Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Beatles vs. the Dreyfus Affair: Cures for Modern Civility?

By ned * Other ned Posts

The New Yorker avoids discussing video games like Tom Wolfe avoids color. The pastime associates itself with passive couch potato adolescents and not academic Park Avenuers. The 64-bit art generally appeals to groundlings through violence and sport as opposed to the aristocrats through wit and reflective storylines. Therefore, it would be difficult to spin out multi-thousand word essays appealing to an audience of private university graduates over the age of 40.

However, the recent production of the Beatles edition of Rock Band may have provided the monocle clad authors that opportunity to delve into the jargon of joysticks. The Beatles provide baby boomer appeal and Rock Band has proved to be an interesting phenomenon. It has created a potential new channel to sell music for the struggling music industry and the game has cultivated a new fan base for waning rock when hip hop had seen a dominant rise in popularity. Moreover, because it is the Beatles, there is the ability to tap into a vein that spans generations and is somehow bigger culturally than anything else ... some might even say Jesus.

However, with only a scant entry on its online blog, the editors of The New Yorker have stuck to their guns the past few weeks – often through articles referencing esoteric events of the past as opposed to cult followings of the present. One such article reviews a book that recounts the Dreyfus Affair and highlights its relevance for the current socio-political climate (The Dreyfus Affair: A Chronological History by George R. Whyte).

We all remember the Dreyfus Affair. Dreyfus, a Jew in the military, was court martial for treason, stripped of his titles in rushed proceedings, and persecuted to the delight of a loudly anti-Semitic faction in late 19th century France. Eventually Dreyfus was reinstated, those who persecuted him punished and the institutions of the modern Western state vindicated as liberal, pluralistic, and fair.

However, the New Yorker writer points out that the book focuses not on the event as part of the anti-Semitism narrative that darkened the history of the first half of the 20th century. Instead, the book struggles with the question of how something like that could happen in such a modern society as France – which at the turn of that century touted itself to be. To some extent, according to the article, the Dreyfus Affair was a result of emotions left unchecked in elements of society that felt disempowered and, subsequently, angrily searched for explanations of the status quo. Through these traits connections are insinuated to the current right of center Tea Party movement and the Anti-Muslim sentiments of the past decade - paralleled in the trails of the Guantanamo detainees. Therefore, study of the Dreyfus affair might provide us answers on how to grapple with extreme, passionate views so they do not get out of control and ultimately impair fairness or - at worst - falsely victimize other persons.

The power of the Dreyfus case as a tool to that end may be inherent in many publicized legal proceedings. The New Yorker article states how often court cases from Scopes to Simpson provide a theater for the tensions of a given society to methodically play out. Thus records of episodes such as the Dreyfus Affair can provide particularly powerful lenses to compare to modern events. In order to believe that these comparisons are possible, the author of the book and the New Yorker article must believe in a principle tenet of the study of the history – through study of the past we can better understand who we are and can be.

The question then is whether that premise of the pursuit of studying our ancestors is actually true? Is there something that we can glean from the past to make for a better future? For that to be true there must be some things that are fundamentally human regardless of time period. If Frenchmen of the 19th century are completely unlike Americans of the 21st, then does the Dreyfus Affair matter at all today? Of course though, there are commonalities; we still relate to experiences found in the writings of the ancient theologians, philosophers, and storytellers. Experiences that once recognized as human can only lead to a degree of respect and empathy – if not love – in those individuals around you who share and have shared in those experiences.

It is this perspective that is a more relevant take away for today’s society than an episode of anti-Semitism at the turn of the century France. Recent outbursts of Serena Williams and Joe Wilson as well as racial undertones of rallies and violent threats of terrorists have lead many to question the degree of civility in modern society. One tactic to fight for civility is for us all to take time to recognize what we have in common and what we share.

The music of the Beatles can be study of the cultural shifts in the sixties. From clean cut rhythm and blues rockers “holding hands” to psychedelic, eastern influenced artists “doing it in the road,” the Beatles flowed with the times they helped shape. To quote Elvis Costello, a part of that involved espousing the virtues of “peace, love and understanding.” Perhaps that is a part of the music that the New Yorker can highlight to a contemplative audience; the Beatles Rock Band, the unlikeliest of sources, can remind us of values currently lacking in society. Maybe these virtues of the sixties would appeal to civility in a way tenable to both Christians and counter-culturalists alike. Maybe what society requires now is empathy for the human experience. Maybe all we need is love.

- - - - - - - - - -

Article referenced:

No comments:

Post a Comment