Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Sanson Memoirs- 3/3

by Nomad

In this the third and final post of the series, we examine how the curse of the revolutionary madness was lifted, how the family curse came to an end. Finally, we ask: What are the parallels to our time?

End of the Curse

For the next seven years after the execution of the French king, the nation saw a series of rebellions within rebellions and partisan uprisings. The timeline shows a convoluted parade of leaders and groups that came and went.

Eventually, the leader of the revolutions, revolutionary leaders, Georges Jacques Danton and the radical Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre, were themselves consumed by the seemingly temporary insanity of the French people.

Of Robespierre's execution, Sanson rather drily states:
The head was shown to the crowd, just like Danton's and the King's.
Throughout the catastrophic political crisis, Sanson remained in charge of the public executions, overseeing "the strict and humane discharge of his duty." 
The executions drew fewer and fewer spectators. As one historian puts it, the Terror had practically glutted the lust for blood.

In the midst of this power vacuum, one ambitious major-general named Napoleon Bonaparte snatched power away from the quibbling Republicans.

And with his military support, the dashing young man proceeded to launch successful attacks on his neighbors. He was to make himself Emperor of France in 1804 and lead an ill-fated conquest of Europe.

The Sanson family came to represent the final step in many of France's causes celebres. The last moments of many a murderer are faithfully- some might say, fitfully- recorded.
The memoir writer provides a detailed description of their crimes, how the condemned behaved when all hope vanished, the last words, the moment of death and how the crowd reacted when the victim was dispatched.

He even records a horribly-botched execution of Thomas Arthur, Comte de Lally in which the condemned man reportedly survived the blade, stood and glowered indignantly at the mortified Sanson.
The second attempt was more successful.

At one point in describing his own executions, the author of the family chronicle, writes:
I must beg the reader not to tire of this sad and dry list. I have promised a history of the scaffold, and I wish it to be as complete as possible.

A Strange and Indefinable Sentiment

It is pretty clear that when it came to being an executioner, this Sanson was not cut from the same cloth as his ancestors. Early in his career as executioner, Henry-Clément was described by those who knew him as being "in person a fine figure, with an elegant and noble countenance, and a very sweet and agreeable expression."

For a psychologist, Sanson makes an interesting study. He must have a fairly "messed-up" guy. On one occasion, a guest in his home reached out to shake his hand and Henry-Clement recoiled. An executioner was, it seemed, forbidden to touch the flesh of any but his own family and his victims.

He had a lot of gruesome thoughts to haunt him between dusk to dawn. According to another story, Sanson privately believed that some of his decapitated victims continued to suffer for a short time after the execution. (That's recently been confirmed too.)

It was not until March 1847, Sanson was freed from his duties. In the eight years he served- the shortest duration of any of the Sanson dynasty- Henry-Clément's life was wrecked by alcohol and frivolous spending. The usual sources of solace for a tormented man.

Eventually, to pay his debts, he pawned his ancestral guillotine for 3,000 francs, vowing to continue his official duties with axes. The French government did not think much of the idea and, after getting his tool of the trade out of hock, dismissed him.

He describes his feelings upon receiving the news:
A strange and indefinable sentiment took possession of me. I raised my eyes to the portraits of my ancestors; I scanned all those dark, thoughtful faces, whereon was depicted the very despair which had once haunted me. I looked at my grandfather, dressed in a shooting costume, leaning on his gun and stroking his dog- perhaps the only friend he had. I looked at my father, his hat in hand, and clad in the sable garb he had always worn. It seemed to me that I was informing all these dumb witnesses that there was an end of the curse which had weighed on them.
Then, ringing the bell, I asked for a basin and water; and alone with God who sees in our hearts, I solemnly laved those hand which the blood of my fellow man was from this time on never to soil.
There were 18 applicants for the executioner position when Sanson was dismissed.

He remained in dire straits financially and was eventually induced to collect the family papers and other documents as the basis for the two-volume book.
This need for cash- along with the assistance of a ghostwriter- has led many scholars to doubt the veracity of Sanson's work. How much embellishment was added to the tale has long been a subject of debate.

As far as the Sanson invention- the guillotine, it remained Frances' standard method of capital punishment until the death penalty itself was abolished in 1981. 
The last person to be executed in this way was Tunisian-born murderer Hamida Djandoubi, who was guillotined on 10 September 1977.

