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Happy Birthday George Boole, James K. Polk and Marie Antoinette

November 2, 2015


So many birthdays.  Such cakes (“let them eat cakes”).  So many candles.

I know far too many mathematicians to dare to say anything about George Boole, born today in 1815.

It’s also the 222nd birthday of James J. Polk, whose achievements have been so deftly summarised by They Might Be Giants – past masters of the important art of being able to combine melody with dense, well-researched factual detail.

Seek out this song and you’ll be singing it all day

In 1844, the Democrats were split

The three nominees for the presidential candidate

Were Martin Van Buren, a former president and an abolitionist

James Buchanan, a moderate

Lewis Cass, a general and expansionist

From Nashville came a dark horse riding up

He was James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump

Austere, severe, he held few people dear

His oratory filled his foes with fear

The factions soon agreed

He’s just the man we need

To bring about victory

Fulfill our manifest destiny

And annex the land the Mexicans command

And when the poll was cast, the winner was

Mister James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump

In four short years he met his every goal

He seized the whole Southwest from Mexico

Made sure the tariffs fell

And made the English sell the Oregon Territory

He built an independent treasury

Having done all this he sought no second term

But precious few have mourned the passing of

Mister James K. Polk, our eleventh president

Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump

And then there’s Marie Antoinette who is 261 years old today.  Known during her lifetime as “the Austrian bitch” (“autrichienne”  – which in French makes for a servicable pun)  Marie Antoinette never managed to get it right.  She was hated when she had the Marge Simpson hair and was dripping more bling than Snoop Dog – but then when she started reading (or misreading) Rousseau and set herself up as a simple shepherdess – people REALLY hated her.  Pastoral Marie Antoinette offered an early version of J-Lo’s hideous “I’m still Jenny from the Block” video – a video which Ms. Lopez has yet to adequately apologise for.  Be warned Ms Lopez – be warned.

Get pastoral wrong and be prepared to pay a terrible price.

She was always an excessively gendered figure.  Historians have now discovered the sort of “smoking gun” that would have sent anyone to the guillotine – correspondence with the Austrian royal family – “please invade and destroy the revolution and restore Louis and me to our former state of absolute rule”.  But her prosecutors seemed less interested in real evidence that dealt with her actions  as a human being and more interested in destroying her as a woman.  Having been the most flattered woman in Europe, she could now only be the most evil woman in Europe.

The French Revolution’s early flirtation with feminism saw a decided setback after the assassination of Marat – and by 1793-4 – women were being confined to a representative rather than an active role.  Marie Antoinette was an anti-woman – an unnatural woman – yet still her “unnaturalness” was confined to a feminised sphere.  Accused of incest – her transgressions were sexualised – and violating maternity only emphasised her purely reproductive function.

There are many people to feel sorrier for than Marie Antoinette from the French Revolutionary period.  But nobody it seems has managed to focus such extreme responses.  The Queen of France became the cynosure of more politicised porn than the world had ever before seen.  She has organised extreme attitudes to gender roles and gendered identity and her life and death represents a historical moment when it is undeniable that revolutionary gender theory determined the fate of Europe.

Incidentally, the whole eating cake thing is probably derived from a story about a purely emblematic queen referenced in Rousseau’s Confessions who apparently declared “let them eat brioche”.   The comment was transferred from Rousseau to Marie Antoinette – only reinforcing the strange fatality of the Queen’s poorly thought out fascination with the Genevan philosopher.


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