Dreyfus and the US elections: guarding against intellectual dishonesty

by snowden1984

The case of Dreyfus was of great moment in French and European history — a testimony to human endurance, evidence that grand nations can entrust offices to petty men, the empowering of public opinion, a precursor to Zionism, and even the cause of the Tour de France.

A century has gone by, but a certain aspect of the Affair, which essentially had to do with the question of guilt or innocence of a military officer, is of topical importance.

It is this: the polarization of an entire society, with rifts arising even within families whose individuals had differing opinions on the case.

Obviously, such a publicized trial had many facets and a great many persons and institutions were involved, but it came down to a binary choice: guilty or innocent.

Noteworthy is that only a minority, perhaps not more than five or six people in a nation of millions, knew the essential fact — the rest had an opinion, and staunchly, passionately, bitterly clung to it, and urged others to do the same.

The debate was carried out also with means that were not quite intellectually honest.

For instance, board games were sold which caricatured the principal defendants and opponents of the case.

Posters were produced proclaiming the guilt of Dreyfus — a simple, visual aid for people to make up their mind on Dreyfus’ guilt.


Posters were produced proclaiming the innocence of Dreyfus — a simple, visual aid for people to make up their mind on Dreyfus’ innocence.


The years have gone by, and now we see Internet memes and headlines of the ‘breaking news’ variety which try to do the same in matters of current political, social or technological importance — this includes climate change, gay marriage, insurgencies, critiques of religion, and political candidacy, all made quite simple to consume, using an appeal to reputation, or to emotion, or a straw-man fallacy, or illegitimate reasoning, dubious statistics, an ad hominem attack, or other tricks of rhetoric.

A case in point is tomorrow’s US election: Trump or Hilary.

Vote against Trump because the current US President says so. Vote against Hilary because she doesn’t look healthy, does she. Vote against Trump because he doesn’t like immigrants and Hitler didn’t like immigrants, and we don’t want that again, do we. A trivial search will yield a multitude of additional examples.

The election is probably a sure thing for Hilary, given how alienating some of Trump’s stances are — against Mexicans and Muslims, for instance. There could be a Brexit-style surprise. In any case, the greater impact of this fanatical campaign will probably be seen in a diminished mandate of the victor (Hilary), especially given the potential allegations of electoral fraud by the loser (Trump), and questions for what this means for America’s moral authority as it tries to shape the world order.

Another point shall remain valid even after the election — what shall we make of those who try to propagate such illicit attempts at manipulation? Have you received a little picture via Facebook or Whatsapp that makes the choice so very simple, yet is bereft of a chain of reasoning using transparent points of evidence? What does that mean for the sender’s intellectual honesty and opinion of your intellectual ability?

The Information Age is well upon us. In a time of diminished attention spans, we need to retain a sense of skepticism.