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Riding the Polarized Express
Published on Tuesday, January 11, 2005 by
Riding the Polarized Express
by Steven Laffoley

No torture versus torture. Blue State versus Red State. Liberal versus Conservative. Fahrenheit 9/11 versus The Passion of The Christ. America is riding the Polarized Express - a national train fast approaching a fork in the tracks. One track leads to the republic rediscovered. The other track, to dictatorship and empire.

Sounds extreme?

Consider: we have seen this all before. In fact, just a hundred years ago, at the start of the last century, the politics of the 'western' world was disturbingly familiar to ours, with many nations of Europe similarly on the Polarized Express - Germany, Spain, Russia, Italy, and France among others.

Back then each nation saw a growing polarization of their electorate. Each nation's story was a familiar fight between polarized groups, entrenched elites versus oppressed under-classes. The names of these polarized groups varied from nation to nation: leftists, liberals, socialists, anarchists, communists, and republicans on the left; conservatives, monarchists, aristocrats, militarists, fundamentalists, and fascists on the right. But the basic polarization of the divide was the same: the voice of the people versus the voice of the elites.

These polarized groups fought over economic justice, over 'family values,' over national pride, over the fear of anarchists (the terrorists of their day), over religious values, over empire, over ethnic superiority. And as the polarization intensified so did the politics and leadership of each nation, moving, election after election, from left to right and then back again.

And in some nations - Germany, Italy, Russia, and Spain - the polarization ultimately snapped the back of democracy. Extremisms of various sorts emerged with a sureness of purpose almost religious in intensity. These "isms" promised social safety and political clarity.

But not all nations on the Polarized Express were victims of anti-democratic extremism. Not all nations lost their democratic soul for the sake of political clarity.

In one nation, one man's story and another man's words were a candle's light in the dark saving a republic from collapse. It is their story that casts a faint light of hope on the growing darkness in America.

France in the 1890s was also a nation on the Polarized Express. On one pole stood the republicans - socialists, centrists, and liberals. And on the other pole stood the monarchists - conservatives, aristocrats, and militarists. Each side worked feverishly to control the ballot box and thus the nation. And each side accused the other of angry, divisive partisanship. Of course then, as now, the press gleefully played along, creating further polarization.

Then, in 1894, someone discovered that a Frenchman had passed information to the German high command. After an investigation, Captain Alfred Dreyfus - a Jew and a republican - was arrested for the crime. Captain Dreyfus was brought before a military court in September of 1894 and, with the testimony of a witness-for-hire and that of a dubious handwriting expert, he was found guilty. As grand theatre, Dreyfus was shamed before France, publicly stripped of his epaulets and medals and then sent away to Devil's Island.

The monarchists and militarists wanted to scapegoat Captain Dreyfus, not only because he was a Jew - though the military and the French press were notoriously anti-Semitic - but more importantly because they wanted to destroy republican sympathy in the military and in the nation. The conviction of Dreyfus worked perfectly. Public sympathy passed to the military as their nation's savior. That is, until 1898.

In 1898, another man, Major Walsin Esterhazy was discovered to be the real culprit of Dreyfus's supposed crime. But Major Esterhazy was a monarchist. And when he was court-martialed - despite absolute evidence of his guilt - he was conveniently and quietly found innocent. And then, the major witness against Major Esterhazy was arrested and imprisoned. The matter may well have ended there. But one writer refused to ignore the truth.

On January 11, 1898, two days after Esterhazy was found innocent, newspaper writer Emile Zola wrote "J'accuse," a public letter of condemnation to French President Felix Fore. In the letter, Zola made bold accusations and named names. The military quickly responded, and Zola found himself being tried for libel. He fled to England. But by then, the military had lost public support. Zola had shone a light on truth. And a nation responded.

On June 3, 1899, in an effort to confront the growing public outcry, the military retried Dreyfus - but brazenly found him guilty again, with extenuating circumstances. But knowing the electoral game was lost, the military prepared for a coup d'etat. And the democratic forces prepared for action.

Twenty days later, the republicans of France - from centrists to socialists - rallied to form a center-left government. And in September of 1899, the new president, Rene Waldeck-Rousseau, daringly challenged the military by pardoning Dreyfus. The French Polarized Express had reached the fork in the tracks. But the military backed down. And the republic was saved.

So, a hundred years later, what lessons are there for America on the Polarized Express?

The Dreyfus Affair was about a polarized people who passionately believed in their competing visions for a nation. It was also about the inherent dangers of riding the Polarized Express and the frighteningly real risk of losing a republic to a dictatorship. But, so too, the Dreyfus Affair was about the power of one man's story to challenge that threat and about the power of words to cast a light on truth.

America is riding the Polarized Express. And its democracy may soon be bent to the breaking point. But by repeatedly telling the stories of injustice, and by repeatedly casting light on the truth, America may yet rediscover their republic.

Steven Laffoley is a writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. You may e-mail him at


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