observations and opinion
go to Paris
…if you’re going to be afraid, be afraid of something worthwhile. Not a hashtag. And for God’s sake, don’t be afraid of your own hopes.
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On January 11th we witnessed, from afar in my case, some huge number (a million, who knows, who cares?) push into Parisian streets and squares, there to stand in solidarity with the values assaulted last week and the human victims of the violence. The French are really good at this – “mobilisation” as they call it – sometimes to defend their unemployment insurance benefits or short work weeks, and rarely on an epic scale such as January 11th.
If you have ever attended a huge public rally, it is a weird and fraught experience, a strange mix of being unimportant and crucial. You would think one person’s attendance or absence would not matter, yet it does: you are there for yourself, for those gathered, for those watching nearby, for those looking at it through a computer or TV. You’re one dot in the matrix, but if you weren’t present, there’d be a hole in the matrix.
You don’t make many choices in a crowd – you mill about, you shuffle your feet in one direction or another, applaud the speakers perhaps. If you’re very organized and actually have a sign, well, then you’re holding something up for a while until you get tired and tuck it under your arm. Eventually you make your move to depart. The crowd fragments into bits over the course of time, disappearing like a circus folding its tents and travelling on.
Twenty years ago, almost, I drove hours to reach Montreal to join a throng of Canadian nationalists, anxious to tell our Quebec fellow-citizens that we wanted them to vote “no” in the upcoming independence referendum. We wanted them to stay with us. There was a feeling of desperation in the air – we were losing the battle of ideas that October – and for all the elation and satisfaction I felt having made the trek, my heart was heavy with guilt. Where had I been? Why did I wait until now? How did I sit still and mute all those years while my country fragmented? What could I really do to atone for it now?
We went to bed that night (on someone’s floor) in a kind of hopeful anxiety and the next grey morning drove back to Ontario, wondering if that was our last visit to Quebec as part of our own country. We didn’t know. I blamed myself. It’s not that I was solely responsible for it, but I was most definitely, responsible.
The “No” side won that referendum, barely. Did gathering in Montreal that weekend matter? Probably. I know it aggravated the “Yes” side, who compared us to invaders; I know it uplifted Quebeckers who didn’t want to break with Canada – a total stranger grabbed my hand in that crowd that afternoon, shook it and said “thank you for being here!” in a French accent. You know he voted “No.” Maybe someone watching on TV saw us all there and said to herself, “gee, maybe they really do care about us in the rest of Canada.” That is why we were there really.
Will the gathering in Paris “matter” when it’s over? They have assembled and marched for many things, but with one purpose: to be seen. To be seen on the street, celebrating the peace that makes it possible for people to buy their kosher groceries without getting slaughtered. Honouring the brave who protected children, hid Jews from murderers, died on the sidewalk. They’re gathering to be seen proclaiming that they want to live in a society where sophomoric magazines can publish dumb, crude cartoons intended to offend.
Crowds are the same now as twenty years ago, yet even more visible. The magnetic need to gather and protest, or affirm, is merged even more with the certainty of being seen. For there is no public action today which goes unwitnessed, unrecorded, unbroadcast. Those in Paris have convened not merely to be together, or to hear words or to wave flags and signs, but to be witnessed. It is theatre – political theatre of the best kind – intended to act out and focus the sentiment of the wider world.
I wish that I were in Paris today. But in a very real way, I am there. My sentiments are there. I am there through the world we have woven together, that amazing and magical mesh of optical cable and satellites and silicon and glass, which can light up the planet in a blaze of tiny lamps. Even for this far away, JeSuisUnTemoin – I am a witness.. And I give witness to what I have seen.
Yes, the “JeSuis” hashtag is already getting criticized as trite and over-used, but only a deliberate cynic would say it today. That kind of cynicism is a mask: a way to stand out from the throng, a way of making oneself more important, safe from the hazards of optimism. People waste no time trying to make themselves less small by chipping away at what is truly big. At bottom, cynicism is just a way to conceal our fear of disappointment.
Listen, we’re human – we all feel fear. We fear for our children, for our friends, for our planet. We fear that the values we grew up taking for granted are now, weirdly, under assault. And we are right to be afraid. So go ahead, be afraid – that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re in danger. But here’s the thing: if you’re going to be afraid, be afraid of something worthwhile. Not a hashtag. And for God’s sake, don’t be afraid of your own hopes.
People died this week to remind you of those hopes. They didn’t want to, but they did. Go to Paris.
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