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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Famine Pact

I've been re-watching some episodes of the French TV series "Nicolas Le Floch," based on the historical detective novels written by Jean Francois Parot. In addition to being glorious swashbuckling whodunnit fun, the series place fictional characters within the historical context of eighteenth century French politics. Being almost completely ignorant of this part of history, I can barely keep up with the intricate conspiracies and court intrigue.

One of the books entitled "The Baker's Blood," which I have not read, has to do with the Famine Pact. Under the pressure of chronic food shortage, Louis XV tried to stock up on grains during relatively good years as reserves for bad years. The intention was reasonable. Upon hearing the explanation, Nicolas Le Floch reacted as any of us would: "There's nothing shameful in that." Yet, the policy backfired and caused grain price to go up during good years and skyrocket during famine. Bureaucrats who carried out the policy saw an opportunity to make obscene amount of money through speculation, while shifting the blame on the king. Rumors began to circulate about the royalty's attempt to starve and rob the people. Riots broke out. These rumors, while untrue, directly contributed to the French Revolution a few years later.

Being a diplomat and historian, Parot seems to be quite sympathetic to both kings, Louis XV and XVI. He describes them as trying but failing to reverse the course of doom. Without the benefit of hindsight, Louis XVI supported the American Revolution against the British Empire, only to boost his own subjects' confidence in creating their own republic. Could they have done anything differently to avoid the revolution? The answer seems to be no. They were doing the best they humanly could. One could argue --- and Parot does argue --- that by then the system was too corrupt to be saved by any one person, even le roi. But then it's clear that nonpolitical factors, such as population growth, immigration failure (unlike Spain and Britain), weather, and other random events have as much or more effects on history than human policies and wisdom.

What disturbs me in all this is how little we seem to understand history. We don't know why the American Revolution was a success, but the equally promising French Revolution deteriorated into a bloody mess within four years. It was the French idea to begin with! Hell, we still have no idea what caused World War 1, and that was only 100 years ago! Is history a series of random chaos that can only be observed but never predicted? Or are we merely waiting for a theory to make sense of our own past and future with just the right variables and maths? What is the force of history? And are humans both self-deluded participants and powerless puppets in the process?

Perhaps most curious, why do people behave in the same way over and over? "The Queen says, let them eat cake." "The King wants to starve you all." "The federal government is going to break into your home and take away your guns and wives." "The President eats babies for breakfast." Time has stood still and the same rumors are whispered across hundreds of years. Nothing has changed. "The people," as they are called, are they real individual persons or recycled copies of the same marionette, generation after generation?

The TV series run up to early 1780s, with a disillusioned Le Floch sailing to the New World at Marquis de Lafayette's beckoning. (One cannot hear the name "Lafayette" without conjuring up the irresistible Daveed Diggs in mind.) There is an eeriness in this. Before a disaster hits, before people begin chopping heads off, we are all going about our business as if everything is normal. We may smell the rottenness around us and hear grumblings of discontent, but the smell and noise have always been there and nothing's happened so far ...

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