The pretenders

King Louis XVI and everything that's happened since.

Who is King Louis XVI, why he's trending centuries after death ...

In 1792, France’s King Louis XVI lost his throne. The next year, he lost his head.

227 years later and four thousand miles away, Louis lost his hand. For one man, that was too much to bear.

This past Thursday evening, a large crowd gathered in the downtown of Louisville, Kentucky to demand justice for Breonna Taylor. Taylor was shot and killed in her own home on March 13th by police serving a no-knock warrant that would turn up no evidence of criminality. The only charges filed in the case to date were against Taylor’s partner Kenneth Walker, who fired in self-defense at what he says he believed to be a home invasion; those charges were dropped as public pressure mounted.

At one point during Thursday’s gathering, a predominantly a peaceful affair, a lone protestor climbed up on a statue of Louisville’s namesake regent that stands in front of Metro Hall. After a few moments observing the crowd below him, the unknown man reached above his head, grasped the statue’s outstretched right hand, and — it’s not quite clear whether this was intentional or not — snapped it clean off. 

Amid the backdrop of a nationwide outcry over a series of racially motivated killings — Taylor and Minneapolis man George Floyd by law enforcement, Georgia man Ahmaud Arbery by a self-appointed posse, countless others in recent memory — an unexpected voice managed to peek through the wall of sorrow and anger on social media Friday morning and provide a brief moment of absurdity.

“As the heir of #LouisXVI, and attached to the defense of his memory, I do hope that the damage will be repaired and that the statue will be restored. I already thank the Authorities for the measures they will take for that”.

The tweet was sent by a man named Louis Alphonse, the Duke of Anjou, a distant descendant of Louis XIV — that’s not a transposition of numerals, Louis XVI had no surviving heirs — and a claimant to the non-existent [gestures to guillotine for explanation] French throne under the title Louis XX. He, like all Legitimist pretenders to the French throne since the death of Charles X’s final descendant, is actually from Spain, but no matter. The French, by and large, have been quite clear where they stand on the monarchy, something I believe Americans never appreciate enough about them.

There is no French throne, and they’ll dare you find out for yourself.

Of course, this half-price Hapsburg wasn’t alone in his lament for a broken piece of plaster. Whether it was talking heads on Twitter, politicians looking to capitalize on hatred and fear, or at least one smarmy television news anchor here in Louisville, there was no shortage of voices willing to prove a fundamental truth of our society: if a person is murdered and a thousand people march in their memory while a dozen smash storefronts, there will be some who weep for the windows and not the widows. 

A problem we have as a society is pretending that we live in strange times. 

We are currently wracked by a worldwide infectious pandemic, one whose death toll has just crossed 100,000 here in the United States alone. The health directives are simple: maintain your distance, avoid large gatherings, wear face coverings. While the necessities of these measures have caused a great deal of economic hardship, a large majority of the population does seem to be abiding by them. Still, we’ve seen the wearing of masks become a flashpoint in political identity, with some proudly and defiantly avoiding their use — gathering at pool parties, banging on statehouse doors demanding a haircut, even returning to their job unmasked after a positive test.

These people would seem to be evidence of an unprecedented gap in common sense, self-preservation and civic duty, if there wasn’t in fact a perfect precedent in our history. In 1918 and 1919, at the height of an influenza pandemic, thousands of people gathered to protest a San Francisco law mandating the wearing of masks, forming what they would call the Anti-Mask League. Despite a sharp rise in cases, the league saw masks as ineffective and an affront to liberty. They believed that economic concerns were bigger than public health concerns.

Over 3,500 people died of the flu in San Francisco.

Echoes like this aren’t hard to find. An economic depression puts tens of millions out of work while a business-minded president stubbornly resists federal intervention to aid the people most directly affected; 1929. Mass protests in seemingly every city in the country, people putting themselves at great physical and legal risk to cry out for racial justice while the state turns violent against them; 1968. People wrapping themselves in the language and symbols of liberty and then using that to oppress anyone who looks different than them; pick a year, any year.

As Americans, we have long been educated to believe that we are forever moving toward the future. We have been taught that the past has blemishes but that the past has nothing to do with who we are now. History was simply something that led up to us; we are the triumphant end result of all those centuries people not getting it right. It’s this belief that has left many of us unprepared for a moment like this. It’s this belief that rings out any time someone aghast at the things we are seeing today claims “this is not America” or “we are better than this”. 

“History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes”, goes a quote apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain. More simply, many of us fail to recognize history as a continuum. The fight for racial justice did not end in 1968. The motivations that enabled the Great Depression did not fully vanish in 1933. The defiance of logic and unwillingness of some to take even the smallest step to protect their fellow person was not unique to 1919 or any other year. 

This is, in fact, who we are. This is not an isolated episode in a serialized history; it is a story that is still being told. Perhaps this cartoonish French aristocrat from Spain, a man who believes that a claim of patrilineal birthright matters more than 200 years of social justice and civil democracy, understands that better than many of us long have. 

If justice is found for the people who have been lost this year, the fight for justice will not be over. If the economy rebounds, the fight to make it safer and fairer will go on. If we survive this pandemic, the need to care for our community’s health will still be as critical as ever. There will always be pretenders to a throne. We can no longer pretend that our problems are unique, that our problems are not shared, that the things that ail our society are not on each and every one of us.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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