Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

Frontline (India) published an interesting, if unenlightened, review of Louis Begley’s latest book, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters. I am tempted to pick up this book, not so much because of the review, but because I’ve often taught the Dreyfus Affair as an historical turning point in the academic career of Émile Durkheim and his views on religion, especially insofar as they pertained to notions of community and sacrifice. It wasn’t only Durkheim who was deeply affected by the Dreyfus Affair, but most of the intellectuals associated with L’Année Sociologique, especially Marcel Mauss (not to mention countless other artists, academics, politicians, private citizens, and so on), were vehement Dreyfusards during Alfred Dreyfus’s trials and captivity. Of course in academia nowadays it’s often chic to try to find historical parallels with such recent events in U.S. domestic and foreign sociopolitical life, such as 9/11, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. Some are merely attempts to make scholarship sexy, and they are not worthwhile to use in the classroom; but some have actually been well thought out and argued, nicely demonstrating the usefulness of history and careful hermeneutics to teach the importance of reading history for understanding our present circumstances. I am not sure what to expect from Begley’s latest effort, but the Dreyfus Affair itself has already been helpful in the latter regard for me. I just don’t know if I’ll have a need (or desire) to lecture on G.W. Bush’s presidency and reactions to 9/11 anytime soon. Of course, for just about any scholar of religion, 9/11 changed the playing field — in terms of theory for sure, but as Begley’s book attests, in terms of historical analysis as well. It forced us to reconsider our assumptions and adjust our foci in the classroom and in our writing to discuss religion in the full context of the various institutions that constitute culture (e.g., education, politics, medicine, entertainment, etc). That there might be clear and incisive parallels between Dreyfus and some of the detainees at Gitmo, and the treatment of these people by leaders in late-19th century France and early 21st century America, is not surprising. And religion is, I am fairly certain, integral to all of these parallels.

2 thoughts on “Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

  1. wildbillyscircusstory

    I’m taking a night off from trial preparation to relax, have a drink and get caught up on EMP. Unfortunately, the link to the review has “expired” and no longer takes me to the publication, so I may be out of my element. I’m no expert on Dreyfus, but it seems a few key distinguishing factors make its application to a 9/11-Gitmo analysis a bit of a stretch.

    Dreyfus was a Frenchman, persecuted by his own government. Moreover, he always maintained his innocence in stark contrast to many (though not all) of the Gitmo detainees. His prosecution and re-trial ignited anti-Semitism in France which fully manifested itself thiry years later with the Vichy Government’s complicity in the Nazi Final Solution.

    I think a more interesting debate vis a vis Dreyfus lies in the current French goverment’s treatment of their substantial Muslim population. I recall the past few summers featured significant Muslim rioting in Paris. Many Frenchmen now petition their government for tighter immigration controls and even banning the burqa. Economic woes tend to ignite nationalism and skapegoating and modern day France exhibits these traits.

    An interesting topic to kick around over a beer (or twelve).

  2. Pingback: The Immigration Debate: Focus on South Asia « Eat My Peashoot

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