Monday, December 7, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


By this stage, I know I do not have to tell you about my love for the city of Paris. I would never pose as the expert on the place, but I have stayed there three times in my life - once in childhood, and the second and third times last year and this year. That is why I have presented you with such posts as Lost Generation’s Paris in Not My Paris, wherein I scorned the American Tourist view of the city. And Let’sTalk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs, wherein I celebrated a visit to Montmartre cemetery. And Encounter in a Cathedral, which reconstructed a rather unnerving conversation with an old Frenchwoman in Notre Dame. And as you will know by the frequency with which French novels turn up in the “Something Old” section of this blog, I am something of a Francophile.
So when, three weeks ago, there were coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris leaving over 130 people dead, I could immediately do what every nitwit on the ‘net was doing and jump up and down loudly shouting “ME! ME! ME! Look! That right bank restaurant where gunmen opened fire? Well it was just two streets away from where we enjoyed an evening at a jazz club back in June!
Which is true, but which, like selfies taken at famous monuments, is really a form of self-aggrandisement.
I am here – literally in the picture – and you are not. See, I’m attached to momentous world events! Nyah-na-nyah-na-nyah-nyah!
It’s this matter of how we publicly react to horrible world events which now concerns me.
On Facebook, the kneejerk reaction of some was to have their ID pictures covered in a tricolour to show their solidarity with the dead. Okay – I don’t object. But isn’t it a little mechanical as a form of solidarity? I mean, there’s an app to show you how to modify your image like this at the press of a key. This doesn’t take too much thought – or verbal expression.
But maybe, in the face of mass terror, it is hard to express thoughts cogently. Words are not adequate to the task. British comedian John Oliver is reduced to saying, on his American show, “***k You!” to the terrorists, which for some reason one New Zealand magazine regards as awfully significant and clever.
One reaction is to pray, so on the ‘net there were exhortations to “Pray for Paris”. Fair enough. Clear and calm your mind and think of something much bigger than yourself, of which you are only a part, and think positively of the people who suffered in the attacks and dedicate yourself to not being part of the world’s destructive violence. All good things to do.
But almost at once, the Paris outrages became a pretext for propaganda. Countering the “Pray for Paris” logo, a militant atheist posted a logo saying. “Don’t Pray for Paris – Fight Hateful Religious Ideologies”. The bombers and shooters were (probably) Islamicists. Islamicists are Muslims. Therefore Islam is dangerous. Therefore religion is dangerous and causes violence. Q. E. D. and a nice, neat monocausal view of world events has been proposed, which saves the speaker the bother of actually looking at the complicated genesis of terrorism. The flaws in the slogan are obvious. (We all deplore “hateful ideologies”, but are all “hateful ideologies” religious? Ask Joe Stalin or Pol Pot.) More to the point, the propagandist rejects prayer as a reaction, saying it is useless and has no “practical” outcome. Why, a clinical study from Harvard supports his view….
But, using such logic, the same must apply to candle-lit vigils, tears, flowers left at the scenes of massacre, lighting up public monuments with the tricolour, banners declaring defiance of the terrorists, and other forms of public expression which are not specifically religious…. None of these are “practical” things. They don’t have a material outcome on the problem of terrorism.
But don’t they, slowly and incrementally, change the public attitude to violence? The security forces and armies and police have to do the hard and dangerous practical work of hunting the terrorists down. But prayer and candle vigils and flowers of regret and tears – they focus the minds of the bereaved and outraged on sorrow, on peace, on reconciliation – not on revenge and on promoting further violence. Perhaps “practicality” is defined in very narrow terms by propagandists.
Major public outrages should not be pretexts for pushing ideological barrows – religious or anti-religious. We should not react to a massacre by saying “Oh goodie! – here’s another opportunity to push my worldview in your face!” What sympathy or solidarity for anyone is shown by such a reaction? Tears, sorrow and prayers are natural human reactions to crisis. A lack of them probably shows deep indifference to other human beings.

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