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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Friday, September 29, 2006

From Marie Antoinette

A few days ago I saw a program on public television about Marie Antoinette. They were at pains to tell us that she never said, "Let them eat cake." But in a lot of other words, they gave the impression that she definitely fiddled while France smouldered, burst into flames, and then into a huge conflagration. She was having such a great time at her private palace in Versailles that she seemed to have no awareness that there was even a big country sprawling all around her called France and that she was its queen, and so for her seriousness didn't set in till all those Parisian women marched in, armed with knives, pots, pans, and invective and literally chased her out of her bedoom. Not till then did she become "steely" in her resolve to cancel the French revolution but it was too late.

The main statement about Marie Antoinette that has always stuck in my head was not the cake remark. Instead it was a statement made by a noted English royalist of the time. I've forgotten his name -- my ancient memory suggests that it was somebody named Burke -- but in voicing his indignation over the treatment meted out to her, he said something like, "I had thought a thousand swords would have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even an insult to the queen."

Now that's using the language for you!

Actually Queen Marie had to endure tons of insults, and they were delivered with a nastiness that outdid even what the Republicans dealt out to Bill Clinton in their fervid defense of the chastities of the Jones and Lewinski women, and the queen was convicted and guillotined on both sexual and treason charges. Her judges had no real evidence of either one, though the PBS program said that in later years, plenty of evidence did show up that actually she did commit treason, especially by trying to get armies from her native Austria to attack France. Maybe those judges were not as much in the dark as PBS tried to say.

The latter half of the TV program painted a poignant picture of the imprisonment of the royal family. The feeling of doom that must have invested them while they waited eerily foreshadowed what was to happen with the Russian royal family a century and a half later. But, in spite of the Reign of Terror, the French, predictably, were more elegant about it. At least they held trials of a sort, and in addition to the parents, they only killed Marie Antoinette's son, by letting him die in prison at age 10. Her girl was later released and sent to Austria, where she left no descendants. Nicholas and Alexandra and their brood were never tried and instead were shot and buried without ceremony of any kind in a dreary Siberian town.

Yesterday I read a passage in "The Iron Rooster," a book by Paul Theroux, in which he describes a trip he took to China in the mid-1980's. He says that Chairman Mao was asked what he thought of the French Revolution, and he answered, "It is still too early to tell."

But can't the same be said of any political venture and system, whether it be the French experience, the Russian experience, the Cuban experience, the Roman experience, the German experience, or any other? Things can be tried, forgotten, and then tried all over when they are fresh again, just like viewing old movies.


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