Month: July 2019

Peggy Noonan “Don’t Know Much about History”

One Thing after Another has been quiet these past few months because the primary author of this blog has been doing research, preparing for classes, doing some work around the house, and, yes, vacationing with the family. This blog’s gentle readers understand, then, that it must have required an extraordinary event to rouse One Thing after Another from its mid-summer reveries. That event was the publication of an article by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal entitled “What Were Robespierre’s Pronouns?”:

Noonan starts by describing the French Revolution as a “moral and political catastrophe” that was essentially a “nationwide psychotic outbreak” dedicated not merely to “regicide but suicide.” “For 10 years,” she writes, the French people “simply enjoyed killing each other.” She quotes Simon Schama’s Citizens (which she describes as “heroically nonideological”) to the effect that violence was not incidental but central to the French Revolution: “It was what made the Revolution revolutionary.” Why all the violence? Noonan’s answer is that the revolution was “largely run by sociopaths” like Maximilien Robespierre, a self-appointed “messianic schoolmaster,” who sought to change French culture to make it more congruent with the new revolutionary regime. Accordingly, “there would be pageants, and new names for things.” Noonan trots out the story of the revolutionary calendar which organized the year along decimal lines (i.e. 12 months each consisting of three ten-week days) so as to erase memories of the Gregorian calendar with its saints’ days and Sundays.

Why this clumsy yet robust assault on the entire French Revolution? Because, Noonan argues, Robespierre was just like the “social and sexual justice warriors who are renaming things and attempting to control the language in America.” In other words, for Noonan, the sociopathic leaders of the bloody French Revolution resemble the people today who would have us use gender-neutral pronouns.

Noonan’s argument is vulnerable to counterattack on numerous grounds, but since One Thing after Another is interested primarily in history, it would like to counter Noonan’s two most important assertions about the past. First, there is her egregiously simplistic and inaccurate description of the French Revolution. A historical analogy only works if the event or development which forms a basis for comparison is accurately rendered. Noonan’s depiction of France in the 1790s, however, is profoundly ahistorical.

  • It refuses to recognize that the revolution passed through various phases, some far more conservative and less violent than others. The National Assembly (1789-1791), for example, was loath to rid itself of the king, and sought to prevent the sans culottes—that is, the radicals in the streets of Paris—from violently hijacking the revolution. Later, the Directory (1795-1799), corrupt as it was, curbed the excesses of the Terror (1792-1794), as it sought to preserve the republic from extremists on the left and the right.
  • It neglects context. It refuses to see that though violence was employed excessively at times, it was often applied for rational political ends. For example, the Terror with which Robespierre has been indelibly associated was an attempt to save the republic from foreign invaders and domestic enemies. The irony of this situation was that Robespierre had opposed the foreign war that his less radical opponents in the Legislative Assembly had started.
  • It displays no understanding of contingency and neglects the fact that each step of the revolution was dependent on previous decisions and developments. For instance, the rise of the republic and radicalism was based very much on Louis XVI’s unwillingness to work within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. This is the reason that, pace Noonan, the French could not “have done what England was doing” and reformed their way to liberalism and democracy (more on that anon).
  • It shows no interest in causality (if Noonan is right, why and how did a generation of sociopaths come to power in France?).
  • It does not seem to understand that violence is one of the key elements that make all revolutions revolutionary. In other words, the French Revolution was not exceptional because force was central to the struggle for its aims. Has there ever been a true political revolution that did not employ violence?

The facile nature of Noonan’s presentation irons out all the complexity of a major historical event and is utterly dismissive of the nuance required to describe the past. Noonan’s analysis reminds One Thing after Another of that friend—we all have that friend—who, instead of seriously analyzing the failure of his last relationship, simply declares that his ex-girlfriend was a “psycho.” There is no empathy here and therefore no sense that had we been raised in France under the Old Regime and confronted with the kinds of challenges faced by leaders of the revolution many of us might have acted in much the same way.

That attitude extends to Noonan’s comparison of France with England. The latter state, she claims, experienced a “long nonviolent revolution, a gradual diminution of the power of king and court, an establishment of the rights of the people and their legislators.” Such an assertion resembles the Whig history that triumphed in the 19th century and began to fall out of fashion about a century ago. It conveniently ignores the high body count of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the 1640s. It also refuses to recognize that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was achieved through force and thereby created a political situation that was unstable for decades (think of the Jacobite threat that hung over the United Kingdom for the first half of the 18th century that exploded in violence during “the Fifteen” and the ’45).

The foregoing brings us to the second point. In the same way that she claims the French Revolution was uniquely awful and violent, Noonan presents Robespierre’s attempt to shape French culture as uniquely evil. She seems especially appalled by his policy that stipulated “there would be pageants, and new names for things.” What Noonan does not seem to realize is that this process is an essential part of nation-building and has influenced all nations in the modern era. The point of pageants and new names for things was captured by Massimo d’Azeglio’s famous declaration shortly after Italy was unified: “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.” In other words, new nations require new myths, holidays, and vocabularies to forge bonds among the people and generate support for a new regime. Both the state and various private organizations participate in this act of creation which is intimately connected with what historians call “the invention of tradition” (after Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s book of the same name). This dynamic continues today in America as it does elsewhere. Take, for example, the Pledge of Allegiance which was first written in 1892, partly to bolster overall national feeling, partly to assist in the assimilation of immigrant children in American schools. In other words, it is a small, daily ritual meant to forge the nation, and it has become an important tradition only recently. It was adopted by Congress in 1942, and it has been revised four times over the span of its brief life to adapt to changing attitudes (the phrase “under God” was not added until 1954). Perhaps the greatest irony of all here is that the original author, Francis Bellamy, was a Christian Socialist who seriously considered inserting “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” the famous slogan of the French Revolution, into the pledge. Eventually, he decided the phrase would incur too much opposition, and all that remained of the original formulation was “liberty and justice.”  Of course, this is not to say that Robespierre was just like Bellamy. Rather, what is important here is that Robespierre and Bellamy were engaged in similar types of work, albeit employing different tools and operating under different circumstances.

In this particular case, one gets the sense that Noonan does not object so much to Robespierres’s presumption in taking on the task of teaching the French as she does to the content of that teaching. Then again, since Noonan evinces no clear grasp of what Robespierre was about—aside from the idea that he was a sociopath who enjoyed killing people—it is difficult to discern what she thinks on this score. You might believe the advocates of gender-neutral language are ludicrous or heroic, but what they have to do with Robespierre (and the other sociopaths of Noonan’s imagination) or the real French revolutionaries of the past is unclear.

One hopes that Noonan is perhaps better than her piece indicates; One Thing after Another understands that it is hard to crank out one opinion piece after another. But one cannot lament the degraded state of national discourse while contributing to its degradation at the same time. One suspects that the real problem here is that Noonan presents the French Revolution in the blackest terms because she is so intent on blackening the name of “social and sexual justice warriors.” “All history is contemporary history,” Benedetto Croce wrote years ago, but in Noonan’s article, we have an especially crude example of that phenomenon.

NOTE: Since there are several excellent, recent, and accessible biographies of Robespierre available in English, there remains no reason for misunderstanding this figure of great historical importance. Check out Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006) and especially Peter McPhee, Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). Anyone interested in further investigating Robespierre’s beliefs should read his famous speech of February 5, 1794 (17 Pluviôse, Year II) on political morality. In Twelve Who Ruled, his classic work on the Terror, R. R. Palmer described this oration as “not only the best expression of Robespierre’s real ideas, but also one of the most notable utterances in this history of democracy” (p. 275).