In “The Wild One,” Marlin Brando plays Johnny, a leather-jacketed vagabond sporting a black-brim hat perched on his head at a rakish angle, below which lurk piercing dark eyes and a sneer of contempt in answer to the question, “What are you rebelling against?” Brando states simply, “Whaddaya got?” An answer like this was provided by mob leaders in 1894 during the most spectacular controversy in the history of modern France, known as the Dreyfus Affair. Similarly, in America today, the Occupy Wall Street mob screams its answer by pointing to villains held in contempt by the republic’s governing and press elites. Brando’s Johnny, the French mob, and America’s OWS drum-beaters spring from the same historical DNA that portends danger for modern civilized democracies.
The “whaddaya got” of the Dreyfus Affair centered on a Jewish officer from the French General Staff who had been unjustly accused of espionage for Germany. The case dragged on for years and ultimately resulted in his acquittal by a Court of Appeal, though not without inflaming passions about the nature of French society and its constitutional order, which continued to simmer through two world wars and the postwar era. Further, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the Dreyfus Affair ignited the fanaticism of the mob, a disparate conglomeration of persons whose rise “had been anxiously noted by all great historians of the nineteenth century.” The mob despises the social order, has no patience for representative assemblies, and possesses considerable toleration for violence against its enemies. In France’s case, the mob loathed Jews and the country’s republican institutions.
Most ominous is what Arendt noted as the alliance between the elites and the mob: “the upper classes knew that the mob was flesh of their flesh and blood of their blood.” This meant that the mob did the dirty work for governing elites who had lost faith in their country, further bestowing on them the satisfaction of observing the system being trashed by the country’s ubiquitous hoi polloi. A more convenient and sinister alliance can scarcely be imagined, especially in that time when “the scene is France and the theatre is the world.”