Echoing history

There are several problems with using history to illuminate the present.

First, there’s too much of it. Second, no two of us learned the same history. Third, most of us never learned any of it. Fourth, the more we need to know history, the less time we have to do so.

Nevertheless, I keep trying.

In the Sept. 7 issue of the London Review of Books, Michael Wood reviews a volume of letters between Alfred Dreyfus and Marie Arconati Visconti, the most recent of which was written in 1923, and in French. (See Wood never mentions Trump. Yet so much of it sounds instructive.

‘The moment they can’t persecute anyone, they consider themselves martyrs’

That’s Madame Arconati Visconti, daughter of a famous anticlericalist, writing about Catholics. Here in America, we don’t even have any anticlericalists, we have to import them from Europe, like Christopher Hitchens. But it sounds like it was written about our evangelicals.

“The Dreyfus Affair teaches us, among many other things, that evidence is easily faked, and that when the fakes don’t work or you don’t want to use them, you can plead national security: you can claim to have documents you can’t show.”

That’s Wood, summing up. L’affaire Dreyfus was all about fake news, and even after the reality was clearly exposed, there were many who preferred to believe the fake version. As Wood says,

“Who do you have to be to believe X? And what else are you likely to believe if you do?’

I don’t know that recognizing that the Trumpeters’ embrace of falsehoods galore — an embrace deftly summed in today’s Washington Post by Greg Sargent (See — had a nearly exact analogue among French rightwingers 120 years ago tells us anything useful about how to deflect political discourse into honest streams, but in fact Dreyfus was exonerated.

He always thought he would be. Wood writes:

‘As for those who have made themselves my executioners,’ Dreyfus wrote in his diary while still on Devil’s Island, ‘ah, I leave their consciences to them as judges when the light is shed, when the truth is revealed, for sooner or later, everything in life is revealed.’

But, Wood adds, “Not quite everything, perhaps.” We do, after all, have a birther who whips up his followers by whining about fake news.

(Wood’s review is behind a paywall. It will be worth your while to go to the public library and read the review on paper, and, while you’re at it, also look at Malise Ruthven’s article “The Saudi Trillions” and Amia Srinivasan’s review of books about octopuses.)