Today marks the anniversary of Father Jacques Hamel horrific yet glorious martyrdom when, while conducting Mass in his parish in Saint Etienne-du-Rouvry when two ISIS brutes rushed into the chapel and killed the elderly priest at the altar. Shortly after, the Italian paper Il Foglio interviewed French philosopher Pierre Manent about the attack, and the wider implications for French and European societies. A particularly gripping excerpt from the interview is given below. It will be helpful to consider its applicability not only to the people of France, but to men and women of the West. Below is the question posed to Mssr. Manent, and his response in full:
France looks exhausted… What are France’s mistakes, especially those of the elite media and intellectuals, and what is the nature of its malaise?
The French are exhausted, but they are first of all perplexed, lost. Things were not supposed to happen this way… We had supposedly entered into the final state of democracy where human rights would reign, ever more rights ever more rigourously observed. We had left behind the age of nations as well as that of religions, and we would henceforth be free individuals moving frictionless over the surface of the planet… And now we see that religious affiliations and other collective attachments not only survive but return with a particular intensity. Everyone can see and feel this, but how can it be expressed when the only authorized language is that of individual rights? We have become supremely incapable of seeing what is right before our eyes. Meanwhile the ruling class, which is not a political but an ideological class, one that commands not what must be done but what must be said, goes on indefinitely about “values,” the “values of the republic,” the “values of democracy,” the “values of Europe.” This class has been largely discredited in the eyes of citizens, but it occupies all the positions of institutional responsibility, especially in the media, and nowhere does one find groups or individuals who give the impression of understanding of what is happening or of being able to stand up to it. We have no more confidence in those who lead us than in ourselves. It is neither an excuse nor a consolation to say it, but the faults of the French are those of Europeans in general.
Between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2014, there were four terrorist attacks in the whole of Europe, yet from January 1, 2015 through the time of this writing there have been nine, with four of those having occurred in France.[i] It is no wonder, then, why the French are “exhausted.” They have become the target de jour, though it may be that England popularity as a soft target may be on the rise.
Mssr. Manent’s response is applicable to the French, certainly, but is carries a wider applicability to the Western world as a whole, which is presently between the conflicted grips of moving in an altogether globalist future pioneered by the European Union on the one hand, and retaining and reaffirming independent national identities on the other. If towards globalism, the belief is that such trifling affairs as national and religious identity will eventually fade away, and all will coexist in a post-national, post-religion utopia. This view denies not only present realities, but indeed the whole of human history. Let his response about the weariness of the French spirit be taken not only to represent his countrymen, but also as a glimpse of a Western future, should what remains of the West choose to wander similar paths.
The interviewer comments that France looks exhausted, and Manent takes it a step further saying that, “… they are first of all perplexed, lost.” Why must this be? Manent goes on, pointing out that the French spirit, much like other European nations, have lived under the impression national and religious identity were relegated to the past, and no longer carried any significance in the modern world. Holding such beliefs it is thus quite easy to understand why the terrorism-related events of the past few years, which have brought to the fore questions of both religious and national identity, have caused such disillusionment. Simply put, these global beliefs are not true in the slightest.
Much of the West lives in a state of cognitive dissonance – believing that the world is one way, wanting so badly for it to be true, while being regularly confronted by evidence very much to the contrary. Manent asks,
“Everyone can see and feel this, but how can it be expressed when the only authorized language is that of individual rights? We have become supremely incapable of seeing what is right before our eyes.”
Indeed, the reality is not only right before our eyes, but in our neighborhoods, our train stations, our churches, and on our streets. Western society has decided to take the world as it wishes it were, rather than how it truly is. When those results are not what one expects, they choose, again, to address the matter as they wish it were, and is just such a way the pattern continues.
