Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Princeton in the Great Fear

Immediately following the storming of the Bastille in July of 1789 there spread throughout vast areas of rural France a mass delusion known to historians as “the Great Fear”.  Its acute phase lasted about three weeks.  Rumors were rife that brigands were marauding through the countryside plundering villages, burning crops in the fields, and killing peasants.  The grapevine typically claimed that the violence had already reached such-and-such a nearby village and was now headed “this way”.  You can perhaps imagine the actual social consequences of such widespread panic—or perhaps you cannot.   Suffice it to say they were considerably more revolutionary than the attack on the Bastille itself.

I am not particularly good at correctly predicting results of such things as athletic contests and political elections, but I do have a nose for codswallop and hogwash that many of my peers seem to lack.  I well remember when just about Thanksgiving of 1987 I saw a report in the Times of the supposed kidnapping and sexual torture of a young woman named Tawana Brawley in Wappinger Falls, NY.  I knew immediately that the story had to be a hoax—an obvious conclusion arrived at only much later and most reluctantly by the mainstream press, and only after having contributed generously to the creation of a horrible episode of racial tension and having promoted the Rev. Al Sharpton to his tenured position as race-hustling political guru among the American punditocracy.

Toward the end of last week several urgent messages from various centers of social gravitas in our upscale community of Princeton, NJ—the Y, the public library, the mayor’s office, the University’s “Tiger Alert” service—appeared in my email and, I supposed, in the boxes of many others..  They informed me that on the proximate Saturday, maybe even the next day, white supremacists were planning a hateful march through the center of our little town.  Not to worry, however.  The police were prepared to protect us.  Plans for emergency street clearings and special parking restrictions had already been put in place.  I had never before heard of the fascist entity sponsoring the march--the New Jersey European Heritage Association—but an instant’s Internet research confirmed the existence of such a sadsack sodality, or at least the existence of a website featuring a photograph of a pregnant blonde and a lament for the comparatively anemic Caucasian birth-rate in America.  White Supremacy, while no laughing matter, is nonetheless ludicrous.  Conspicuously absent, however, was the announcement of a March on Princeton, or indeed on anywhere else.

I already was beginning to have vague intimations of that Tawana Brawley feeling as I set out to discover the evidence triggering our very own local Great Fear.  Of course a sizable political demonstration in the center of a bustling town, whether by white supremacists or the PTA, but especially one requiring police supervision at least as vigilant as that for the 10K “Turkey Trot” at Thanksgiving, would normally require prior planning.  According to the mayor’s communication, no application had been made by the NJEHA or anybody else for a permit to march or demonstrate on this particular Saturday; but (and here the plot took a sinister turn toward the passive voice) fliers announcing a proposed march had appeared in the town.  Anonymous, but appeared.  How to assess the threat?  Hume’s argument against miracles is an argument from probability.  Is it more probable that a man walked on water or that the report of his having done so was mistaken or actually fraudulent?  To my mind, the proposition that White Supremacists were going to have a political rally in Princeton, NJ, was a priori less probable than—well, than most ways you could finish the sentence.  But Xeroxed fliers pushed me over the edge, as they might have done to others who have spent forty years on a college campus observing the potential for mischief inherent in anonymous fliers.  In 1708, wicked Jonathan Swift published a flier predicting the imminent death of an annoying astrologer named Partridge.  Nothing Partridge did thereafter could convince the public that he was not in fact dead.  They wanted him to be dead, and they had seen his death predicted in a flier.

No pasarán!  Palmer Square, Princeton, N. J., 12 January 2019

The White Supremacists were no shows, but there was still a pretty impressive counter-demonstration, presuming that one needs no actual demonstration to counter one.  I was not there, but I got the following report from Tiger Alert: “More than 500 people chanting and holding signs marched around the square for more than an hour this afternoon.  They went ahead with their demonstration even though the white supremacist group did not show up.”  The racists were presumably back lurking under the bridges with the rest of the trolls, waiting for the Billy Goats Gruff.  There may not have been such a flap in these parts since October 30, 1938.   On that evening CBS transmitted a drama, a version of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds adapted for radio by the genius of Orson Welles, that convinced its listeners that hostile Martians had landed at Grover’s Mill, practically in spitting distance of the Princeton campus, and that they were headed “this way”.  Old Mrs. Skillman, my landlady in graduate student days and an eye witness, told us all about it.  No counter-attack, but lots of people apparently took refuge in the Catholic church two blocks east on Nassau Street for a hastily initiated prophylactic novena.