Alfred Dreyfus, Applied History, and National Aesthetician Day

Everybody knows the story of Alfred Dreyfus. On 15 October 1894, Captain Dreyfus was arrested for treason. He was later convicted, cashiered, condemned and sent to Devil’s Island. Later exonerated, Dreyfus was returned to France, reinstated, promoted, and served well in the French Army through WWI and retired a Lieutenant Colonel. The entire case was a put-up job from beginning to end that tore French society to shreds with its two contentious factions of Catholic anti-Dreyfusards, and anti-clerical Dreyfusards lined up on opposite sides lusting after each other’s chitlins. There were also deep streams of anti-Semitism running through the entire affair. A fellow officer named Esterhazy was suspected of the treason that Dreyfus was charged with, but he was quickly acquitted.


Degradation of Dreyfus, Wiki Commons

Trouble is, there has never been any evidence that anyone committed any of the crimes that anyone was ever charged with, let alone convicted of. The torn-up note that was pivotal in the Dreyfus trials contained nothing in the way of secrets, and the Germans never saw it. More critical, searches of postwar German files yielded no traffic of the sort that French intelligence was convinced was passed to them. But by then the whole affair had been crushed under the tread of the millions of Frenchmen killed in WWI, and no one was interested in it anymore.

Yet…those same conclusions are still jumped to–there had to be something to it or all that would have been wasted effort…right? Well, not necessarily.

Remember Watergate? The scandal over the failed Democratic National Committee office break-in in 1972? Tell us…what information did who get off those bugs that were so important that they had no role whatsoever in bringing down a president? Yeah, crickets. Not that the third-rate burglary didn’t happen because it did, but, to what end? Sure, trials and scandals and all that. But Nixon wasn’t brought down by Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate, but by improper campaign donations from a completely different direction. In the case of Dreyfus, it was the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871, the retreat of Church influence on French affairs, and anti-Semitism. In the case of Nixon, it was the end of the Vietnam War without apparent success, the rise of a notorious California politician over the supposedly humble former Minnesota shopkeeper, and rampant inflation.

The importance of applied history in both contexts is that external factors often exaggerate and inflame situations way out of proportion to their actual causes and effects. Applied history, however, has two crucial problems. The first is that using history to any contemporary situation is to decide that the historical situation is similar, which most scholars simply cannot do. History now is so politicized that applying, say, the Dreyfus affair, to the current “Russian collusion” investigation would mean that the same result is inevitable, which would make anyone suggesting such a thing a Trumpist and reason for a cavity search for a MAGA hat. Just not going to happen.

Second, applying historical lessons would mean that someone would have to agree on just what the past teaches. OK, but if the applied lesson doesn’t contain elements of race, sex, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual proclivity, nationality…well, you get the idea. Academic history today is an echo chamber of rehashed tropes and slogans that stand alone, on their own, and is often so specialized that identifying one story with another is impractical.

National Aesthetician Day began in 2016, created by COSMEDIX, a high-end beauty supply company (which is, after all, redundant given that all such firms are pretty pricey). The lovely up top is posing for a health care provider, who also cares for skin, which is what aestheticians do, too. But all those who you will find doing these ads and performing these miracles of beauty transformation are capitalizing on the desire for people to look desirable, clean, pretty–like the pictures.

Listen to the voice of experience…

There’s a reason why we see the same faces in the ads all the time–good skin. The models in the pictures have it, most people don’t. Most skin is in the 80% of the middle with blotches here and lumps there that can be improved but not perfected by spending a large lump of money on some costly products and treatments. The bottom 10% won’t get better without medical intervention, and maybe not then; the top 10% barely need the products and services the aestheticians peddle.

Most of us are subject to the Swimmer’s Body Delusion. Swimmers don’t look the way they do because they swim: they can swim as well as they do because their bodies are genetically built for the rigors of movement and cold, oxygen depletion and exhausting exercise. Aestheticians use this to convince potential customers that they, too, can look like the models in their brochures. Sorry, but most won’t. They may look like better versions of themselves, but going through all of that believing that you’re going to be transformed into the new Giselle Whoever is pretty much a waste.

Come by next week, folks.

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