From Hate to Heroism

WWII French Resistance member Daniel Cordier poses for a photographer during a ceremony at Mont Valerien in 2008 to mark the 68th anniversary of General Charles de Gaulle’s call to the resistance of the French population on June 18, 1940. (Eric Feferberg/Pool via Reuters)A life from another time

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From Hatred to Heroism

Daniel Cordier, when he was young and getting started in life, did not seem like a candidate for heroism. Born in Bordeaux in 1920, he was a rich kid who summered at Biarritz and wintered in the Alps, raised under the influence of an industrialist stepfather, an Action Française man who taught him to love monarchy and hate Jews. His teenage passions were André Gide and fascism. But just as his idol, Gide, turned his back on communism after experiencing it firsthand on a trip to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, Cordier was liberated from his romantic attachment to fascism by the facts of the case, beginning with his country’s invasion and occupation by the forces of Adolf Hitler.

Cordier’s family bribed the captain of a Belgian cargo ship to take him to North Africa, but he was instead redirected to the United Kingdom, where he met Charles de Gaulle, received some military training, and was sent back to France, parachuting in with documents for the Resistance leader known as “Rex.” “Rex” was, in fact, de Gaulle’s lieutenant, Jean Moulin, who immediately took Cordier on as his personal assistant. Service in the French Resistance was not very much like association with modern political tendencies that have hijacked its name and drafted on its moral stature: Moulin survived less than two months as president of the National Council of the Resistance before he was captured by the Gestapo and tortured to death by Klaus Barbie, “the Butcher of Lyon,” dying on a transport train before it crossed the border into Germany.

Moulin and Cordier had been posing as art dealers, and Cordier would continue in that profession after the war, collecting works by Antoni Tàpies and Georges Braque.

Cordier, who died on Friday at the age of 100, is remembered as a hero of the Resistance, and as an advocate for gay rights later in life. Because we 21st-century Americans live in less serious times with considerably smaller stakes — no, Cupcake, freaking out about Donald Trump on Twitter is not the same as setting up a covert communication network in Nazi-occupied France — we have no such figures, although we have no shortage of people who would like to be thought of as the modern equivalents, functional or moral, of Resistance agents. It is hard not to laugh at them, even if they mean well.

As the New York Times tells the story, Cordier and other refugees had been greeted in the United Kingdom by de Gaulle, who said: “I will not congratulate you for coming here. You did your duty.” Back in France, Cordier was scandalized by the sight of German soldiers posing for photographs in front of the Arc de Triomphe — and by the sight of French Jews wearing yellow stars. He described feeling “unbearable shame” at the sight, but also realizing: “I am not in Paris to care for my conscience.” There was work to be done, and some of that work fell to him to do. His politics gave way to his patriotism, and his philosophical inclinations gave way to the practical business of saving his country.

If there had been a French Resistance equivalent of “cancel culture” in the 1940s, it surely would have set upon Cordier, who as a teenager in Bordeaux had not been a passive anti-Semite and quasi-fascist but an active and positive one, establishing the Cercle Charles-Maurras, a kind of fascist fan club dedicated to the man who would later criticize Nazi policy toward French Jews as too lax. We have grown in technological sophistication since then, but have regressed, at least in some ways, in our social sophistication, in the subtle art of being human beings. In their pettiness and hatred, many of those who believe themselves to be the heirs to the French Resistance have come to more closely resemble the other guys, compiling blacklists and dreaming of putsches. The perverse fact is that the viciousness of our own political culture comes as a consequence of, not in spite of, the smallness of our times.

Who could say, with an altogether straight face, of our own conflicts, that our fellow countrymen

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us.

For us, there is no blaze of glory. Only work to be done, most of it tedious and thankless, most of it done in obscurity, most of it to be forgotten. If the childish part of us dreams of greatness and heroism, the mature part of us should be grateful that we live in times that require so little of that. Daniel Cordier lived in different times, for better and for worse, with the gift of eyes that could see and a heart that could feel shame when shame was appropriate. Shame is a gift, too, like courage.

Words About Words

How good was William Shakespeare? (Really, really good.) Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3, referenced above, gives us two now inescapable expressions: “band of brothers,” (re)popularized by Stephen Ambrose’s book and the television drama based on it, and “household word.”

“Band of brothers” more or less speaks for itself, but “household word” is kind of interesting. From Henry V:

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words.

Shakespeare’s humor and humanity show themselves even in his most high-flown speeches, as here, when King Henry V slyly acknowledges in two words that however brave and heroic the deeds of the day, they will grow even braver and more heroic as the veterans remember “with advantages” the day’s events.

Household is part of a set of old English formulations (smallholding, freehold, householder, etc.) that survive into modern English in legal usages and certain dusty and slightly archaic-sounding expressions, and in names such as Smallhold Farms, a Brooklyn-based operation that provides exotic mushroom to New York City restaurants. The first attested use of household in English is the 14th-century Bible translation undertaken by John Wycliffe (not to be confused with Wyclef Jean) and similar expressions have been around for a long time in Scots (houshald), Dutch (huishouden), German (Huushollen), Norwegian (husholdning), etc. Shakespeare tried really, really hard to make household happen in English — he used it in a dozen plays, from Anthony and Cleopatra to The Taming of the Shrew and practically all of the Henrys — but it did not become a common English expression — a household word — until Charles Dickens started a magazine called Household Words.

