the past in pop culture

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We’ll Always Have Paris

Official logo of the French Republic, used exc...

Official logo of the French Republic, used exclusively by its government and prefectures. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s time to wave the red, white and blue. Bastille Day is here and France is honoring the start of its revolution back in 1789. France remembers its founding values on this day: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Although they don’t always like to admit it, the United States and France go way back and it’s no coincidence that they share the colors of revolutionary republicanism on their national emblems.

Americans prefer to think of themselves as having a historical monopoly on the values of liberty, equality and brotherhood of man. But we’re happy to concede to France a monopoly on the values of romance and style. We’re a lot like the Owen Wilson character in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris who would rather spend time in the Paris of the writers and the artists of the lost generation living on in perpetuity, a 1920s without end. Paris is the romantic capital of our dreams. When the actual France intrudes on this pleasant reverie, we get a little testy. This might account for the recent flurry of features on the supposed malaise of modern France.

Liberté? Hey, France is spying on its citizens’ telecommunications, too. And things aren’t getting any better for the Roma people in France under Socialist president Francois Hollande. They still face forcible expulsion and unchecked harassment. As for other immigrants, let’s not even get started on the ongoing head scarf controversy.

Égalité? Didn’t you read the news about the plight of French youth who face record high levels of unemployment and bleak future prospects? Some say the best advice to give les jeunes is to get out while they can. Others express doubt about the real usefulness of the bac, the famously meritocratic exit exam all French high school students must pass if they hope to proceed to university studies or a decent job. Yet it lumbers on, deeply entrenched by a massive administrative structure, reminding one that France is the country that invented bureaucracy.

Fraternité? Does the word sororité even exist? Well, yes, it does but nobody really uses it and the internet will redirect you to the American English word sorority if you even try. We care a lot about how French women look and the fact that, supposedly, they don’t get fat or dress like slobs. France’s national symbol is of course the lovely Marianne whose representation has been modeled on a series of famous French actresses from Catherine Deneuve to Laetitia Casta. Disagreements over casting for the figure usually revolve around the appropriate bust size for the partially bared revolutionary lady.

Civil liberties, immigration policy, high stakes testing, women’s rights? In case any of the foregoing sounds familiar, it may be because the real issue is that France and the U.S. have more in common than they’d care to admit. You can’t even count on fine food any more. In another body blow to American romanticizing of French reality, it turns out that more and more French restaurants are serving frozen ratatouille microwaved to order.

So wake up Owen Wilson. You’re living in the past. Since this is a holiday, though, let’s try and look on the bright side. Its economy is showing a few glimmers of recovery. With two female candidates in the running, in 2014 Paris will have a woman as mayor for the first time in its history. The French intervention in Mali has been judged a modest success and African troops who served there will lead the way in today’s Bastille Day parade. Its under-20 soccer team—as diverse in its makeup as all French national teams since the 1990s—just won the World Cup, its film culture remains vibrant, and, frankly, despite the contretemps about the microwaving, its food still rocks. As Americans well know, living up to the ideals of a republic has never been easy. You must remember this.

The Descent of Their Last End: A Son of Erin Returns Home

Smoking pipe fragments excavated at Duffy’s Cut, Pennsylvania. Some of the pipes clearly made in Ireland. Duffy’s Cut Museum, Immaculata University. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

After 181 years, John Ruddy has returned to Ireland to be buried among his ancestors at a funeral attended by descendants. In an earlier post, Royal Reliquaries, or Who Do You Think You Are?, we wrote about how DNA testing, archaeology, and forensic science have solved mysteries about the past both for the famous and for the forgotten. Richard III’s remains were recently identified, but so were John Ruddy’s. In the spring of 1832, John Ruddy and a number of other Irishmen sailed to Philadelphia and were hired straight off the boat to work on building one of the country’s earliest rail lines. Barely two months later, as a cholera epidemic raged, Ruddy and fifty-six others died at a site known as Duffy’s Cut.

Locals long believed that the mass grave contained men who were victims of the disease and that this accounted for the many eerie stories associated with the site. But a team of historians and students from nearby Immaculata University discovered when they began excavating the bodies, that some had died by violence. Forensic evidence suggests that some of the six men, and one woman, whose graves have been excavated so far, were murdered. The hypothesis is that local vigilantes wanted to prevent them from leaving the camp to get medical help and supplies for the many men who were sick with the cholera. Of these bodies, they were only able to positively identify John Ruddy due to a rare genetic abnormality that affected his teeth and that several present-day Ruddy family members share.

Members of the Duffy’s Cut project had the six who are unidentified reinterred at Philadelphia’s West Laurel Hill Cemetery last year. On March 2, 2013, Bill Watson, Frank Watson, and Earl Schandelmeier of the Duffy’s Cut Project, along with Sadie, James, and Bernard Ruddy, accompanied John Ruddy’s casket to its final resting place in Ardara, County Donegal, Ireland. In 1832, John Ruddy was just eighteen years old, a poor Irish immigrant who needed any work he could find when he made his westward journey, first to Philadelphia and then just thirty more miles to a cut in the woods. He has returned to Ireland at last.

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