Ben Winch

Light Traveller

Paris and the Charge of Eurocentrism

Why I’m sick of being told how to grieve for Paris

Nov 16th 2015

Typically for me, I seem to have stumbled into a backlash against something I never witnessed in the first place. As someone who doesn’t watch television, reads no more than skerricks of the mainstream media and gets most of my “news” from word of mouth or social media, I’m familiar with the feeling. So when my wife informed me of events in Paris on the weekend, my response was not to rush to view news footage (gratuitous or distracting, I presumed) or politician’s responses (easy to predict), but once I had grasped the essential details – told in a minute or so by my wife as she read from her smartphone – simply to cry. I cried, not for the victims, but for Paris; for the likelihood of a once-proud democratic, artistic, creative melting pot turned police state; for the continuing inevitable loss of innocence of the West; for the realisation – slow, painful, inexorable – that we can’t turn back, that “civilisation” as we know it is flawed, built on lies; and because, failing some massive turn in the tide of politics and public opinion, World War Three just moved a little closer. (Also – I’ll be honest – I cried for rock music, which already was neutered by security and insurance demands and will hardly improve after this, and which should never have been the soundtrack to a massacre.)

Imagine my shock, then, when I logged into Facebook later that day and found the backlash: post after post from well-meaning friends and acquaintances reminding me “But what about Beirut?” and “Far more people die in the Middle East but the West doesn’t care because of the colour of their skin”, all of which seemed to me either (a) a response to some vulgar display of Eurocentrism in the mainstream media which we all would be better off ignoring, or (b) a kind of white liberal guilt complex.

The attacks in Paris, I’m told, targeted largely a particular subsection of the population – educated, affluent, generally tolerant, “alternative” (for want of a better word), people not unlike ourselves. Or at any rate, people whose way of life should be familiar – almost as familiar, say, as if they’d been dining and drinking and partying in Fitzroy or Newtown or the west end of Hindley Street or Fortitude Valley. Now of course if such a thing happened in Australia (and it will happen, obviously, each terrorist attack on a Western city seems to assure us) there’d be an outcry, and a baying for blood, and an increase in power for Right-wing scaremongers, and a further swing of the Opposition toward the Right, and further increase in the already frightening powers of the police and ASIO and the AFP, and probably further incidents (shameful and humiliating for us as a nation and counterproductive for the peace movement across the world as a whole) like the Cronulla riots and the Children Overboard saga and the recent death of asylum seaker Fazal Chegeni on Christmas Island. In short, a reduction in freedom for all of us and a corresponding increase in the power of our true enemies, the ignorant, and in particular the white Western ignorant, the white Australian ignorant, who, in our names (as supposedly Muslim terrorists across the world operate “in the name of” all Muslims) would then perpetrate heinous, disgusting crimes.

Well, with Paris this all just got a little closer: the (further) death of our freedom, the (further) rise of the Right, the (further) rise of our natural enemies, and the natural enemies of anyone who craves tolerance and peace.

Of course – as the word “further” suggests in the above paragraph – that process was already underway, and has been since at least September 11th 2001 and no doubt much earlier, though my grasp of history isn’t good enough for me to pinpoint when it started. But with Paris, as with the Twin Towers, it just kicked up a gear. And with Paris, as with the Twin Towers, whether 100 or a 1000 people died, it’s not about the numbers. After all, if one person suffers in our proximity we suffer also. The power of September 11th stemmed from precisely the inequality people are railing against – the fact that the Western media does set more store by Western deaths, not just from racism (though that may be part of it), but because Western deaths (at least violent deaths, en masse) are less usual, are a novelty. And September 11th was, hands down, the most novel news story I’ve ever seen in my life, or expect to see. (Not to mention that New York City is and was probably the most filmed city in the world; of course we were going to see more of any slaughter in its streets than in the streets of another city.)

So yes, of course, there is disparity. The coverage of Paris, I have no doubt, is way out of proportion, in our part of the world at least, to the coverage of Beirut. But that’s why the attacks are powerful, not because dead white people are worth more than dead brown people, but because of the proximity of those white people, generated in part by the media, but also by the proximity of our cultures. It’s creeping closer, this tide of violence, targeting many of us who perhaps feel blameless or who like to think we feel blameless, though when something like this happens our guilt rises to the surface along with our grief, and chokes us, helps stop us from feeling, helps silence us, helps rob us of power. But one thing I believe: grief denied never helped anyone, not us, not the people we pity, not the Middle Easterners ignored by our media because their deaths are not “newsworthy”.

You think the Western media’s biased? Turn it off. Don’t listen to it. Don’t feed it with your attention.

You think Paris doesn’t deserve your grief because you didn’t grieve for Beirut? That’s human nature: we grieve when pain comes close to us. When my mother died I cried and cried; when other mothers die I heave a sigh. Paris, much as it might already be a shadow of what it once was, is a cradle of the highest achievements of Western culture. Paris, justly or not, was a cornerstone (one of many, like New York City, like London, like Melbourne and Manchester) in my understanding of my own culture and its roots since my childhood, whether or not that culture had flourished at the expense of other cultures. Beirut? I’m sorry to say I know nothing of it, or next to nothing, except that since at least the 1980s it’s been in the news for its misfortune, except for a constant dull undercurrent of grief for all places and peoples stricken by suffering.

Which is not to say I condone anything done “in my name” by the armies of France, the U.S., the U.K. or Australia in the wake of this atrocity.

Which is not to say I think it’s just that half the world starves or suffers while the other half prospers.

Which is not to say I condone or in any way belittle the attacks in Beirut.

But I’m only human. Only as good as my experience, my education. Yes, I would surely be wise to educate myself further. If World War Three is going to be centred in the Middle East (as, for thirty years at least, has seemed likely) then I’d best try to understand why. But for now I grieve for an imminent loss of liberty which I can understand all too well. Who’ll benefit from that loss of liberty? Not the West, not the East, not anyone except our real enemies, the enemies of peace – of all skin colours, of all religions – who seek to turn the rest of us against each other.

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