Their methods ultimately became their principles. “Liberty is a bitch who likes to be bedded on a mattress of cadavers,” opined Desmoulins. “Let us be terrible so that the people will not have to be,” exhorted Danton. “There must be blood to cement the revolution,” Madame Roland maintained. Their revolutionary executioners agreed.
The French Revolution proved a dry-run for the twentieth century. Fanatics systematically liquidated internal enemies. They exported revolution to those unlucky enough to share their borders. They ignored all of history and believed all of posterity would see them as the starting point. Words, such as “Committee of Public Safety,” conveyed the very opposite of their meanings. The inability to attain the glorious ends that rationalized their terrible means left just the terror.
An unwitting accomplice of great evil is always extreme arrogance. The Jacobins attempted to replace more than a millennium of Christianity with a Cult of Reason, which smashed burial crosses and placed a “Goddess of Reason” on the altar at Notre Dame Cathedral. After overthrowing the king, they attempted to overthrow established units of weights and measures through the metric system. And they vainly replaced Gregory’s calendar with a Revolutionary one, placing their own event at the start of time, naming weeks of the month, and renaming months of the year.
The terrible irony is that the fanatics who sought to overthrow tradition instead established one. When French President Francois Hollande jettisons a budget-ceiling agreement with the European Union, seeks to hike tax rates to 75 percent on the wealthy, and pledges an oxymoronic “end to austerity” for a government that spends more than half of the gross domestic product, he acts moderately within a culture that celebrates rioters who shouted “Death to the rich, death to the aristocrats” with a national holiday. Radicals appear conservative when operating within a radical tradition.
Don’t celebrate Bastille Day this weekend. Do celebrate that July 14, 2012 isn’t du Quintidi, 25 Messidor, CCXX.
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