Civilisation and its discontents

December 2015

The recent terrorist atrocities in Paris were an attack on culture as well as people. Culture must show its resilience. Insight editor Alasdair Donaldson offers his view.

Baudelaire, the great Parisian ‘decadent’ poet of The Spleen of Paris, might have seen through the claims of those attacking his city of writers, thinkers, and culture. Using words that could have come from a pastiche of one of his poems, ISIL condemned the ‘hundreds of apostates gathered in a profligate prostitution party’ (in) ‘the capital of… obscenity’.These comments are doubly revealing about the motives behind the attack. They give one of ISIL’s explicit pretexts for the atrocity. But they also reveal an anger towards contemporary culture. This suggests one way to respond.

Spleen and the Ideal

The locations of the violence - a death metal concert, a football match, restaurants and bistros - were not just random targets. These were deliberate attacks on Parisian and European culture, just as the Charlie Hebdo killings were deliberate attacks on free speech.  ISIL is explicit about this. Its Nigerian affiliate, Boko Haram, encapsulates the idea in its very name, which roughly means ‘Western ideas are forbidden’. Committed to destroying whatever does not fit into their world view, fundamentalist groups have now attacked sites of different cultures from tourists visiting Tunis’s Bardo Museum, to historic Buddhist statues, to Assyrian ruins, to the libraries of Timbuktu. Now contemporary popular culture has been attacked in Paris. 

Cultural aspects of the response were striking. English football fans sang the Marseillaise. Major world landmarks were lit with the colours of the Tricolour. The internet buzzed with spontaneous popular responses and cyber counter-attacks by the Anonymous group. These were powerful messages of solidarity from ordinary people with a city recognised as one of the world’s great beacons of freedom, pluralism, and civilisation. They gave a clear message that people work together as they stand against ideological hatred. It also suggests ways that culture may provide one powerful means of doing so. 

After the attacks, France’s President claimed: ‘they have declared war on our way of life’. Parisians took to Twitter to urge each other to head ‘back to the bistros’. If culture was attacked then culture – and the ordinary people that produce and take part in it - was already mounting a response. Paris has always been resilient.  In its long history as one of the world’s greatest cities, it has been no stranger to ideological violence against its citizens. From the St Bartholomew Day Massacre, to the Revolutions, to the Commune, to the Nazis, Paris has faced terror and always come through as a beacon of culture and civilisation.

ISIL is often called ‘nihilistic’. Yet arguably one problem with violent extremists lies precisely in pure belief

ISIL is often called ‘nihilistic’. Yet arguably one problem with violent extremists lies precisely in pure belief – belief in simplistic totalitarian doctrines (in this case a religious one, but secular equivalents such as Nazism and Stalinism have also caused huge bloodshed). Such doctrines proclaim their beliefs over all other considerations of law, ethics and humanity. 

 

Baudelaire was fascinated by humanity in all its forms. He might have argued that a defining feature of contemporary culture was precisely that it left people free to find their own meaning, identity and purpose in their lives, rather than imposing on them compulsory and all-encompassing religious, political or nationalist doctrines. Finding individual meaning, identity and purpose is difficult – as some of Paris’s most famous thinkers have argued. That difficulty may be one reason why the easy answers and simplistic narratives of extremism have traction with disaffected young people, including in some communities in prosperous European countries.

Yet if the lack of certainty in the non-prescriptive pluralism of modern societies can be difficult, its huge strength is that its breadth and tolerance is brilliant at fusing different ideas and influences and producing rich, varied culture with great global appeal. In pluralist modern culture there is usually something for everyone - even some of the ISIL killers themselves, who had apparently in the past themselves enjoyed some of what it had to offer.

Indeed, it may even be that the fascination of modern living in all its multiform variety - and the frustrating dissonance between its freedoms and the puritanical tenets of religious extremism – further irritates some extremists because of the incompatibility of those freedoms with the shallow reassurances of simplistic extremist doctrines. For some people reaching for a short-cut to finding validation and meaning for their lives in a totalitarian ideology, the attractions of modern culture in all its forms may be deeply unsettling.

In that sense, popular European culture may become a target because it is threatening. And if extremists find culture threatening it is worth asking whether they have revealed a vulnerability of theirs and a way to respond to them.

Liberty and libertinism

Paris’s culture has attracted Muslim travellers and intellectuals since the 18th Century (Andrew Hussey: Paris – The Secret History (2007), p.181). But it must be remembered that, when Paris itself was little more than a backwater, the classical Islamic civilisation nostalgically championed by ISIL was itself produced by sophisticated, culturally-mixed cities like Damascus and Baghdad (which even boasted their own ‘decadent’ poets), of the sort that ISIL abhors. Such cities and the culture they produce are attractive to people from all over the world. There are far more Muslims trying to move to cities like Paris than to cities like Raqqa. The more people who gain full access to and a meaningful stake in the freedoms and benefits of modern life – in Paris or elsewhere - the fewer are likely to be vulnerable to ISIL’s proposed puritanical alternative. And it often appears easier to get young people engaged in popular culture than in the nuances and compromises of mainstream politics. In that sense the culture of modern societies is one of their best selling-points.

This suggests one powerful way for culture to respond to these attacks is simply to continue to be attractive. To be open, inclusive, humane, diverse, popular, and evermore accessible to people around the world. To bring people together through creativity, enjoyment and free expression. To continue to attract far more people than ISIL ever will and to give them a stake in open societies. In essence, ‘keep cool and carry on’. The ordinary people who together contribute to produce and consume culture can contribute to culture’s resilience simply by continuing to do so.

After all, modern popular culture was once condemned as decadent by the Soviet Union, and arguably played a part in the Soviet collapse by its appeal to the ordinary people who lived there. Similarly, cultural activists played an important part in the Arab Spring, when culture ‘acted as protest, catalyst… documentation and means of communication’.

That those who attack European cities are often European citizens rightly causes soul-searching. But this has been true across the many nations of Europe, with their very different histories and policies but their shared culture of tolerance and liberty – and perhaps the perception of libertinism that sometimes goes with it. Significant numbers of European citizens have joined ISIL from across the continent, including Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, Italy, and Russia as well as from the UK and France. This has been true regardless of domestic debates about specific national policies or different approaches to integration (from multiculturalism to assertion of secular values). This is not to dismiss those debates – self-critical debate is one of the fundamental tenets of modern culture, and much more needs to be done to encourage the successful prosperity, happiness, and feeling of belonging of everyone from all of Europe’s communities (in Paris and elsewhere). It is merely to point out that, on their own, these debates are not addressing one common underlying problem.

This is not a clash of civilisations but a clash between civilisation and its discontents

That problem is an extremist ideology fundamentally antithetical to culture itself. Rather than falling into the trap of ISIL’s narrative, European societies should remember that the nature of the latest attack proves this is not a clash of civilisations but a clash between civilisation and its discontents. The Paris gunmen attacked culture but revealed that culture can defend itself. The global appeal of the culture embodied in Baudelaire’s ‘city full of dreams’ can be part of that defence.

 

Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Policy Analyst and Insight Editor, British Council