Sunday, October 28, 2007

Jacobins, Neo-Cons, and Terrorists

Words are important. Almost as important, and too often left out of a discussion, is the history of particular words. Just how important word history, etymology, is happens to be the subject of a very interesting op-ed piece in today's New York Times.

"Bush’s Dangerous Liaisons," by Francois Furstenberg, takes us back to Revolutionary France in the 1790s. At an early point in the Revolution, a " of politicians, journalists and citizens dedicated to advancing the principles of the Revolution..." formed and called themselves the Jacobin Club, and these people were adamant in their stance for liberty--there could be no dissent. "One was either for the Revolution or for tyranny."

Furstenberg provides a list of interesting quotes from leading theorists of the Jacobins. For instance, they believed in “a crusade for universal liberty.” If France's neighbors, monarchies, didn't like the rise of a republic in France, those neighbors must be engaged in warfare.

On the home front, the Jacobins seized control of the government and engaged in a tightly controlled media campaign, called themselves "true patriots," wore insignia distinguishing themselves from those who were not true patriots, habeas corpus was not instituted, and warrantless searches were conducted.

Jacobins shrugged off the loss of personal freedom with such pronouncements as “This severity is alarming only for the conspirators, only for the enemies of liberty," and anyone who spoke against the practices were accused of “treacherous insinuations.”

In this little story from history, it is instructive to substitute Neo-Con for Jacobin, especially when we think of Furstenberg's final point:

Though it has been a topic of much attention in recent years, the origin of the term “terrorist” has gone largely unnoticed by politicians and pundits alike. The word was an invention of the French Revolution, and it referred not to those who hate freedom, nor to non-state actors, nor of course to “Islamofascism.”

A terroriste was, in its original meaning, a Jacobin leader who ruled France during la Terreur.

While Darth Vader might be an amusing mot, "Jacobin" is much more frightening.

Perhaps Mr. Bush should stop using "terrorist" quite so often. Someone besides Furstenberg might take notice and warn of the historical precedence.

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