Editorial: Charlie Hebdo, a dominant narrative – and what we can do about it

We hoped 2015 would be different, we so very much hoped that 2015 would be better, that ‘it’ would get better – and all we got were xenophobes in Germany and dead satirists in France. We didn’t even get a chance to breathe.


For the last five or so years, us politically minded people have been quite happy about our chosen profession because things ‘finally’ started to happen again, from springtime for northern Africa and the Middle-East with its successful revolutions, to the United States waking up and the consequential “Yes we can – continue policies from George W.” to a wide spread of political forces gaining momentum that were not on the political radar before. Gone are the days when ‘We’re heading for trouble’ was only a subconscious feeling, not substantiated by public consensus. Those were the days. 2014 then was the year in which the last of us realized that playtime was over and that the breath we took in the second half of the 2000s was the calm before a storm.

There is a famous quote about Helmut Schmidt, German chancellor from 1974 – 1982, saying that he ‘kept the country on course through difficult times’, referring to a decade of left-wing terrorism and  the first widespread wave of unemployment after the war in Germany, oil crises and the arms race of the Cold War. While those specific challenges have been overcome, the challenge and impetus of keeping the ship on course is now as urgent as it was then.

Writing this piece as a westerner living in Germany, one of the dominant topics discussed recently has been the occurrence of the first non-minuscule xenophobic demonstrations under the label of PEGIDA (short for, translated, ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’), the rise of the first decidedly anti-European party in Germany and the tragedy that befell Charlie Hebdo. The question so often in the face of such events is always ‘What can we do?’.

The answer to that is as simple as it is seemingly easy: Our job.

The challenges we face as a local, regional and global community are as diverse as they are similar, as separated as they are connected and as small as they are big. One of the common narratives in all of this seems to be one of fear, not as much – and not only – one of fear of physical harm, but rather one of fear of having less than before. This ‘Abstiegsangst’, the threat and fear of economic downward mobility, can be seen as one factor contributing quite immensely to the irrational in-group/out-group othering that seems to be at the core of most dissent-based movements. People that are satisfied today and confident about tomorrow are less likely to take to the streets and revolt against the status quo.

In times of crisis, the centrifugal forces of a society spinning more quickly lead to the strengthening of off-center political ideas and ideologies. We have seen this in Europe where the economically strong Germany has been the last country to develop an anti-European party and is one of the last ones where that kind of party is not (yet) represented in Parliament. All the while in countries like the Netherlands, coalitions have been made between the traditional opponents of conservatives and social democrats in order to prevent far-right or far-left parties to gain governmental responsibilities.

The political crisis Europe and the globalized community face is not as much about haves and have-nots, about tolerant and intolerant people, but rather about the safety and security that there is enough for all, about getting from ‘Oh God, oh God, we’re all gonna die!’ to ‘It’s gonna be alright.’.

Let’s not kid ourselves though: the challenges we are facing are considerable. We don’t need to be working for the Italian coast guard to see that global migration flows will pose challenges to societies for decades to come; we don’t need to be Greenpeace activists to realize that we have mistreated our ecosystem with time borrowed from our grandchildren and that climate change is here to stay; we don’t need to be militarists to realize that being able to defend one’s own territory is a good thing (or for NATO: would be a good thing); and we don’t need to be Human Rights lawyers to see that the protection and equal treatment of any and all human beings is worth fighting for, independent from colour of skin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or economic power.

So, what can we do in times like these?

We can do our job, as politically literate people, as people active in society. We can take responsibility for the world we live in. There are limits to what anyone or any one institution can do and we should not fall prey to un-reflected activism in the face of individual tragedies. Most societies already have procedures and tools in place to prevent and deal with the threats and challenges we are facing, just because they are not in the news every day for jobs well done, that does not mean they do not work. Let’s use them, keep the tools that work and work on the ones that don’t. Of course, when all is said and done, bad things are still going to happen. Idiots are still going to do their thing with consequences that will be tragic and dramatic and we will not be able to prevent all of them, but we will be able to prevent some of it, maybe even most of it.

In the end, that really is all we actually can do – our job. Be cautious but bold, be aware but not afraid and most importantly – don’t panic.

Nothing good has ever come of that.

In the last days and weeks there has been quite some coverage and outrage about the western-centric hype around the attack at Charlie Hebdo all the while Boko Haram has committed atrocities at a scale not even remotely similar to that of the Paris attacks – and yet, few media seemed to care overly much. My personal best guess is that in this instance the quality of the violence is far out-weighed by the quantity of them. Other than Boko Haram, who have been on the public radar for a while now and who have committed atrocities on a too high a number of occasions before, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo took place in the center of Europe where the news about local violence are less saturated. As sad as it is, the symbolic power and newsworthiness of violence in parts of the world that are not usually known for killings motivated by political tensions is more prone to attract public attention than high-scale violence in a part of the world where politically motivated killings are more frequent.

Needless to say, the political explanations, causes and history of either of these events, Charlie Hebdo, the Baga massacre and PEGIDA, are long, highly complex and fraught with historical misconceptions. History has always been written and re-written by the winners of conflicts – all the while these (historically predominantly western) ‘winners’ have created side-effects that echo through the centuries and erupt in times of crisis.

At such a time, where the scarcity of any number of resources (food/water/habitable land/energy/ Human Rights) is becoming more and more apparent and where the predominant vision of the future is a dystopian one, the case for rational argument and an awareness of issues outside of mainstream public attention becomes ever more important. And that is what we at GPPW have tried to do and will continue to do in 2015: to work and report on issues that may be off the public’s radar, to give voice to opinions and writers that provide a broad, inclusive picture of the world we live in with backgrounds and opinions worth listening to – in the end: to do our job.

Here’s to 2015, may it continue better than it started.

Picture credit: Konrad Lembke

2 responses to “Editorial: Charlie Hebdo, a dominant narrative – and what we can do about it

  1. Pingback: Editorial: Germany’s Winter of Discontent – and the fallacies of dealing with PEGIDA | Global Public Policy Watch·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s