Household word has two meanings in English that are distinct but related: common or famous. “Clint Eastwood is such a big movie star that his name is a household word,” or “Google and Xerox do not want to end up like ‘aspirin,’ a formerly capitalized name that comes into such common use that it ceases to be a proper noun and ends up a household word.” Household word’s meaning of famous is of course an application of its meaning of common: Everybody knows what a doorknob is, and everybody knows who Alec Baldwin is. (If you don’t, the answer is: a doorknob.) But a person whose name is a household word isn’t common at all — that’s a very uncommon thing. English is funny that way.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader wants to know whether he can describe an empire as imperialist. It’s a fair question. Of course, imperial means “pertaining to empires or emperors,” so it looks immediately redundant, but there are all kinds of empires and all kinds of imperialism. Imperialism, he writes, “calls to mind mustached” — I’d have gone with mustachioed, because it is more fun — “men in odd white hats,” whereas he is using empire to describe “the political organization of the 13th-century Mongolian state.” As one does.

(Here is a good time to point any of you who have not seen it to Jonathan Last’s “The Case for the Empire,” a meditation on the politics of Star Wars: “Their victory over the Empire doesn’t liberate the galaxy—it turns the galaxy into Somalia writ large: dominated by local warlords who are answerable to no one. Which makes the rebels—Lucas’s heroes—an unimpressive crew of anarchic royals who wreck the galaxy so that Princess Leia can have her tiara back.”)

I would hesitate to write about “the empire’s imperialism” if only because imperialism, like fascism, is very vague and often used only as a term of derogation. If by imperialism you mean a policy of political expansion and incorporation that follows certain familiar historical patterns, then write that; if by imperialism you mean heavy-handedness in foreign policy or trade, then write that; if by imperialism you mean the fact that the United States maintains military bases all around the world, then write that.

Because I dread the way the American presidency has mutated into a quasi-monarchist priest-king cult (yeah, there’s a book coming on that, too, eventually), I like to remind people that the Latin word imperator, from which we get the English emperor, means commander in chief.

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Home and Away

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. Here’s a bit:

There is no evading Satan’s great swinging balls here. The flatness of the Earth is the big topic on the main stage, but the hot topic on the sidelines is Satanic ritual abuse, the fixation du jour of the Q-Anon conspiracy nuts who believe that Donald Trump is just right on the verge of leading a massive national purge of Satanic pedophiles, who, as everybody knows, secretly run the world. (Also: Jews! Jews! Jews!) As flat-Earth writer Noel Hadley tells me, “Satan runs everything: music, Hollywood, media, Republicans, Democrats, Washington, Israel, Zionism. . . .” They know Satan when they see him. But they don’t know what the Earth looks like — only that it is not round. And that if people only understood that, then they would . . . change their diets, and vaccine companies would go out of business, as one speaker insisted.

“We don’t believe in a flying pancake in space,” says exasperated conference organizer Robbie Davidson, a Canadian conspiracy hobbyist, “and we don’t believe you can fall off the edge of it.” But what does the Earth actually look like? That, apparently, needs “more investigation,” in the inevitable dodge uttered from the stage.

Right outside the door, a guy who looks exactly like a Lord of the Rings elf who retired to be an Uber driver in Colorado Springs is nonetheless selling models of the Earth that look an awful lot like a pancake in space — or, really, a dinner plate, since this sad folk art appears to be made of repurposed kitchenware and electric clock motors, with the sun and moon circling the sky on the minute hand in decidedly non-heliocentric fashion. There’s a big version up on the stage, too. But just because the world is a dinner plate sitting on top of a battery-operated quartz clock motor doesn’t mean that you can fall off the edge — the general consensus here is that Antarctica is actually a giant wall of ice surrounding the flat Earth, making exit impossible.

A bearded man in quasi-clerical garb walks by. Another Lord of the Rings elf in a nametag reading “Angel” confers with Elf No. 1. There’s a guy on a crutch with a ballcap emblazoned “Level-Headed” and a T-shirt reading “Flat Outta Hell!” arguing with a bouncer, who thinks Crutch Guy may have faked his credentials. The bouncer wants to see some government-issued identification: Funny how these guys suddenly trust The Man when there’s conference-goer revenue on the line.

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In Closing

National Review is celebrating its 65th year in print. I am sure that many of those who helped to put out Vol. I No. 1 were not entirely confident there would be a Vol. I No. 2, much less a Vol. LXV. I am as ever grateful to be part of an institution that has produced so much fine writing and good thinking. Long may it prosper. I think there’s a reasonably good chance I’ll be around for the 100th anniversary, assuming we have not stopped History by that time.

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