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.
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
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
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
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
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
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