Friday, July 3, 2015

Lafayette and Me

 Lafayette in 1791 as a Lieutenant General in the French National Guard, painted by Joseph-Desire Court 

Over the past year or so, I've been doing some serious rethinking of my relationship with the United States, my native country.  A long slow spiral of disillusionment that began with the Vietnam War descending all the way through the Iraq Invasion of 2003 came to a breaking point with the Senate Torture report last year.  What I found to be so shocking was not the report itself or what it said.  The world had known that the USA tortured and killed prisoners of war since the revelations and pictures out of the prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and more revelations and pictures out of Afghanistan.  What shocked me was the reaction of many people to the report, including people that I consider old and close friends.  Here we were trashing the very Geneva Conventions that we initiated and drafted after our own POWs were treated so barbarically during the Second World War.  We proudly did the same things for which we hanged people in the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after the War (the Japanese frequently water-boarded American POWs).  And people were just fine with it.  They were all for it.  Their reasons ranged from anything-to-find-that-ticking-time-bomb to "the bastards got what was coming to them."

The scales fell from my eyes and I realized that the country that commanded my lifelong loyalty and allegiance was an aggressive imperial state, and that it always had been.  It built an empire out of the North American continent upon conquest, slavery, and genocide.  The United States in the end was but one more empire in a long list, that it was nothing more than one big organized smash-and-grab like all the other empires before it.

So how to square this reality with the vision contained in its credal documents that still holds my very deep loyalty and affection?  Do I abandon the whole thing all together?  Should I pick up and leave my native country for someplace else, maybe better, maybe not?  Should I resort to sedition and treason?  Or, should I just give up, quit any kind of civic involvement (including voting) and let the whole empire slide into inevitable decline and destruction while I get on with my own life?

I decided that exile was futile.  There is no country on earth that doesn't have some measure of crime in its history that affects its present.  The very far right in this country seems remarkably eager to resort to sedition and treason these days (e.g. any number of secession movements from Texas to the Confederacy).  Since they can't get their way, they eagerly betray the country that they profess to so super-love.  Besides, I despise treason and betrayals of all kinds.  So that's out.  Simply staying at home on election day and avoiding all civic involvement is ultimately irresponsible; a negligence of duty to my neighbors, my communities, to my home, and to myself.

So, what to do?

Lafayette, the Hero of Two Worlds, rides to my rescue.  Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette I think shows me the path that I am looking for.

I'm not really interested in the Lafayette of the American Revolution, though that is an attractive and fascinating character.  He was one of the few Champions of Liberty from that time who was not tainted or compromised by slavery.  I relish the vision of the 19 year old Lafayette telling General Washington to free his slaves and to provide each of them with land to make an honest living.

The Lafayette I'm interested in is the Lafayette of the French Revolution and its long aftermath, an older more worn and frayed character than the fresh-faced young hero of the American Revolution.

Lafayette assumes command of the French National Guard at the Fete de la Federation, July 14, 1790.  The ceremony took place on the Champs de Mars in Paris where the Eiffel Tower now stands.  The child standing to the right is Lafayette's son George Washington.  The bishop on the far right is Talleyrand, then Bishop of Autun.

Lafayette enthusiastically embraced the Revolution in his homeland and eagerly participated in it.  He commanded the National Guard that defended Paris from monarchist reactionaries and Austrian invaders.  He designed the French Tricolor.  He introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen to the National Assembly, a document that he helped to write with consultations from Thomas Jefferson.  Lafayette emerged as a born-again true believer in Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.

And he continued to believe fervently in Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite despite finding his name on the death lists of both radical Jacobins and monarchist reactionaries.  He remained loyal to those principles despite fleeing to Belgium, capture by the Germans, and spending many years being passed around from one German prison to another.  When Napoleon finally sprang Lafayette from his last prison in Austria, Lafayette very ungratefully turned on Napoleon when he made himself dictator and eventually emperor.  Lafayette endured Napoleon's defeat, the Bourbon Restoration, Charles X, and came to life again in the July Revolution of 1830.  He supported the campaign to make the Duc d'Orleans king despite his republican sympathies.  Lafayette wanted to avoid the civil war that caused the downfall of the first Revolution, so he supported King Louis Philippe.  He turned on the king when Louis Philippe started becoming more and more autocratic and anti-liberal.

Lafayette spent most of the later part of his life in prison, under house arrest, or under police surveillance.  He remained deeply loyal to those original liberal ideas of the American and French Revolutions.  He remained a steadfastly loyal servant of France and of the ideas of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite to his dying day long after France betrayed them, and betrayed him.

For me, he was a hero then and remains a hero now.
And so I remain deeply loyal to the credal statements of the United States; the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, and ML King's Dream.  I remain loyal to them even when the American Empire wipes its ass with them.  I can still Pledge Allegiance to Liberty and Justice for All even in an empire made great by greed and racism.

"Loyalty to country always," said another fighting liberal Mark Twain, "loyalty to the government only when it deserves it."


A portrait of Lafayette in old age painted by Samuel FB Morse (the same one who invented the telegraph) commissioned by the City of New York during his triumphant grand tour of the United States in 1824 - 1825.


JCF said...

Doug, did you see The Daily Show last night? Sarah Vowell, one of the most perspicacious American writers around, has a new book on Lafayette coming out this fall (Jon interviewed her last night, and she spoke briefly about the book).

Ah, of course Amazon already has a link:

Counterlight said...

Yes, I did see that. I really like Sarah Vowell and might read her book. I've been thinking about Lafayette and his experiences during the French Revolution since I read Simon Schama's book on the revolution about 20 years ago.