Americans don’t like to acknowledge it, but history matters. Our feelings don’t develop out of nowhere. They have reasons and more often than not, they make sense. This doesn’t mean that our emotions are always appropriate, nor does it mean that we shouldn’t sometimes change how we react to things, but it does mean that our responses can be rational even when they are not ideal.
Much has been made of the fact that people on Facebook are expressing more grief over the attacks on Paris than the suicide bombings in Beirut. The subtext (and sometimes the super text) is that those who express solidarity with Paris are hypocrites or bigots because there is no meaningful difference between the two. Both assaults were horrible and both killed innocent civilians, so, the argument goes, our reaction should be the same. Advocates insist there should be as many Lebanese flags on our Facebook profiles as French ones. I disagree.
There is a case to be made for caring about everyone in the world equally, especially if we hold (as I do) to the cosmopolitan notion that people are people and that national borders are artificial. It is also true that in general, Americans care much less about the world than we should. Foreign policy is an afterthought for most voters, foreign-language education in our schools is a joke, and our local newspapers write as if the rest of the world simply doesn’t exist. We are nationalists much more than we are patriots and that is a problem.
However, it is also true that as human beings, we don’t experience the world as one place. We care about our own children more than we care about others and we feel more grief when our friends are murdered than when strangers are killed. No one can blame us for this. Given the amount of death in the world, if we felt for all human beings equally, we simply wouldn’t be able to live our lives. We are designed by nature to identify more with those in close physical or cultural proximity. Our relationship with our family and neighbors ought to be special.
The philosopher that has struggled the most with this topic is Adam Smith. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he observed that the more familiar we are with people, the more we empathize with them. He explains this contextually: the more we know one another’s story and the more we share common experiences, the easier it is to feel what others feel. We approve of their reactions and moral judgments largely because we can see ourselves in them and, as a result, we can assent to the reasons for their point of view. (I’ve written a lot about this in two of my books. So have Fonna Forman (on Why? Radio here) and James Otteson (on Why? Radio here), although we all write about it from different perspectives.) Smith’s account explains what is happening on Facebook well. We are all expressing our commonality and shared identity with Paris, not because, as some suggest, the Lebanese are Muslims and the French are not (there are many Christians in Beirut), but mostly because of how history has unfolded.
Ironically, in the 1970s, Beirut was referred to as the Paris of the Mideast. It was a center of fashion and tourism, a French-influenced party-center filled with a “vibrant cultural and intellectual life.” Beirut is an ancient city with a rich and interesting history, subject to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, and then placed under French control after World War 1. Questions of colonialism aside—World War I and its less-than-successful solution is a very difficult topic—putting Lebanon under French control made sense because it and France had very close social and economic ties.
All of that changed during the 1975 Lebanese Civil War, which segregated the city and made the downtown commercial area uninhabitable. The war lasted fifteen years. There were sieges by Syria and Israel, and Lebanon was rocked by continual conflict between Shia’s guerillas and Israeli troops who occupied the south. In the end, Syria won, controlling most of Lebanon. Last week’s attacks by ISIL were in part a response to Syria’s involvement in the country.
The late twentieth century was, for Lebanon, a withdrawal from European life and a distancing from the world community. Lebanon had its own problems, no one could blame them, but the country and its people were not in a position to develop friendships and partnerships with America or the West in general. Beirut fell out of the global imagination.
France, on the other hand, was, as President Obama put it, America’s “oldest ally.” They helped fund the American Revolution and their own Revolution was inspired by ours (and Jean Jacques Rousseau). The Statue of Liberty, one of the great symbols of our country, is a gift from France, and they sold us the Louisiana territory. From the 18h century onward, French culture, food, style, and behavior has come to be seen as the most sophisticated, not just in America, but in almost all Aristocracies around the world. France is part of the European Union and the Eurozone. No one needs passports to get from Berlin to Paris and there is a train connecting Paris and London. Some have (prematurely) referred to the EU as the United States of Europe.
Paris is the city of lights. It is a place of dreams. Americans in particular grow up on Parisian fantasies, watching The Aristocats, Anastasia, Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ratatouille, and The Rugrats, not to mention, as we get older, Les Misérables, Tale of Two Cities, and Last Tango in Paris. College students dream of backpacking to Paris, of climbing the Eiffel Tower, and of French romances and sexual exploration (consider another film, Before Sunrise). Justified or not, Paris is a central part of the American dream.
As such, we all mourn with Paris because an attack on them is an attack on us, on our possibilities, and on our own freedom. It isn’t just that any of us could have been in that nightclub, at the sports stadium, or on the streets on Friday night, it’s that many of us want to be there. Most Americans, if they go abroad at all, will go to Europe once in their lifetime. They will scrimp and save for years to do it. On that trip, almost all of them want to end up in Pairs. Virtually none of them feel the same way about Beirut.
But here is the important part and here is what we learn from Adam Smith: just because we feel closer to the victims in Paris does not mean the violence in Beirut is any less horrible. Just because we identify with the Parisians, doesn’t mean that the Beirut attack should not be equally condemned. Just because our hearts are in France, does not mean that our morality should not also be in Lebanon. Emotions are guides to moral propriety, but they are not complete. Principles, duties, impartiality, and moral rules have to guide us when our sentiments fail. Smith is explicit about this. We can wave the French flag all we want, but we must recognize that this is a symbol of personal relations, not a claim of moral exceptionalism. And when we do neglect international news or foreign language education, we are making it ever harder to have intimate relations with Lebanon that it could be. We are giving up on the notion that sometime in the future, we might want to feel about them the way we feel about the French.
It is noteworthy that we talk about our solidarity with Paris and Beirut, but that we are not naming individual victims in our Facebook posts. We feel for the idea of Paris and the city itself, but at the same time, we recognize that a specific Lebanese life is no less valuable than a French one. The deaths of the people of Lebanon are just as horrific and inexcusable as the deaths of those of the French, and if we don’t know that intellectually, if that means nothing to us, then we are indeed hypocrites and bigots, because we don’t recognize the intrinsic worth of all people.
No individual is more entitled to respect and security than another. But expressing emotional solidarity is a personal, not a categorical expression of feeling. We have the history we have and we feel what we feel. Expressing moral love should never be discouraged, even if it is not all-inclusive.
Read more on the Paris attacks here.
Follow the author on Twitter at: @jackrweinstein