Parties to the Cause

It is only reasonable to ask what could have led to the revolution? In the archives, we see this eerily-familiar passage about the origins of a book about the French Revolution written over a hundred years ago.
The wars of Louis XIV and the orgies of Louis XV absorbed more and more money. Once the laboring classes already overtaxed, an increased weight of taxation was always being laid. Hence, of these classes, the king became the oppressor, and the oppression was the greater because the upper classes, who were best able to pay taxes, contributed much less than their fair share of the burden.
The nobles and the clergy.. stood, in right of their privileges, both pecuniary and honorary, apart from the rest of the nation. Nobles did not pay any direct taxes in the same proportion as their fellow subjects...The clergy... paid personally no direct taxes whatever. The bourgeoisie [the middle class] was regarded as an inferior class.
For decades prior to the collapse, economic inequality, based on an unfair system of taxation and privilege, had become installed as a more-or-less permanent feature in France. And because the privileged classes controlled the administration and creation of laws, there was no hope for reform.
Another source notes:
The despot and the bureaucracy that governed France were very inefficient; the court and the officials were corrupt; the system was out of gear.
It went beyond mismanagement by bureaucrats and kings. Another recent theory lays emphasis on shifts in the local climate.
In 1788, on the eve of the French Revolution, a drought hit France and caused severe crop failure. By 1789, grain prices had increased steeply and common people spent 88 percent of their income on bread compared to 50 percent in normal times.
The dire conditions of the drought-plagued summer were followed by an extremely harsh winter. This led to ice-blocked navigable rivers, which, in turn, reduced the amount of grains and cereals reaching poverty-stricken areas.
As a result, the share of famished people grew rapidly. The desperation and hopelessness of poverty were exacerbated as living costs soared.
By August 1789, it all boiled over.
Famished peasants turned to protest and violence. Their anger was especially directed against the feudal system that imposed heavy cash and labor obligations on the common population and severely reduced their incomes.
Because the aristocracy and the Church controlled the machinery of government and they had a vested interest in keeping things just as they were, sensible reform of the tax structure became impossible.

Looking at the causes for the mayhem of the French Revolution and the atrocities committed as a result, it is hard not to find potential parallels in our times.

Lessons Unlearned

In January, the Dutch historian attending the World Economic Forum's annual event at Davos grabbed the headlines with some straight talking.
Rutger Bregman told the audience:
“It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water, right? Just stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes."
If we want to seriously address the problem of wealth inequality, he said, raising taxes on millionaires and billionaires - instead of blaming the poor- is the first step. No private philanthropy can solve the real issue of tax avoidance, and that high taxes on the wealthy are an urgency in these troubled days (as well as terminating with tax havens).

When Bregman appeared as a guest on Fox News, Tucker Carlson, spokesperson for the 1%, chastised Bregman as a 'tiny brain...moron' who was too "fucking annoying" to be interviewed.

Like the nobility of pre-revolutionary France, the world's super-wealthy certainly do not have any desire to hear Cassandra warnings like that.

The United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, issued a 20-page report last year.
That report concluded that 40 million people in the United States live in poverty -- and more than half of those live in "extreme" or "absolute" poverty. Alston observed:
"The United States has the highest income inequality in the Western world, and this can only be made worse by the massive new tax cuts overwhelmingly benefiting the wealthy."
Earlier this year, Fortune Magazine reported on a paper authored by UC Berkeley economics professor Gabriel Zucman which noted that income inequality in the U.S., which has steadily been increasing since the 1980s, has reached levels last seen in the years just before the Great Depression.
Today, one out of every six Americans face hunger. Ironically, the US actually produces more food than it can consume. So why should anybody go hungry?

The reason is actually simple.
Hunger in the U.S. is caused by some Americans having insufficient money to buy food for themselves or their families. 

And yet, the pattern of neglect for the poor is there. Republicans continue to fight for stricter limits on food stamps and other programs for the poor while delivering enormous tax cuts for the super-wealthy.

In March this year, Trump unveiled his 2020 budget - a staggering $4.7 trillion proposal- and lo and behold, there were severe cuts on social programs for the nation's neediest
Over 10 years, if Trump and the Republicans get their way, there will be 
  • $1.5 trillion in cuts to Medicaid 
  • An $845 billion cut to Medicare 
  • $25 billion in cuts to Social Security
  • A $220 billion cut to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps
  • A $21 billion cut to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
All these cuts are in an effort to offset the tax cuts for the uber-wealthy. Is that really enough to cause a repeat of the French Revolution in the US?
Of course not.
And yet, the pattern of neglect for the poor is there.

Rough Weather Ahead

Keep in mind, these warnings about hunger in America come at a time when hunger is purely an unaddressed economic problem. In spite of repeated denials by Trump administrations, scientists have repeatedly warned that climate change is on the way. 

According to a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI):
Higher temperatures are expected to reduce crop yields, allow damaging weeds and insects to spread, and shift precipitation patterns worldwide. While some agricultural regions are expected to benefit from climate change, overall production will decline for the world's rice, wheat, maize, millet, and sorghum harvests.
Even now, it is already is having a negative effect on global agriculture and is driving up the number of hungry people around the world.
Hunger has been on the rise over the past three years, returning to levels from a decade ago. That warning comes from the United Nations' 2018 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report.

From that view, it is clear that a dangerous game is being played in Washington. In the case of pre-revolutionary France, the neglect of the poor went on blithely for decades before all hell broke loose.
And when it did, it was up to the Sansons to square accounts with the blade.