is my unease existential or rational – or, alternatively, a case of lazy “whataboutism”?

The events and aftermath this weekend in Paris underline how tenuous and fragile our sense of wellbeing can be.

Eight horrible people, funded we are told by a network of thousands of equally horrible people, have killed more than a hundred people – and injured hundreds more – more or less simultaneously in six different places in the French capital.

I live in another country; a sea divides us from France.  But I cannot help my feeling sick these past two days: truly, honestly, physically sick.  As if I were there, as if I saw it all.  As if members of my own circle – whether family or friends, in connected worlds it really doesn’t matter – had been struck down all the same.

And my immediate reaction has been one of solidarity.  Even though the verb doesn’t exist in English, as it frequently does in other languages; even though the adjective is curiously missing from our lexicon; even though this language I treasure, so generally rich in words for everything, struggles to put an easy-to-pronounce noun to the concept.

Then my thinking moves on.  And I begin to dance around the happenings: the “whataboutism” that afflicts many of us, to greater or lesser degree.  And I wonder: why this instinct?  Why, when someone deliberately attacks the progressive, enlightened and outreaching in society, do people like myself begin to wonder if it’s because those we identify with most closely – ie the progressive, enlightened and outreaching mentioned – have done something wrong?

I struggle with this process, because when someone does something horrible to me in my private life … well, I always find it easy to blame myself.  I didn’t do this or I went and did that; I forget to say what I should’ve said or find myself saying precisely what I shouldn’t’ve.

And so this impulse writ large, at a societal level, during public tragedy, makes me think twice, three times – or a hundred.

Is this a wider thing?  Do you do that too?  Is it a weakness of our civilisation – or a prime strength which the violent on all sides are desperately trying to eliminate?

I do wonder, have been wondering today, if in part the problem lies in our no longer valuing the individual over the mass.  We won the Cold War against the massification of anti-human rights by the Soviet Union (and by extension, the whole Eastern European bloc too) – but then we have proceeded, a posteriori, to massify almost everything a successful command and control economy could’ve done in the 1950s, if successful had – at the time – been within its reach.

Everything, that is, except human rights.  Instead of human rights being a prerequisite for 21st century economic development, they have been allowed to tag along at the tail-end somewhere down the line: oh yes, jam elsewhere for places you may already export to; alternatively, jam in a very tomorrow that fridges and mobiles may, some day, lead you to end up at.

Globalisation means freedom for capital, timidly for exportable labour, full-on for tourism, absolutely for technology … but human rights?  Let them flower by themselves.  Do let’s not be too proactive in this respect.

“Let them flower by themselves.”  Remind you of anything?  Yes, it does me too.  Sadly, as well.  The unplanned aftermaths of well-meaning and liberal invasions, which only created the conditions for an unspooling of distant society.

We will never be to blame for Paris.  But we are to blame for not having a strategy, for hobbling our way to a single-minded failure.  You may ask why, and you’d be right to do so.  Once, as a strategy, it actually worked.  Monolithic certainties won the battle against a pretty evil empire – an empire quite absent from human rights; an anti-human Communism of anything but the sacrosanct nature of the individual.

Eventually it did, anyhow.  Western democracies’ ultimate resilience won out against what were shown to be very puff-pastry Soviet politics.  No guarantees, of course; there never are in history.  But intuitively, pragmatically, industrially, economically … in the face of such inhumanity we had no alternative but to follow such psychologies.  And it worked out all right in the end.  To the extent that it did work out for the majority.  (Nor should we underestimate the importance of how we used to fete those refugees, those economic migrants even; those who managed to cross the Berlin Wall in their escaping of terrible politics.  But that is a theme for quite a separate post.  A post which talks of double standards.)

Compare and contrast with the current situation, at least as I am minded to see it.

Command and control economics – how globalisation is manifesting itself now both at nation-state and business level – has returned our philosophies to the times of the Cold War.  But instead of singular incompetence facing us on the other side of ideology – the enemy being that idiocy and flat-footedness of slow-burn, self-destructing Communism – our monolithic certainties are setting us on a path to becoming a reactive civilisation with little strategy at all.

In times of awful crisis such as this weekend, we citizens respond; we tweet; we protest our personal confusions – as we must, and rightly so.  The right to say the right thing or quite the wrong is, after all, precisely what we are defending.

Meanwhile, our politicians in their privilege began to find themselves incapable of delivering certain things – things which their rhetoric has previously auto-convinced us all they should be capable of.  How to live with such incoherence – a difficult task for the most level-headed of folk.  (Oh, and remember: not all those with privilege, nor all the less powerful littler people it must be said, are necessarily the most level-headed.  Just because you are small doesn’t make you good.  Just because you are big doesn’t make you bad.)

I could be wrong, of course.  Maybe the psychology isn’t thus.  Maybe our politicians are right after all: those politicians who say this is the biggest test of our generation (when what they really mean is their generation.  Generations are multiple – many existing simultaneously; you can probably talk about a nation, a civilisation, a set of values even – but hardly one generation we all belong to.)

In their monolithic firm responses, then, perhaps they do provide us with the bedrock that more woolly-minded citizens like myself are unable to construct with that necessary resilience already described and alluded to.

