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July 14, 2003 by AK

Le quatorze juillet, le Jour de la Bastille

So what if there were no political prisoners there? So what if the revolution devoured its enemies, its children, and onlookers alike? “The world did not know disappointment before the Great French Revolution; the disappointment came with the 1792 republic,” wrote the Russian revolutionary Alexander Hertzen. But for the hosts of hearts the Marceillaise has awakened since, it will always be 1789 – dancing on the ruins, the National Assembly, and vows in the Tennis Court.

“To accept the American Revolution, you must reject the French,” writes J.P. Zmirak. No — history is not a gift. It knows no conditionals. It’s a given; you can’t reject or accept it. It’s supposed to be instructive — but for all practical purposes, history seems meaningless; people only learn from their own mistakes. “If you think French peasants had the right to guillotine King Louis, then you must say that black slaves would have been right to hang George Washington.” (It wasn’t peasants who decapitated Louis, but it’s just a side note.) Slaves always have the right to rebel and, if necessary, to kill their masters. Isn’t it obvious?

The Bastille’s defenders fired shots into the crowd; after the surrender, the commander was beheaded. So were the Mayor and his son-in-law, their heads displayed on spikes. When you first draw blood in a fight, you make the opposite party’s cause sacred. Blood on Bourbons’ banners: Red on White, the Red against the White.

…A cause is strong

When blood is flowing underneath it,

according to a Russian poet. Sick as we all should be after the bloodbaths of the 20th century, I still have a painful sympathy for those who gave their lives for universal causes – the triple “-ity” of the French Revolution is one – though not for independence/nationalist movements, be it in Ireland or Israel. The latter may still have my respect and admiration (as if anybody needed them). All causes are ultimately divisive; but universal ones can unite people across ethnic and racial lines; and that means a whole bloody lot to me.

It’s a sad story. Liberty remains a phantom two hundred years after; every ideal is contaminated, every passion is impure. Could you pass me a drink and make the music louder?

Let’s dance.


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