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Post Peu a Peu: What Brought the Dreyfusards to Dreyfus's Defense? From Gary Moore
Created by John Eipper on 07/25/21 11:04 AM

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Peu a Peu: What Brought the Dreyfusards to Dreyfus's Defense? From Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA, 07/25/21 11:04 am)

Gary Moore writes:

John E's thoughtful comment on my post July 23, when I compared the Dreyfus and Chauvin accusation frenzies (1890s and 2020s), inadvertently illumines a world.

In the 1890s, a number of the "Dreyfusards," the eventual supporters of condemned Alfred Dreyfus, described how they had originally wrestled with their beliefs before seeing into the heart of the case. Many had initially sided with the consensus condemnation of a man who seemed surely to be a monster. Then evidence kept whispering.

John, seeing how I updated the Dreyfus example to question the present-day consensus on Derek Chauvin, wondered naturally whether my impertinence was born of faulty reasoning. So he probed. And look at the only two points he seemed to come up with, as he wrote: "There are two possible mitigators in the case: 1) that Floyd begged not to be placed in the squad car, hence the knee-hold; and 2) whether or not the Chauvin knee was actually blocking Floyd's air passage."

So what's happening here? Apparently when an honest examiner begins to look closely, the points that come up as possible support for the consensus view are no points at all. "Begged not to be placed in the squad car"? How does an arrestee's not wanting to be arrested mitigate anything? This particular arrestee also pleaded (on video) that his mama had just died (untrue), that he had been shot (untrue), and that he was not on drugs (while he was covertly spitting out fentanyl-meth speedball pills later found in the squad car where he went berserk, pills mixed with his saliva and DNA). Similar is John's second point: "whether or not the Chauvin knee was actually blocking Floyd's air passage." This argument might seem doubly bizarre if not for the context of belief. Anybody can look at the viral cellphone video that pushed the case and see that the knee is on the back and side of the neck--in no position to block the airway at the throat in front. Even the prosecution had to acknowledge this. For a knee in that position to cause strangulation it would have to crush so hard that the larynx, thyroid cartilage and hyoid bone would be bloody pulp--and the autopsy was very blunt about this: no damage at all to any airway-related structures, not even very slight damage, not even infinitesimal bruising deep in the tissue--nor any other forensic signs of strangulation, let alone crushing. The "conscious neck restraint" Chauvin was using seeks only to hover so the restrainee can't leap up.

JE's two points are such non-starters (not even sheltering in areas of ambiguity) that they might almost seem straw men designed to be easily knocked down to prove their opposite--but of course they're not. They're sincere footprints in a journey of belief, once belief begins to step outside the box. No one can say why some concerned believers--like the Dreyfusards--will take this uncomfortable journey, while others do not.

Also in this vein, Leo Goldberger (July 22) might be interested in a Johns Hopkins Press account telling how the Dreyfusards described their mental journey, first assuming with everyone else that Dreyfus was the monster as claimed, but then slowly--"peu à peu"--beginning to look at the picture more closely.


JE comments:  Gary, I don't want to risk any fresh non-starters, but care to address the racial politics of these cases?  It took a couple of millennia, but we've finally learned that anti-Semitism in all its forms is bad.  More recently, society is confronting the scourge of police brutality against African Americans.  So here's the rub:  Dreyfus was on the right side of History, and Chauvin is not--and never will be.  With the stakes this high, the matter of guilt or innocence can easily become secondary.

Put in another way, could society ever welcome Chauvin into the privileged space of victimhood? A hundred years hence, will we be reading about the Chauvinists...?

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  • Alfred Dreyfus and Alger Hiss (David Duggan, USA 07/26/21 3:36 AM)
    History doesn't play favorites; it doesn't have a side. It simply records what happened and offers later generations to interpret how and why what happened happened.

    Consider that if the Nazis had prevailed in WWII, or at least kept their French territory, Dreyfus would have been obliterated from French history books. Later generations may have found about him the same way current generations are re-interpreting Alger Hiss (was he a traitor? He certainly lied under oath which was what he was convicted of). But the re-interpretation of Hiss came about only because of the fall of the Soviet Union and the release of the Venona project files.

    Hiss of course had his supporters (Dean Acheson, Secretary of State, famously said, "I will not turn my back on Alger Hiss), and defenders keep coming out of the woodwork (or should I say "Woodstock" typewriter--made 50 miles NW of Chicago) to claim that the coded messages describe someone other than Hiss, but the fact remains that he lied about his not knowing George Crosley, one of Whitaker Chambers' noms de guerre (or pen-names if you will; he was a writer).  Hiss skated on an espionage charge because the operative events occurred outside the 10-year period of limitations.

    JE comments:  David, I'll have to disagree with you here.  History always plays favorites.  What happened happened, but "history" is something different.  Long ago Hayden White demonstrated that history has more in common with literary narratives than with the bald facts.

    Your comparison of the Dreyfus and Hiss cases is spot-on.  Seventy years later, Hiss's guilt is more or less assumed in the popular imagination.  The name even sounds sinister--Alger Hiss.  Richard Nixon parlayed his antagonism with Hiss into the vice presidency and later, the White House.

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    • I Knew Alger Hiss--and He Was a Gentleman (Leo Goldberger, USA 07/27/21 3:21 AM)
      It is not that I ever would have noted a similarity between the Dreyfus and Hiss cases, but David Duggan made me think --what did they have in common? Yes, they both suffered from the politics of their historical period, with Dreyfus being Jewish and Hiss a suspected communist spy. Needless to say, it was a troublesome period that affected many innocent people--among them, in the USA, unpleasant personalities such as Whittaker Chambers (and the hidden hollowed-out pumpkins on his farm); Richard Nixon, the unappealing but opportunistic congressman; followed by the most disgusting senator McCarthy (of the "have you no shame" fame)-- preparing us all for yet another major political snake in our time--and, incredibly, still featured as newsworthy by TV's never-ending concern.

