On the Anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo Massacre: A State of Intellectual Emergency

Paris, Sunday, January 10. A day of remembrance and mourning. The streets are quiet, but France's heart is heavy with thoughts of the victims of the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, the kosher market, and the Bataclan. As we grieve, we read three very strange statements.

The first is from a former Charlie cartoonist known as Siné who veered off into anti-Semitism and racism in 2008. "How low can they go?" asks Siné. And who does he have in mind? Those of the hit-men and their backers who remain at large? The new recruits who, according to intelligence services, seem ready to take up the fight? The preachers who encourage them or fail to condemn them? No, none of these. He means Johnny Hallyday, the French rock icon. The only real low blow, according to Mr. Siné, was in allowing Johnny Hallyday to participate in Sunday's ceremony in the Place de la République, where he sang, with humility and dignity, "A Sunday in January."

The second is from an intellectual, Michel Onfray, writing in the Sunday magazine of Le Figaro and thus conspicuously breaking the "media diet" that he had imposed on himself. (Media diet is an odd phrase, by the way, one that implies, if words have any meaning, that he had gorged at Mardi Gras, suffered indigestion from all the media junk food he inhaled, but could not wait to get back in the game - we just failed to grasp that there would be some tweaking of the Lenten fast and little reminders from before the diet.) An intellectual, then, who goes off in search of the source of jihadism and believes he has found it. Is it Salafism? Saudi Arabia? Qatar? Is it hatred for the civilization and the way of life that we call Europe? No. It is Cyril Hanouna. A likeable television personality that "the left" supposedly set up, along with "Rolexes, Ferraris" and businessman Bernard Tapie, as a "tragic model" for youth. "It is therefore logical," says the man whose goodbye to the world consisted of the much-trumpeted closing of his Twitter account, "that the Kalashnikov should become the ultimate dream" of those duped by the hollow model. Not a trace of irony.

"If I deal harshly with these three commentators, it is because they express three symptoms that reveal rather clearly our almost unanimous refusal to pose the real questions demanded by the state of intellectual emergency into which this war has placed us and to begin to devise answers that measure up to the current situation and are worthy of the best of Europe's intellectual tradition."

And the third is from a philosopher, Alain Badiou, who, having embarked on the same quest as Onfray, also has a hypothesis to offer, which he does in Libération. The executions of January and November are indicative of what? Of the same fascist subconcious that Badiou claimed not long ago to find in Sarkozy's policies? Of counterrevolution in the Arab world? Of the effects of class struggle in the lands where Wahhabism was born and where it would be understandable that Badiou would regret seeing the most reactionary regimes in the world win? Wrong again. The killings, the former professor admonishes us, are the "pathological symptom" of a "globalized capitalism" that offers "the planet's youth" only the "bad choice" of "resigned inclusion in the existing consumer machine." If there is any "obvious" responsibility for the explosion of nihilism, it must be laid at the feet of western intellectuals who (pay attention here) emerged "disappointed and bitter" from the leftism of the 1960s and 1970s and "rallied to the established order." If one enters, as he claims to do, into the "subjectivity of the murderers" one finds nothing other than an "oppressed desire for the West," in which that very "oppression," that "frustration," is supposedly the key to everything.

Let us skip over the weakness of these analyses.

Let us ignore their authors' way of bending over backwards to convince themselves, and us, that there are a thousand and one possible parties at fault for terrorist crimes - but never the individuals who commit them.

And let us not dwell on the unworthiness of an argument that, by trying to hone the dull edge of a culture of excuses that is probably past honing, once again reverses the roles, making the victims guilty and the guilty victims.

What is interesting in these inclinations to nurse old grudges (Siné), to beat one's tiny fists against imaginary targets (Onfray), or to trot out the tired notions of outmoded leftism (Badiou) is that they reflect the difficulty that we are all having in accepting the advent of a new world, in grasping its utter strangeness, and in confronting a theological-political synthesis that is finally coming together after almost a century in the making.

And if I deal harshly with these three commentators, it is because they express three symptoms (Michel Foucault would have called them "secretions of the present") that reveal rather clearly our almost unanimous refusal to pose the real questions demanded by the state of intellectual emergency into which this war has placed us and to begin to devise answers that measure up to the current situation and are worthy of the best of Europe's intellectual tradition.

What is enlightenment, who wishes to share it, and how shall we defend it? That was Kant's question, and it is the question of our dark new age.

Where should we set the boundary between the enlightened and benighted sides of humankind? That was Condorcet's obsession. At a time of debate over the revocation or forfeiture of citizenship rights, over the correct balance between firmness and generosity in a republic, and over the infinitely complex relations between Islam and Islamism, it should again become the concern of each of us.

And finally there is the Hobbesian question of fraying social bonds and the always-possible war of each against all. At a time when we see facing off, in a worrisome cycle of escalation, the nazislamists, on one side, and, on the other, the sorcerer's apprentices of the National Front, the Trump campaign, and their ilk, none of whom can be counted on to continue to play by the rules of republican democracy, who can deny that our republics face a troubling new reality - with a commensurate need for responses that are not only firm, but also inventive and original? To be continued.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy