As Year 219 (An CCXIX) of the revolutionary calendar begins, we want to wish everyone a politically engaged new year. In honor of the event, we’ve published three icons of symbolic memory: 1) an illustrated decree from September 1792 (when the calendar was first implemented), 2) the front page from a revolutionary newspaper of a major event–11 Thermidor An II (July 29, 1794), and 3) the videoclip to a great pop song, “Ma liberté de penser” by Florent Pagny.
The point is to remind us of what the Revolution meant then, and what it could still mean to us today, thanks to the enduring legacy of our free press and freedom of speech.
As Jeremy Popkin points out in his excellent Revolutionary News: The Press in France 1789-1799, the most important advance of the French Revolution was the summoning of common people to play an active role in government. This summons arrived in the hundreds of newspapers that were suddenly available in 1789 when censorship laws loosened, and which ultimately transformed the social landscape of France. “As the vehicle of the words and representations that made up revolutionary politics, the press was the great innovation that made the Revolution different from all earlier episodes in French history and thus opened the way to a modern political world” (Popkin 183).
We would do well to remember the power of the printed word today. Let us beware the media’s power to transform ephemeral moments into simplified symbolic stories, and to propagate the hate speech of the ignorant. But mainly let us avail ourselves of our right to free speech, and so speak up, write, text, or tweet, even if you may make a mistake or two along the way. Although our hyper-connected world makes public disagreement a constant source of tension, let us recall on this day of memory that disagreement is an inherent and legitimate part of democracy. Vive le désaccord!