The Last Time I Saw Paris

The bare facts are simple.  The New York Times reports that a number of masked men armed with Kalashnikov type weapons entered the editorial offices of “Charlie Hebdo” in Paris and killed 12 people, including two cops.


Charlie Hebdo has been attacked in the past for satirizing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Its offices were firebombed in 2011 after publishing a cartoon of the prophet on its cover promising “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing!”

The cover of the newspaper on Wednesday featured a caricature of Michel Houellebecq, a controversial novelist whose sixth novel, “Submission,” predicts a future France run by Muslims, in which women forsake Western dress and polygamy is introduced. On the cover, Mr. Houellebecq is depicted as a wizard and smoking a cigarette. “In 2022, I will do Ramadan,” he is shown saying.

Many in Europe will see this as a signal for the dreaded Right Wing to revive its influence on the continent. One tweet says, “Sit back and see how the right wing cowards blame Islam and not Europe/USA’s foreign policy to the Middle East #CharlieHedbo”

Although this may sound like crazy talk, to some Europeans the portents are all around them.

A little known political party called “Pegida” (which stands for Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the West) has been making news in Germany. “Pegida’s sudden popularity, which appeared to mushroom in early December, has shocked Germany’s established political parties. Chancellor Angela Merkel has condemned it outright. But the movement has caused deep divisions within the country’s recently formed Eurosceptic and xenophobic AfD, prompting a bitter fight between the party’s three co-leaders over its future political course.”


In Sweden — the land of Ikea — the “left-wing government” has collapsed “over immigration policy” according to American Thinker. The culprit we are told, is the right-wing. The Guardian wrote:

Sweden’s far right plunged the country into unprecedented political upheaval on Wednesday by forcing the government to gamble on fresh elections in the spring after the centre-left coalition failed to push through its budget.

The anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, the country’s third largest party with 13% of the vote, portrayed the new elections in March as “a de facto referendum” on immigration, currently at near-record highs as refugees flee conflict in Syria, Iraq and Somalia.

And to round things out are Turkey, once the subject of the Eastern Question, whose resurgent faithful are now asking the Western Question.  And of course Russia. There’s always Russia.

A continent in where the very old still remember the fires of World War 2 is gripped by the very real fear that in Germany, Sweden and in many other places, the “right” and the “left” wing will soon be at daggers drawn; ready to settle scores not simply over Islamism but more especially over unfinished business. For in Europe there is always unfinished business.

Despite their supposed antagonism, the similarities between the European left and right wing are more slender than one might think. In fact they are like two sides of the same political coin. Both tend toward authoritarianism because the Man on Horseback or Sitting in the Cafe has always been big in those parts. “In Europe’s history, there have been strong collectivist right-wing movements, such as in the social Catholic Right that has exhibited hostility to all forms of liberalism, including economic liberalism, and has historically advocated for paternalist class harmony involving an organic-hierarchical society where workers are protected while hierarchy of classes remain.”


It would be a mistake to think that Europe is divided into two great camps: one which believes that “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” — and another which believes the opposite. Try instead, “all men are destined to socialism.  And the only difference between socialisms is whether they are racist or not.” The prism through which Europe views human progress is not identical to the American. It will have to be judged upon its own terms.

At worst the phrases “left wing” and “right wing” are now simply terms of art which people use to blacken each other. A Korean newspaper reported that a “foreign professor … thought of North Korea as an extreme right-wing country rather than a leftist one [since] extreme right-wing nations are usually totalitarian societies ruled by military dictatorships. Interestingly enough, these descriptions fit North Korea perfectly. Perhaps, it is in this sense that North Korea can be labeled as an extreme right-wing nation.”

In the same way a horse chestnut can be regarded as a certain kind of horse. Yet even if these concepts have no meaning, we are still beholden to them. The political convolutions necessary to respond appropriately to the Paris newspaper attack was underscored by president Obama’s formulaic denunciation of the attack, which has no mention of who and no mention of why and is therefore accounted as brilliant and statesmanlike. Obama said:


I strongly condemn the horrific shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris that has reportedly killed 12 people. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this terrorist attack and the people of France at this difficult time. France is America’s oldest ally, and has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the fight against terrorists who threaten our shared security and the world. Time and again, the French people have stood up for the universal values that generations of our people have defended. France, and the great city of Paris where this outrageous attack took place, offer the world a timeless example that will endure well beyond the hateful vision of these killers. We are in touch with French officials and I have directed my Administration to provide any assistance needed to help bring these terrorists to justice.

The ambiguous, workplace-violence type prose is in marked contrast to Jay Carney’s categorical 2012 warning that Charlie Hebdo’s publication of the Mohammed Cartoons would lead to no good.

We have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, while adding “it is not in any way justification for violence.”

“We don’t question the right of something like this to be published, we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it,” Carney said.

We live in an age where the deepest certainties are expressed as denials. Jay Carney’s warning to Charlie Hebdo was a way of stating what he knew while denying that he knew it, which at any rate Charlie Hebdo should have known, that they must surely know by now, though it would be fatal to admit they ever knew it. In our present case the safest thing to say is that North Korea is a right-wing country. Who could object to that?


Today, a time capsule containing a few coins and newspaper articles, buried by Sam Adams and Paul Revere in 1795 was unearthed. It’s a tiny, degraded thing, which many historians regard as containing only the banal and insignificant. Yet to Adams and Revere, they are keepsakes of their proudest creation: the United States of America. That nation in 1795 was a weak collection of states clinging to the eastern edge of a vast, untapped continent. It’s greatness lay in that it was the cradle of a great human experiment. An revolutionary attempt to see whether a society might be built without the indelible labels of Europe; ordered so than an individual could thrive whoever he was, undefined by any political appellation, race or creed, and known solely by his name.

It was not to be, at least not completely, for the experiment ultimately did not survive World War 2. The religious wars of the last century — Communism versus Nazism — came to all shores. It forced everyone to answer which side where you on? Now the wars of religions, the hatreds of mankind are come upon us again and the fires must burn at least some little way before they are extinguished.

In that hour the banner of the individual human being should still fly in the midst of the massed flags. Solitary and perhaps in second place, if collectivism is after all the fate of man, but important in the way Sam Adams and Paul Revere would have understood. Some dreams triumph simply by not being forgotten. As the tribes rebuild and harden their hearts,  spare a thought for the once and future hope for remaining in the midst of the strife of nations, just a man.


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