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Is Zimmerman America's Dreyfus?
April 21, 2012
Editorial By Anthony Wile
I've been tracking the George Zimmerman case and it does seem to have some surface parallels to the infamous Dreyfus Affair.
For those of you who may not know, Dreyfus was a Jew who was accused of passing French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. He was declared guilty and sent to Devil's Island in French Guiana where he spent almost five years.
In 1896, evidence was unearthed that a French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy may have been the one passing information but that evidence was suppressed and Dreyfus's conviction was sustained.
It took many more years but Dreyfus was eventually set free. He was reinstated as a major in the French Army and served throughout World War I, eventually reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Regardless of whether Esterhazy was an agent of a greater power or whether the affair itself was orchestrated, the controversy surrounding Dreyfus was surely indicative of larger issues surrounding France at the time.
The issue then was anti-Semitism. And while modern France has in a sense moved on, it remains a society riven by class conflicts and economic inequalities that are either glossed over or sanctioned by law.
The French Revolution itself stands athwart the American revolution that was fought somewhat within a republican ambit, thanks to the framing of thinkers and visionaries like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson.
The American Revolution's espoused aim was individual freedom. Unfortunately, the French Revolution was evidently influenced by the Age of Enlightenment and the Rousseau-like vision that humankind could be perfected by the proper application of logic and scientific thought.
The medium that was to provide this transformative grace was the government itself, in this the case a "republican" government that was created out of the terror of the Revolution and the busy bloodletting of the guillotine.
French society, in my view, has never entirely recovered from the Age of Enlightenment and still habitually looks to government to provide both solutions and economic succor.
In fact, they're apparently about to elect another socialist to the presidency and that's not going to end well, either. History continues.
And it continues in America, too, which began as a republic but is now surely turning into something else. The alphabet soup of American spy agencies as well as Draconian, authoritarian legislation now issuing out of Washington, DC, tells us that the formal US legislative process has gone badly wrong.
The US is surely an authoritarian state these days. There are millions on the government payroll, thousands of government spies and US official institutions are growing more and more frightened of their own people. The US Department of Homeland Security recently placed an order for hundreds of millions of hollow-point bullets. Homeland Security is a DOMESTIC agency.
Empire was achieved after World War II, but all empires eventually oppress their own citizens as well as those in other countries. That seems to be what's happening today.
Empires by their nature are pathological societies. Fear is a paramount signature of empires, along with corruption at the top, public shows of immorality and a general, evolutionary breakdown of civil society.
This is because empires substitute the rule of law for the discipline of private markets. Societies often begin anarchically, with private law and private morality enforced by the culture itself.
But over time, the private nature of society is gradually replaced by "law" and government mandates. What was once voluntary becomes coercive and people's behaviors become regulated by bureaucracies rather than by internal codes of behavior.
Within this context, society itself becomes increasingly unmoored. Once moral values have evolved into legal codicils, social mores become public passion plays. This is what's happening now with the Zimmerman mess.
Just as with the Dreyfus Affair, individual acts are being imbued with larger, societal characteristics. This can only happen in a society where the government has grown so large and intrusive that people are used to projecting their own problems and prejudices onto public events.
Once the private has become the public, it is relatively easy for government-controlled media to imbue almost any incident with moral and cultural power. In fact, in a healthier society such transformative conversations would not be possible. People would not put up with it.
But in a society where the power elite has worked relentlessly to make government the arbiter, such a trick is much easier to pull off. People have been trained to look to government for moral and legal insights.
In such societies, people no longer look inward – they've lost the habit of introspection. Instead, government itself sets the parameters of behavior and creates the larger societal conversation as well.
I would argue this is what's happening in the Zimmerman case. People are projecting their own prejudices and belief systems onto the case.
If Zimmerman is guilty, it's because he saw a young black man, assumed he was up to no good and shot him. If he is innocent, it's because he was attacked by the young man and shot him in self-defense.
I won't speculate on Zimmerman's guilt or innocence here. My point is only that the amount of attention being paid to the case and the heightened emotions it arouses may tell us more about the current state of the US union than about Zimmerman himself, or his actions.
The US is a pretty miserable place right now with unemployment between 20 and 30 percent and food stamp usage soaring well beyond 40 million. People are looking for outlets for their frustration, and the Zimmerman affair provides one.
In this sense, it is perhaps a window into the collective psyche of the American people. The mechanism itself – this too-public dialogue about an issue that in another place and time would have been localized – is discouraging.