Tuesday, November 08, 2005

breaking windows

If you do a web search on breaking windows, you'll see a lot of chatter about the Microsoft Windows operating system. My topic, however, is real breaking of real windows. The newspapers say the rioting in France results at least partly from the ethnic discrimination suffered by the children of Algerians who resettled in France in the past few decades. These are French citizens who are not being treated as citizens ought. The unrest itself and the pattern of escalation remind me of the revolution of 1848 in Germany in which my great- great-grandfather took part. The Guardian has good overall coverage of the French riots. There's a good review article in the NYT as well. For a summary of the events in Germany in 1848 see: The German 1848 Revolution: A German Perspective.

Common to both are a pervasive sense of disenfranchisement, participation mainly of young people, and action via street violence aimed at maximum visibility through destruction of property. In 1848, the goals of the youths were not achieved. Taking the goals of the youths in France very broadly (as aiming for social justice), it seems that the outcome in France may not be better, or not much better.

My great- great-grandfather described his participation in an interview published in 1909:
In 1848 the Parliament at Frankfort on the Main proposed Johann of Austria for Emperor of Germany and the Republicans in Munster had a jubilee in honor of the event. All but the conservatives decorated their houses. The Republican boys -- I was one of them -- broke the windows in all the undecorated houses of the conservatives. My father was a conservative and I broke all his windows. Some of the boys were arrested but I escaped."[This is from a news clipping among the papers he left to posterity.]

An end note on the Romantic image of workers on the barricades I've used: I got it, as I usually do, from a search of Google Images. It appears on a page whose text is all in Hebrew, so I took it to a cataloger on the Hebraica team for translation. I thought it might connect the events of 1848 with demands for social justice from Germany's Jews. This would have been interesting since my great- great-grandfather came from a Jewish family (or a partly Jewish one, it's unclear). As it turns out, the page is not about Jews in 1848, but is a general report on the history of the 1848 riots in Berlin from a student in an Israeli school.

Another end note: The papers refer to the French riots as "unrest." I suspect the term is a useful one because its connotations are pretty much neutral -- conveying neither approval nor disapproval. Though it also seems to be a euphemism for savage violence, the OED shows that it has long been associated with intense emotion. In OED example phrases, it's coupled with discorde, agony, and anarchy. As you'd expect, this isn't always the case. One example from the 14th century, directs of monks in a monestary that "none schal..make any noise of unreste, aboute makyng of ther beddes."

Three nice "unrest" quotes in OED: "Viv, Furth streamde the teares, recordes of his vnrest" (1563), "If the foolish race of man..Cou'd find as well the cause of this unrest, And all this burden lodg'd within the breast." (1685 DRYDEN), and "And mutters she in her unrest A name" (1815 BYRON).

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