Common Sense Comes to Town!

Common sense is the most fairly distributed thing in the world, for each one thinks he is so well-endowed with it that even those who are hardest to satisfy in all other matters are not in the habit of desiring more of it than they already have. (Descartes)

Émile Zola and WikiLeaks

Posted on | January 13, 2011 | No Comments

113 years ago on this day, French novelist Émile Zola published on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore his now famous letter, « J’accuse ! » (« I accuse! ») and by so doing sparked the second Dreyfus Affair, and highlighted the rampant anti-semitism that plagued turn of the century France.

“J’accuse!” was meant to defend Richard Dreyfus, a Jewish officer previously accused and found guilty of espionage.  Written in an aggressive and striking tone, even libellous, it fingered many high-ranking officers of the French military establishment. Émile Zola actually lost a libel suit immediately afterwards and was forced to exile himself to Great Britain, faced with the hostility of his compatriots. His letter however brought renewed vigour to the Dreyfus Affair and ultimately led to the rehabilitation of the man.  

There are a few troubling coincidences with the WikiLeaks phenomenon. The latter also involves an individual who reveals to the light of days facts which, while not entirely unknown, had so far flown beneath the public opinion’s radar. The hostility of a sizeable portion of the public (in the USA mostly) followed suit; the site’s founder thus lives in exile, travelling from country to country, until he was arrested without grounds in Great Britain.

There are also obvious differences. Julian Assange does not have Zola’s sharp writing skills, nor his critical gaze or even his literary stature. He does not comment on the information he discloses. However, both profit from a rebalancing of media forces and means in order to publicly expose their vision of a world order they deem unsatisfactory. Both face the immediate material circumstances of their actions: their assets seized by French justice or frozen by financial institutions. It remains only to be seen whether the WikiLeaks Affair will turn into as considerable a social movement as was the second Dreyfus Affair.

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