Blog Post

“The Enemy of the People”: The Traveling Meme

Part II. “Fake News is the Enemy of the People” as International Conspiracy

As I argue, historically the meme “Fake News is the Enemy of the People” expresses fear of more than just the press. A little study of Robespierre and the second phase of the French Revolution shows how fake news (fausses nouvelles) included rumor and hoaxes spread by word of mouth. If we stick with Robespierre and the Terror, however, we will see that the phrase has an darker and bloodier content.

Robespierre: Enemies Within and Without

In his speeches, Robespierre often distinguishes between enemies within (intérieurs, au dedans) and enemies without (extérieurs, au dehors). Sometimes the first he will call “enemies of the people” or “enemies of the Republic,” the second “enemies of the Nation” or “enemies of France.” The first includes would-be assassins, political groups not sufficiently radical, priests unwilling to subscribe to the new faith of Reason, undercover supporters of the old regime. The second includes states at war with France, royalist emigrés who talk and write against the Revolution, merchants and bankers refusing to deal with the new Republic.

But at times Robespierre doubles the fear. The enemies within and the enemies without, he says, are conspiring together.

Conspiracy: Enemies Within and Without

This is the main message of the speech Robespierre delivered to the National Convention on February 5, 1794. “The enemies from within,” he asks rhetorically, “are they not allies of the enemies from without?” As an example he points to the fake rumor in Brittany and the Rhineland—areas of France closest to England and Austria—that everyone younger than ten and older than seventy is going to be executed (see Part I of this blog). He attributes the “seeding” of this fake news to priests, nobles, intriguers, and a swarm of foreigners [essaim d’étrangers].

Robespierre charges that the rumor may be part of France’s greatest danger, a scheme to bring together again [rallier] all the enemies of the Republic, inside and out; to subvert patriots, faithful government agents and public servents, the National Convention, even the elite Committee of Public Safety (of which Robespierre was a member); to fill citizens with fake fear (fausses terreurs), to embitter emigrés on their return, to make everyone, unaware, instruments of a plot (cabale). “Les étrangers mettent à profit toutes les passions particulières, et jusqu’au patriotisme abusé,” proclaims Robespierre: “Foreigners will profit from all these private passions, until patriotism itself will be hoodwinked.”

For Robespierre, speaking to a base that no doubt believed with him, the “ennemis du peuple” included some living in France who were engaged in an international conspiracy to topple the new Republic, some who were even secret agents of the foreign armies at war with the Republic.

Fake News as International Conspiracy: The 20th Century

When Robespierre gave his speech in February of 1794 on the collusion of enemies within and without, he had only six more months to live. But his idea of international conspiracy, attached to the idea that “fake news is the enemy of the people,” did not die with him. Ibsen knew it, and his good townspeople call their doctor “an enemy of the people” only when they hear he will conspire with some other town to spread what they think is fake news.

Lenin certainly knew it. In a 1917 piece in Pravda, he quotes from the Law of 22 Prairial, arguing that the Bolsheviks should imitate the Jacobin’s action against enemies of the people, but with a difference. “The enemies of the people in the twentieth century are not the monarchs, but the landowners and capitalists as a class.” The capitalists, of course, held Russian workers captive through an international scheme of banking and trade. Guillotining was not necessary, added Lenin. The arrest of 50 to 100 bankers and capitalists for a few weeks would be enough to “expose their frauds.” Later in the year, two days after the Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace, their Council of Commissars gave themselves the right to close down newspapers which advocated resistance to the new authorities or were found to “sow sedition through demonstrably slanderous distortion of facts.”

I’ve not the space or the stomach to continue with the history, with the way the loyal followers of Stalin and Hitler used the phrase “enemies of the people” to jail, murder, and starve to death millions of their own people, all under the belief that these homeland enemies were devious, clandestine, and conspiratory with foreign enemies—kulaks secretly selling grain to Poland, perhaps, or Jews engaged in their unwritten international trickeries to control the wealth of good Aryans.

In the current US, however, what force does this historical meme have?

(Continued tomorrow: from rhetoric to criminal act)

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