Liberté, égalité, fraternité: Don’t stand with France, stand with the survivors

First, I would like to extend my sincerest condolences to the friends and families of the victims of the attack in Paris on Friday. You have my support, as do the survivors who have thankfully lived through the tragedy, and who will hopefully recover to their fullest mental and physical health.
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Before the wave of French flag flaunting faces on Facebook really picks up momentum, I would like to ask people, why do you stand with France? I take it that the French flag is a symbol of support for France, and by extension for the survivors of the attack, the victims and their friends and families, as well as the neighbourhoods and communities that are understandably shaken and afraid. In the wake of an attack such as in Paris, I agree, we certainly should show unwavering solidarity with those people. So where does France come into that? Isn’t saying “I support France” exactly not supporting the survivors? And if you support France, do you also support the many Muslims in France, or the refugees who already have been and who are going to continue to be victims of inevitable racist, xenophobic backlashes? Or, on the other hand, are you in support of the French racists who will be responsible for these backlashes? I know you probably do mean just the survivors and victims, and France and the French flag are just proxy symbols for your support, but why not just be direct? I feel that real support would be directed at real people, not some intangible construct arising from a collection of accidental births in one location over a period of time, telling each other a similar story about their origins, a story represented by three colours carried around on a stick.

Or maybe you do mean France, as in the French government, as in you support the power that it has, being in the position to choose to retaliate or not, and to choose how severe that retaliation will be, whether it will be proportional, or seek to “set an example”, or even go all out and rid the world of terrorists once and for all. Okay, the French government probably won’t be that extreme, but I am willing to wager that if something isn’t done by the people right now, the government response will be both disproportionate and likely kill a lot of innocent people along the way. That’s what the United States did and still is doing. That’s what all governments have always done. If we don’t hold them back, their retaliation won’t end until they have exacted vengeance one thousand fold that which has been perpetrated on the people in Paris (likely an act of vengeance itself).

Or do you support French unity? A meta-solidarity, or solidarity of solidarity, supporting the idea that, no matter what happens now, the people of France should hold strong, come together, see past their grievances, recognize each other as human beings, and live by those lovely words that fill our Western hearts with equal measures security, warmth, and hope: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. We love those words so much, I don’t need to translate them. So why stop at France? Shouldn’t the whole world have liberté, égalité, and fraternité? And why are we up in arms when these things happen to Westerners, but shrug or don’t even register when these things happen to non-Westerners?

Just as there are calls not to send prayers — because prayers are part of the problem — I think it worth saying that we should not support France. If reading this statement makes your blood boil… isn’t that just proving my point? If you’re that worked up by patriotism, you’re part of the problem, just like any religious person who gets worked up when we intelligently and considerately point out the wrongs of fundamentalism. Yes, there are those who take it to far in the other direction, but by and large it is religious people (including religiously atheist people) who take things too far in either direction. The same goes for patriotism. A flag is as bad as a prayer.

Without taking sides, or even naming specifics, we all know these attacks are by a group in response to other attacks by another group which were in turn a response to an attack by first group which indeed, surprise surprise, were in response to a whole chain of attacks probably back to the beginning of time, or at least to the French colonial occupation of parts of the Mideast and North Africa. Oops, I shouldn’t have said that. But up to that point I could have been describing any conflict — religious, political, economic or all of the above — anywhere in the world. And now that I have said it, I will point out that no one in France today is responsible for those occupations. They are only responsible for admitting the colonial occupations, accepting the wrongs of the past, and moving towards rectifying them. France has not done that — not adequately, not sincerely, as these attacks show. I also don’t expect France to do it. Countries, nation-states, are concentrations of power, and controlling the narrative or ignoring past wrongs is how state governments exercise power. Not the French people — they are a diverse and multicultural group who likely exhibit large ranges of understanding of history — I am talking about France, specifically the state and government thereof. Just as we should not blame all Muslims or all Middle Easterners for these attacks, so too should we not blame the French citizens for the history of their country. That’s what the terrorists did in Paris. I will, however, call out any French person who hides behind their flag, doesn’t admit the wrongs of France, and pulls us deeper into this mess by either retaliating or standing to the side and letting the others retaliate for them. Just as I do call out the individuals who actually perpetrated this attack and any Muslims or Middle-Easterners who support them or look away. This latter statement is so painfully obvious, but why isn’t the former?

That’s the irony of the blame game. Sometimes the people who are to blame are the blamers themselves, and usually both sides are so caught up in blaming each other they cannot see things for how they are, and it no longer really matters who really started it. All that matters is how to go forward. I can tell you now, the way forward is not by supporting France. I expect someone is going to say, “This isn’t the time for such a critique. We should show unity and solidarity, not point out the wrongs of the past.” So I ask, where was your unity and solidarity before the attacks? If you say it is okay to point out the wrongs of the past, but just not right now, then why weren’t you doing it before? Likely you don’t think it is okay to point out these wrongs at all. And I see it now: One side is going to agree with what I say, the other side is not going to agree with I say, and in the meantime there will be retaliation, then counter-retaliation, then counter-counter-retaliation, and so on. So forget what I’ve said about the past. Where do we go from here? “Support France” is not an answer to this question. It’s not even meaningless. It is the exact wrong thing to do.

Support the survivors by ensuring that this sort of thing never happens again. Do that by demanding NO retaliation. Do that by actually practicing liberté, égalité, and fraternité with all people of the world, the nameless victims of the accident of being born on this planet, divided by nation-states, power-grabbing and irrational fundamentalism. That is why I do like the Eiffel Tower peace symbol that is going viral. It’s elegant, and actually focuses the showing of support on the people who were affected by the attack, the people of Paris. It has its drawbacks, but I see that they are negligible, especially if we emphasize that showing support isn’t enough. The tower, as a highly recognizable symbol for Paris and France, sends a three-fold message with its inclusion into the peace symbol: First, it symbolizes peaceful solidarity with the survivors. Second, it symbolizes condemnation of any retaliation by France or French citizens, driven home by the fact that this particular peace symbol was originally designed for nuclear disarmament. Finally, the tower symbolizes that which we can achieve, build, if we come together peacefully.  Liberté, égalité, and fraternité are things that must be practiced in order to be achieved, and we’re not going to do that through flag-waving or prayers.

This shouldn’t be particularly controversial; it is merely exhibiting the values we say make us better than the people who carried out the attacks and their supporters. I condemn all such acts of violence, including in retaliation against such acts, as well as the religious and national extremism which ultimately causes people to do such things in the first place. All people who wish to live by the mantra liberté, égalité, and fraternité should do the same, in the name of peace and support of all victims of violence and oppression around the world. Let us renew our commitment to these values and show solidarity with others not only when there is an attack, but continually and always.

Robert Pyotr Wolff

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