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A Bastille Day Special: Let them eat (purple) cake

LET-THEM-EAT-PURPLE-CAKESeldom have four words ever brought such disastrous consequence to the person who uttered them, or so goes the legend of Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake,” and that nasty business of her public beheading.

While a visit to modern day France finds Versailles proper positively dripping with the wretched excess history has assigned it, Domaine de Marie-Antoinette, the private residence of the French queen, tells a somewhat different story. Rather than the gilded surroundings the king’s riches would surely have afforded her, she built a likeness of a quaint Austrian village, complete with working vineyards and livestock.

Could Marie-Antoinette – symbol the world over of condescending wealth – be misunderstood? My trip to France last summer had me scratching my head and returning home to learn more about the queen we love to hate.

Turns out the words we’ve put in poor Marie-Antoinette’s mouth may have been spoken – if spoken at all – by the wife of a different King Louis decades earlier. And even if the doomed queen had said it, a familiarity with French law regulating the price of bread suggests she would have probably meant “let them eat expensive bread with less flour in it for the same price,” a rather generous and common sense suggestion during a flour shortage.

We do know that Marie-Antoinette said “it is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.”

Oops.

Apparently when vein-poppingly angry people pick up their pitchforks and roll out the guillotine, they’ve been known to get it wrong from time to time.

The Marie Antoniette Action Figure with Ejectable Head, will be given away as a door prize at a coming Village Square dinner!

The Marie Antoniette Action Figure with Ejectable Head, actual Village Square door prize!

As uber-partisanship and the culture war have opened a gulf between us, we have been toting our own pitchforks lately. We’ve created opposing custom-ordered villains a la Marie-Antoinette, complete with oft-repeated misquotes, half quotes, and an occasional story spun of whole cloth.

In Revolutionary France, misinformation about the queen was fueled by the libelles – venomous slander-filled booklets produced by political opponents. Besting the distribution of French libelles, America’s present day incarnation sends distortions by email clear across the universe tout de suite.

Even as Americans are called to other countries to handle the fallout of ideological hatred gone to seed, we have a homegrown and thankfully only verbal – version of what journalist John Marks calls “wars of absolute dichotomy” brewing, fueled in part by a lot that we’re getting plain wrong about each other.

John, assigned to cover Bosnia for U.S. News & World Report, has seen the danger of absolute dichotomy. He’s since teamed with college roommate filmmaker Craig Detweiler to make the film “Purple State of Mind,”a conversation between friends with different religious worldviews. John and Craig were our Village Square guests in Tallahassee in 2009 – see their program here.

John explains that shaking up partisan red and blue to make “purple” isn’t really about seeking homogenized agreement but “about taking ourselves and our concerns seriously enough to demand the utmost of ourselves and our political and cultural opponents, the utmost in moral and intellectual rigor, the utmost in compassion and decency.”

On the queen’s behalf, I’d add “the utmost in factual accuracy.”

If we’re going to bring the best of America to bear on the big problems ahead, we can ill afford the cartoon version of a civic dialog that neglects the real consequences of creating fictions rather than grasping facts. At another perilous time in our history, the Founding Fathers set a high bar for the debate because they couldn’t afford the luxury of getting it wrong.

Marie-Antoinette met her end at Place de la Concorde, Revolutionary France’s version of our televised public square, where her beheading earned the eighteenth century’s equivalent of high Nielsen ratings. Whether or not she had it coming, most of us would like to think our decision-making has grown to reflect a higher standard in the couple of centuries since, regardless of potential for market share.

As we begin writing the history of what happens next in America, perhaps we can start by at least getting the quotes right. To do that, we might occasionally put down our pitchforks long enough to break bread with someone who doesn’t see it our way. Or, maybe, in a hat tip to learning the lessons of history, we should eat cake instead.

Only this time, make it purple.

______________

Liz Joyner is Executive Director of the Village Square



Parker Palmer on holding tensions

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From yesterday’s Bill Moyers Journal, Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal.

We want instant resolution. You give us a tension. We want it to get it over with in 15 minutes. We do it in everything from microcosmic situations to what happened in this country after September 11th, which is one of the great tragedies of our time, not only September 11th but our national response to it. We had an opportunity in the weeks following September 11th to really connect in new ways with the rest of the world, who were showing toward us compassion, which means suffering with.

They were saying today I, too, am an American, despite the fact that they knew more of this kind of suffering than we did. And we had caused some of theirs. Around the world people were saying, “Today I am an American.”

Well, if we had held the tension between that attack, that horrific criminal attack, and this possibility of connecting and deepening compassion, held it not through inaction but through what Bill Coffin called the justice strategy rather than the warfare strategy. If we had done that I think we would have opened a new possibility in American life. But we couldn’t. The 15 minutes elapsed and we had to hit back.



John Marks: Krill

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One of our two April 21st Purple State of Mind speakers, former 60 Minutes producer, novelist, and journalist John Marks… on the state of the media today The Death of American News, and why it’s really our funeral:

… Honestly, how could I be quiet when so many others are cheering the demise of the great, hated Mainstream Media? And especially when the people who are cheering are the ones most likely to be undone by this death?

Given my background, it won’t surprise anyone to know that I see this downfall as tragic for Americans and disastrous for our common future. How shall I put it? If, as now seems likely, we do lose the best part of our once healthy and relatively independent press, if we dispense with a professional class that aspired to objectivity, however imperfectly, we will have put in place a necessary precondition to collective suicide…

In a democracy, for people to despise the sources of hard information, however impure, is a form of death wish. My hope is that it’s just a phase, but my experience in the Balkans tells me that such phases can lead to total eclipse. In a vaccuum of information, fanatics thrive, and death wishes come true.

Is the Internet the answer? Not yet. It’s too diffuse, too unreliable and not yet profitable, so no one will put enough resources into it to underwrite serious reporting. In short, our old press is dying before a new one can be born.

American journalism was never perfect. In ways small and large, it often failed to rise to its highest standards…

The mistakes should not obscure the glories of the profession at its best. How many citizens of this country appreciate the journalists we never hear about, the ones who go to endless school board meetings till midnight before going back to the office to write about it? Who cover city hall and the water board and god knows what else so the rest of us won’t have to attend?

The stories written by those reporters are like krill in the sea, fed on by the bigger fish, who, in turn, are nutrients for the giants of the profession, an ecosystem of information, filtering up from the city desks of small towns to the network evening news shows, now decimated by the financial equivalent of global warming. When the krill die, so does everything else.