Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bonnet Rouge

The cap worn by the Catalan gentleman in the photo is technically known as a Phrygian cap, its origins dating to Phrygia, a kingdom from about 1200-700 BC in an area which is now part of Turkey. Phrygia is best known for King Midas – the guy whose touch turned everything to gold. 

In the days of the French and American revolutions, though, le bonnet rouge came to be known as the Liberty Cap, a symbol of the spirit which dared to challenge the oppressive ruling elite. The national emblem of France, Marianne (there’s a statue of her on Rue de la Republique in Argeles-sur-mer) is often shown wearing a Phrygian cap. 

American colonists embraced the symbol of the cap, often hoisting it on a long “Liberty Pole” to represent opposition to the British king and Parliament – protesting the Stamp Act of 1765, for example, and again to celebrate its repeal a year later. (Protest movements can be successful!) British troops cut down the Liberty Pole in Concord, Massachusetts before the battle there began in April 1775 – but apparently it was not enough to quell the spirit of freedom. 

Still today, the Liberty Cap appears in the state flags of New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, the official seals of Iowa, North Carolina, and Virginia, and even the US Senate (an oxymoron, to be sure, as most of the Senate represents the worst of the American elite).
A little over a year ago, a French tax-protest movement again used bonnets rouge as a protest symbol.  The movement successfully forced the French government to rescind the tax. 

Earlier this week, nationalist parties in Spanish Catalonia (just a few miles to our south over the border) announced a plan to secede from Spain in 2017 if independence movements win a regional vote this September. Last year, nearly 2 million people in Catalonia voted for independence, despite a failed similar vote in Scotland. Aside from Catalan pride, the region in eastern Spain feels its prosperity is being dragged down by mismanagement and corruption in Madrid (sound familiar – wherever you live?). 

Will it amount to more than a massive protest movement? Will Madrid respond with physical force? Will there be another civil war in Spain? Will southern France experience another influx of rebels fleeing across the frontier, as it did in the 1930s and 40s? 

One would think that our “modern, enlightened” society would have learned from the lessons of the past and could settle differences peacefully. But then again: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Niger, Ukraine ...

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