations, and were utterly unsuited to embark on moderate political reform. They were the prototypes for America’s spoiled Boomers, who manned the barricades and burned the colleges in the 1960s.
Ironically, the best source for learning about what went right in America, and wrong in France, is the work of a French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville. He understood better than any U.S. native the roots of our liberty, and he looked across the Atlantic with jealous admiration. Reading him, and studying other works depicting the Revolution and its horrors, have forever spoiled for me the sight of the Tricolor, and the sound of Le Marseillaise. As the doomed aristocrats realize by the end of Rohmer’s film, those are the banner and anthem of an evil Anti-France, unworthy of veneration. As we realize by film’s end, these were the predecessors to the Swastika and the "Horst Wessel Lieder":
Millions, full of hope, look up at the swastika; The day breaks for freedom and for bread. For the last time the call will now be blown; For the struggle now we all stand ready. Soon will fly Hitler-flags over every street; Slavery will last only a short time longer. Flag high, ranks closed, The S.A. marches with silent solid steps. Comrades shot by the Red Front and Reaction march in spirit with us in our ranks.