      It so happens that I was among those "liberals" who followed the Hiss case in every detail as the trials wore on. By now it might require a first-rate "honors thesis" to recount the case in the entirety and the hundreds of details, not just limited to the authenticity of the typewriter's history of Chamber's original spy charge against Hiss--but in the end was dropped due to the time limit. However, it ought to be noted that in 1992 the chairman of the Russian military intelligence service said his review of the newly opened files disclosed "not a single document that Alger Hiss spied." And the charge of perjury that did end him up in prison some years seemed unfair, to say the least. It was simply based on the fact that he had not known the various names, among them a "George Crosley," one of Chamber's noms de guerre as David Duggan points out. Yet David fails to mention that as soon Hiss was confronted with Chambers in person he admitted knowing him.

      As you can tell from the above, I was a staunch Hiss supporter. Perhaps it was because I knew him in person--over several years when he often came to visit with friends in the Berkshires. All I can say, he was a genuine 19th-century gentleman--exceedingly bright, well educated, and a joy to be around, despite his preoccupation with his openly discussion of his legal case in great detail and his preoccupation to gain his law license back after his imprisonment. Not that it has any relevance whatsoever, my wife and I were always impressed with his openness and kindness---and the incredible fact that he could always identify not just the type of wine we and others among his friends were serving, but often specify the vineyard itself! We and his many friends miss him (and his wonderful second wife) here in the Berkshires.

      JE comments:  Leo, you have the most interesting social circle of anyone I know.  Hiss lived just long enough (he died in 1996) to be exonerated by the opened Soviet archives, but he spent nearly half a century under a cloud of suspicion.  Even in the progressive, tolerant Berkshires, the neighborhood tongues must have wagged when Hiss was around.

      Your brushes with history never cease to amaze me!

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  • Race and the Chauvin Trial (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 07/26/21 4:43 AM)
    Gary Moore writes:

    John E has asked for refinement of my comparison of the two "trials of the century," in the 1890s and 2020s: Dreyfus and Chauvin. I appreciate John's dilemma when faced with my insistence on ignored evidence on Chauvin, for John knows Chauvin is a monster; he's seen the viral cellphone video and felt its deep shock. Arguments on evidence don't matter to a larger sense of rightness. The feeling at one's core has great weight.

    In the Dreyfus case, even as passing years brought mountains of new evidence, at least half of France ignored that evidence. Because it didn't feel right. They knew Dreyfus was a monster; their most trusted authorities had said so, and presented what looked like tons of proof (and it could easily look that way from a distance, when one didn't see that these were assumptions drawn from other self-righteous assumptions, not to mention more serious rigged props). Even a half decade into the Dreyfus excitement, as the world at large accepted the new evidence, much of France did not. Dreyfus's attorney was shot in the back and barely survived. Even after Dreyfus himself was officially exonerated in 1906, he was attacked and injured, and a court let his attacker off, suggesting the attack was just. Because he was a monster. They knew he was. Because it felt right.

    As with the racial arguments JE now raises on Chauvin (and not even the trial prosecutors ever brought up race or suggested it was a motive; one of the police assisting Chauvin was African American), anti-Dreyfusard France knew that the larger history was what mattered, the making of a statement, the taking of a stand.

    John wrote: "Dreyfus was on the right side of History, and Chauvin is not--and never will be. With the stakes this high, the matter of guilt or innocence can easily become secondary."

    "The matter of guilt or innocence can easily become secondary."

    Did I hear that right? Coming astonishingly from our elaborately fair-minded moderator, this is the ideology of the mob.

    When I exhumed the Rosewood racial cleansing case from the 1920s, at a time when many survivors were still alive, many if not most of the elderly whites shook their heads sadly about the case, saying they agreed it was horrible and they wished they could have stopped it. They said it was just some white hotheads and drunks who got out of control.

    However, if you continued talking to these sincerely saddened whites, it would begin to come clear that they felt the hotheads and drunks were provoked into it. The mainstream newspapers of the day--all feeding off a single Associated Press source--were unanimous nationwide in portraying Rosewood's destruction as a white response to a mysterious black uprising, about which details were never forthcoming. Because there was no uprising. The core belief, shared unwittingly by whites throughout a large area, was that the sin of the destroyers was not the destruction, but just that they carried retaliation a little too far.

    In mob incidents generally, the actual violence is often done by a desensitized few, but those few take energy from masses who seem to be only shocked onlookers. At Rosewood they were in fact tacit endorsers, who swelled the actual atrocidaires with proud feelings that they, the perpetrators, were taking action that the mainstream would have loved to take--if the mainstream was just not so cowardly and timid. Because it felt right, their serving as violent proxies for those feelings. The guilt or innocence of the people whose houses were burned was "secondary." A statement had to be made.

    JE comments:  I tried to choose my weasel-words carefully:  Guilt or innocence can easily become secondary.  Not that it is, or certainly that it should be.  Can anyone deny that the Chauvin case is about race?  There was no need for the prosecution to point out the obvious.

    I'm still satisfied with the blanket pronouncement I made yesterday:  Dreyfus was on the right side of History, and Chauvin is not.  Gary, you suggest that "history" here is little more than mob-think.  Yes, but... I'm going to take a break now and reflect.

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