Strangling the republic in our embrace

On France, Charlie Hebdo and the dangers of belligerent nationalism
Photo: Paul Appleyard

The dead do not speak, and that is just as well for certain scheming minds, who can then make the dead say whatever they like. The difficult period of mourning is only just beginning for the families, but already the awful deaths of the Charlie Hebdo journalists are giving rise to difficult discussions about what lies ahead—and rightly so.

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These last few days, freedom of expression has found champions it did not know it had, champions calling in its name for an “unrelenting” and “courageous” response to the terrorists: a return of the death penalty, armed intervention in the Middle East, restrictions on immigration, tightened security, and so on. Given the anti-nationalist, anti-clerical, progressive tradition to which the dead satirists belonged, they would probably have heaped scorn on that kind of attitude, said one of the surviving cartoonists Saturday. I myself only know them through their drawings, so I cannot say whether that’s true, though it certainly seems more believable than Marine Le Pen’s sudden conversion to their values.

As so often happens right after tragic events, those expressing doubts about the prevailing group-think are already being called cowards and apologists for obscurantism. On social media, and in certain newspapers, those who are calling for restraint and seeking the underlying causes of jihadist violence are being accused of breaking ranks, or being useful idiots.

Here as elsewhere, when humanists oppose war-mongering, warn against rising intolerance and false generalizations, or preach dialogue, they are charged with cowardice or naivety and suspected of lacking patriotism. This is nothing new. In 1898, when Émile Zola spoke out against rising anti-Semitism and conservative nationalism during the Dreyfus affair, his right-wing detractors labeled him ‘’cosmopolitan”. Today, the same treatment is meted out to those who believe in human fraternity and challenge national or civilizational chest-thumping and the naming of official enemies.

Here as elsewhere, when humanists oppose war-mongering, warn against rising intolerance and false generalizations, or preach dialogue, they are charged with cowardice or naivety and suspected of lacking patriotism.

Jean Jaurès, one of Zola’s allies in the defence of Dreyfus, was a humanist and pacifist and the target of similar opprobrium. In the years before he was assassinated by a man claiming to defend France against “foreigners”, Jaurès was regularly smeared by the conservative press as a “traitor to the fatherland” and a dangerous pacifist with a “fetish for democracy”. At the time, a good portion of the country was under the spell of belligerent nationalism and wanted to see him dead. In the face of death threats, he denied that pacifist humanism meant lack of courage or patriotism. Fraternity, he insisted, arises from our trust in humanity, especially that portion of humanity which we do not know. But for some of the disaffected, such trust is naive and gutless; they prefer to join in the hue and cry of the intolerant.

What kind of courage is it that responds to barbaric acts with atrocities? “Humanity is doomed,” said Jaurès, “if endless killing is the only way to prove our courage. Courage in our time does not mean keeping the world under the dark cloud of War, that terrible but dormant cloud which, we fondly imagine, will only rain down on others. … Courage means seeking and speaking truth, not repeating the reigning lies of the day; it means not embracing in our minds or speaking aloud and cheering on the stupid shouts of the zealots.”

As we continue our struggle against all forms of fanaticism in 2015, I hope we do not forget the third word of France’s motto: liberty, equality, fraternity.

A hundred years and two world wars have passed since Jaurès spoke those words. Today, many of us still want to build a freer and fairer world, as did Cabu, Charb and the others at Charlie Hebdo, in spite of their excesses. As we continue our struggle against all forms of fanaticism in 2015, I hope we do not forget the third word of France’s motto: liberty, equality, fraternity. What we do in response to last Wednesday’s events will say a lot about who we are. Our actions and our words, as individuals and collectively, will be full of significance. Let us remember Zola’s warning against those who adore the Republic with a “sudden, terrible love”, who “embrace the Republic in order to strangle it”. Those who always talk about freedom, but never about peace.

The year 2015 has begun in darkness. Let us work to bring the dawn.

Happy New Year everyone!

This article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet. It has been translated by Brian Mossop.

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