Thursday, September 14, 2006

Dreyfus and the France2 case: history doesn't repeat, but it rhymes

The great Mark Twain wrote, in one of his pithiest and most insightful aphorisms:

History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Not all the rhymes of history are beautiful poetry, of that we can be sure. Case in point: the ongoing France2 defamation trial, which has resonance with the famous Dreyfus affair.

The current trial--or trials; there are three--is a story the MSM is virtually ignoring. So once again it falls to the blogosphere to publicize it. Nidra Pollner and Pajamas Media are attempting to emphasize the "rhyme" by channeling Emile Zola and the newspaper L'Aurore (The Dawn), respectively. Pollner's excellent first article on the case appears here.

The trial begins today. It manages to combine a number of huge issues in one seemingly small package: Palestinian fauxtography, the role of the mainstream press in promulgating it, how to distinguish between what is truth and what is propaganda, and the defamation laws of the French legal system. The overarching question, of course, is whether justice and truth will prevail.

Please read this previous post of mine and the linked Pollner article to get the details. But if that's too much for you, here's the briefest of recaps: in September of 2000, the French TV station France2 broadcast videotape allegedly showing the killing of 12-year old Mohammed al Durah by Israeli troops in a Gaza exchange of fire with Palestinians. The tape and the publicity that ensued were instrumental in inflaming international--especially European, and particularly French--public opinion against both Israel and Jews, and was heavily used by the Palestinians as justification for the bloody Second Intifada.

But it turns out the overwhelming evidence indicates the whole thing to be a hoax. What's more, France2 knew this early on, or should reasonably have known it. The station lied about other aspects of the tape as well, alleging there was even more footage--unshown because it was too graphic and upsetting--proving the death of Mohammed. But there was no such tape. In fact, the tape in question demonstrates quite the opposite: almost a half-hour of blatantly staged scenes, with only a minute of al Durah footage, the end of which catches the boy making voluntary hand gestures after he was supposedly dead.

In the sharpest of ironies, these trials are being brought by the French TV station and its employees under a law originally designed to shield individuals against defamation by the press. Philippe Karsenty, founding director of the online media watch enterprise Media-Ratings, is being sued for public defamation of the honor and reputation of an “individual"--that individual being France 2 and its employees Arlette Chabot and Charles Enderlin.

It's as though Dan Rather, acting as an individual, had sued Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs for Johnson's online debunking of the forged the National Guard memos. A French law designed to protect individuals against the power of false press accusations has turned the tables, looking-glass like, and enabled the press to sue online individuals for criticizing lies promulgated by the media itself.

Writers keep invoking the famous Dreyfus Affair, but I'm hoping the better parallel will be to the David Irving trial, in which Irving sued writer Lipstadt for defamation when she accused him of lying and Holocaust denial. He ended up the loser, with his reputation in tatters after the trial proved the truth of her charges against him.

The Irving trial was relatively brief and the verdict against Irving swift. Not so the Dreyfus case; although Dreyfus was exonerated in the end, it took twelve long years for his rehabilitation, and he endured a great deal of suffering along the way.

The Dreyfus Affair demonstrated, among other things, the power of the pen: writer Zola was instrumental in getting the case the public scrutiny that ultimately helped to release Dreyfus. The entire episode also caused a huge and lasting rift in French society and government. But Zola himself, in an example of uncanny "rhyming" with the present case, did not get off scot-free. He--much like the defendants here (and possibly under the same statute?)--was charged with libel in 1898, the same year in which he had written "J'accuse," his famous piece calling attention to the Dreyfus Affair.

What's more--and here I sincerely hope that history does not end up rhyming--Zola was found guilty, and forced to flee the country and take exile in England for a few months until granted amnesty.

There are two other famous quotations about history that spring to mind in relation to these matters. One was uttered by James Joyce's fictional character and alter ego Stephen Daedulus:

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

Yes, history has its horrors. But we are part of it, and it of us, and we ignore it at our peril. We can't change it; we can only try to learn from it. Which brings us to the second quote, by George Santayana:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Of course, even those who do remember the past are often condemned to repeat it, unless enough people remember it and act wisely on its lessons. Sometimes it's difficult to know what those lessons are. Other times they seem clear, and this is one of these times.

[ADDENDUM: I just came across Richard Landes's pretrial post, in which he mentions that Dreyfus was tried under the same 1881 law that is operating in this trial.]

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