But all the same, unease remains.  I sense it around.  I’m sure you do, too.  Is it existential, then?  Or is it rational, this unease?

Are we in the grip of an intellectually lazy “whataboutism” – or are we fairly questioning the fundamentals of how we are approaching the 21st century?

And if the latter were the case, in some small measure at all, do we then have the right to react existentially, logically and “whataboutedly”?

Entirely compatible reactions for human beings living in worlds which they control less and less – at all levels, and in all areas, of their experience?


Update to this post, 15/11/2015: this video has just come my way via Rob Evans of the Guardian‘s Twitter feed.  If only the woman speaking were president – or, indeed, prime minister …

Further reading, 16/11/2015: much as I have argued in this post, Isis have a strategy and the West really does not.  We do little more than counter-message at masses, whilst Isis talks to individuals one-to-one.  This is not good enough on our part, and does explain a lot of what appears to be going wrong:

We have “counter-narratives”, unappealing and unsuccessful. Mostly negative, they rely on mass messaging at youth rather than intimate dialogue. As one former Isis imam told us: “The young who came to us were not to be lectured at like witless children; they are for the most part understanding and compassionate, but misguided.” Again, there is discernible method in the Isis approach.

Eager to recruit, the group may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist a single individual, to learn how their personal problems and grievances fit into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims.

el país vs sky – battling away on twitter for france’s soul?

Here’s a bit of a social-media anecdote.

Seven seconds apart: this is how the Spanish liberal newspaper El País reports the French President Hollande, as he talks live to his nation and the world, versus Sky’s reading of the selfsame situation.  They snuggled up alongside each other quite casually in my Twitter feed not long ago:

El País vs Sky on Hollande's declarations

Those of you reading this post will understand the English.  For those of you who don’t understand El País‘s Spanish (which, of course, in itself is a translation from the original French), here’s my attempt at translating it all into English:

We have to demonstrate our determination to fight against what may divide us.

Picky of me?  I’m sure Sky gives us the above somewhere else in the stream.  But even so, if an elision it is, it’s a fascinating example of how the media (purposefully or not) persists in mediating our perceptions.

when does good judgement become self-censorship?

Last night, I attended this Guardian Live event from the comfort of this keyboard.

It wasn’t always comfortable, but it was liberal debate at its best.  (How I sometimes hate that word “liberal”: it seems, in everything, even our progressive language, we find ourselves obliged to ape Americanisms.)

I tweeted several things which caught my eye during the stream.  But the one that sticks in my head this morning, which I woke up to in fact, was this:

And Nick Cohen’s earlier counterpoint comes in handily here:

I finished my tweets by suggesting the following:

I still wonder, this morning, whether the problem of the deep cultural disagreement which clearly exists here isn’t a result of some of us recognising freedom of expression as an inalienable right whilst others seeing it as a qualified right.

I don’t mean the law here; I mean more in the moral plane.

I also found it interesting when one speaker – the cartoonist Martin Rowson I think it was – suggested that cartoonists were like school-yard bullies.  I disagree completely, and think that if cartoonists more widely feel this is the case, they may be choosing for some reason to hide the complexity of their interactions with, as well as their importance for, society behind an unnecessarily flat stereotype:

I noted two interactions by Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian‘s editor, which interested me:

And this editorial today supports the line he’s carved out when justifying not publishing some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the aforementioned solidarity (the bold is mine):

Of course there are tensions between an absolute right of free speech and the beliefs of most Muslims, including perhaps the likes of Ahmed Merabet, the policeman killed in Wednesday’s assault. But that is not the principal conflict here. The real clash is between free speech and a tiny number of jihadist murderers. We do not have to alter our editorial values to be on the right side of that divide.

The point is well made; well constructed at least.  But it leads me to the question which headlines my post: “When does good judgement become self-censorship?”

How, in a society so infused with spook-speak, human ciphers of all kinds and the evermore greying areas of the surveillance state of mind, can we be sure our good judgement hasn’t slid dangerously into a self-confusing self-censoring vacillation of the hugely relativistic?

I have to say I catch myself self-censoring my public communications on multiple occasions every day.  I’d like to think I was being respectful; I now fear, more and more, that I am being fearful.

As I suggested yesterday:

If there’s something that today’s far more violent fundamentalisms are losing us – and here I include, of course, the fundamentalisms that leap on all terrorist act to ratchet up the screws of a Big Brother we thought already ratcheted impossibly to the max – it’s this right to fudge, to get along, to muddle about an issue, to move slowly towards other ways of seeing, thinking and doing.

Whilst Rusbridger’s paper is right to draw our attention to the battle between “free speech and tiny numbers of jihadist murderers”, there is another equally insidious process going on out there.  And just as the centre ground in British politics has been swerved imperceptibly to the right over the past couple of decades, so it would also seem that our instincts to just sensibly getting along with others – with both our dearest and our farthest – have been jiggled little by little towards the end of that security spectrum which sits much happier on the default of suspicion.

In this sense, fear may already have won out:

Maybe, now recognised, it’s our job to reverse the trend.

If reverse is a gear that freedom of speech understands …