Manent offers valuable insight into the French psyche, and indeed into the very soul of the French themselves, when he explains why they feel “perplexed, lost” in the wake of these attacks. With the exception of perhaps Germany, no other country in the Western world is more enthralled, or perhaps enslaved, by the promises of globalization. And what are those promises? The reign of human rights, the abolition of national, religious, or any other sort of communal or tribal identity; in short, the shedding of any identity other than the one freely and uncomplicatedly chosen by the individual – all 6 billion individuals.
The French are perplexed, then, to find that most of the rest of the world is not so enlightened as they, that there are in truth very many more who actually prefer their tribal or communal identities. Thus, the French are lost, because they speak the language of the individual while the majority of the world they aim to convert still speaks the language of the communal. They have no words to express what is happening, what is continuing to happen, and thus lack the ability to understand the telos of it all.
The French live in a bubble, but they are not alone. They are further along than most, and offer a view of a nation gripped by the globalist ideology – detached from the reality, and confused as to why the world is not exactly as they would have it. Much of Europe wanders in and out of this bubble, as does the U.S., and it is this bubble, so thinly defined, that illustrates the social fault line of our time – whether progress means looking to the future, or to the past for the best path forward.
Manent says, “We have become supremely incapable of seeing what is right before our eyes. Meanwhile the ruling class, which is not a political but an ideological class, one that commands not what must be done but what must be said, goes on indefinitely about “values,” the “values of the republic,” the “values of democracy,” the “values of Europe.” Now the French perplexity is coming into clearer focus. They have values, and those values appear to be the new foundation of the society. Where this confusion comes into play is in the misunderstanding that all of French society is still intact and whole. It is not, and the reason it isn’t is entirely because French society has so thoroughly embraced the globalized ideology. They are fractured limb still in use.
The idiom, “The inmates are running the asylum,” I believe is apt for the situation in France and, sadly, in the U.S. as well. Manent claims that the citizens do not trust this particular class of society –the media and political elites – but because they occupy all vital social institutions there is no collective notion for resistance. In the U.S., where a cynical secularism has taken firmest hold on so many, the view of resistance is the same as the view of solidarity. One may add a hashtag to their latest posting on social media, and claim to be a part of the larger movement to resist X, where X represents a political, social, or religious matter of which they possess little cogent understanding, and then carry on with their lives. They did their part, after all. They put it on social media.
Alas, this offers about as much resistance against such avenues of power as a picket fence offers against a freight train. More than anything, it serves a therapeutic purpose. They join in because they feel so helpless against the rapid and never ending changes happening all around them. As Manent would say, they feel “perplexed, lost” and certainly exhausted.
Ultimately Manent lays the blame of the problems faced by France and larger Europe at their own feet. In a most humbling statement, he writes that the French have lost confidence in their leaders because they have lost it in themselves. This very much applies in the United States as well. We, as they, have brought on vast changes in the past decade at such a dizzying speed that before space is offered to process and assess what has happened, the discussion has already moved on to the next cause. There has been no attempt to understand who we are as individuals, family, communities or a nation under the new paradigm of the week. We have, in a very real sense, lost track of who we are. The West has undergone so many elective surgeries that it no longer remembers its own appearance. It is no wonder, then, that we have lost confidence in ourselves, for there is no longer a self to call our own.
What solution can be offered to remedy this maledictive madness? I see only one real solution, which will read as both defeatist and retreatist, and perhaps rightly so. Call it the Benedict Option, or the Marian Option, or the Franciscan Option, or whichever other –Option you would like. There is great wisdom in strategic retreat, if the purpose is to regroup and prepare. The world cannot carry on in this way. Like the French, the world is quickly exhausting itself, and one day soon there will be a crash. Men and women of good mind and strong faith need to be prepared to live in such a world, and to participate in the rebuilding. We must celebrate and preserve what is good while it may be celebrated and preserved. What is preserved is all that will be available to offer when the world drunk on its own decadence finally sobers.
[i] This figure does not include two failed attempts, one in Paris involving a man with a bomb vest which failed to explode, and the second in a train station in Brussels, also involving a failed suicide bombing attempt.