Je suis Charlie? (I am Charlie) That’s the French response to the massacre of twelve employees of an ultra-cynical and satirical and irreverent magazine, Charlie Hebdo. It’s not even clear what that means, to be “I am Charlie”. Is it like John F Kennedy’s Ich bien ein Berliner, meant to show solidarity with Berliners after the Soviet Union built the Berlin Wall to keep East Germans from fleeing to the West? Imagine that for a moment. The Soviet Union and its client states (East Germany being the most prominent) had to build walls to keep people in. Yet American liberals—yes, liberals, with at least some of the connotations of the classic meaning of “liberal” still embodied in their political appellation—believed that the Soviet Union’s Marxist politico-economic system was better than the democratic capitalist system in the US and Western Europe. Time proved them wrong about the Soviet Union, so when it disintegrated for its internal contradictions and turned to a system more radically capitalist than any in history, American liberals immediately sought to adopt the failed and abandoned Soviet system everywhere else, including, of course, at home. Such is the nature of the political impulse.
What are the French marching for? The right to not be killed is about all I can fathom. Is it worth marching to defend the right to be cynically sarcastic, offending as many people and denigrating as many cultural icons as possible, just because? I don’t think so. But even cynical, irreverent, sarcastic people have the right to life. For my sake anyways, I hope. Are we all Charlie? That’s doubtful, at least in the US, at least on college campuses and in government offices. No one in America would be allowed to be so openly contemptuous of ethnic and religious groups like Charlie Hebdo is, if only because it is in such poor taste.
France has been lost and confused about its place in the world at least since Waterloo, which was a long time ago (1815). France had its glory days. There was Charlemagne a thousand years before Waterloo (circa 800 ad). And then the Norman conquest of England in 1066 ad. And then the French Revolution in the 1790’s. And then Napoleon in the early 19th century. At one time (roughly during the Enlightenment, especially its earlier days), French was the world’s lingua franca. The founding fathers of the United States all had French. The language was then much the same as English is now, with its roughly two billion second language speakers today. But use of the French language faded with France’s importance on the world stage, which accidentally or not was coincidental to the establishment of an academy in France whose sole purpose was the preservation of the language. English had no such academy. English and England adapted and thrived as French and France ossified and struggled.
Considering the massacre as an attempt by Islamic fundamentalists to stamp out cynical, sarcastic or irreverent speech about the Prophet and his adherents, it will undoubtedly fail. Irreverence and cynical sarcasm directed at established culture is a human birthright. It can’t be stamped out. It can be pushed underground, but never eliminated. But no one should want it to be. Cynicism, sarcasm and irreverence for social totems act as pressure relief valves for emotions that sometimes run too high, or as sanity checks when things are pursued to their logical, and always ridiculous, ends. There is no government in any time that was powerful enough to banish cynicism and sarcasm and irreverence. All that even the most powerful totalitarian states have been able to accomplish is the elimination of openly cynical, sarcastic or irreverent speech. The sentiments giving rise to the speech can be suppressed in expression but the feelings can’t be repressed. People will feel what they will feel. The Spanish Inquisition didn’t convert any heretics or Jews who didn’t want to convert, it just shut them up or drove them underground. The Cultural Revolution in China left in its wake a deeply cynical society that by the time of Mao’s death basically understood as truth the exact opposite of anything it heard from its government. Which is roughly how the populations of the Muslim caliphates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, etc., understand things about now, and is why they produce so many disgruntled, disaffected people willing to destroy things and kill people.
Anyway, if this is the best that radical Islam has for suppressing the expression of cynical, sarcastic or irreverent speech, the Prophet is likely to suffer even greater ridicule at the hands of the infidels. If I could draw, I’d do a garish caricature of Mohammed myself.
The impotence of the attack doesn’t change the realities on the ground. Muslims are silently but relentlessly invading France and the rest of Europe, as the French slowly fade away. French culture is suffering a psychosis of irrelevance and decline. France is tired and played out. It has no new ideas. Waxing cultures do more than just celebrate the belittling and criticizing of their institutions. They don’t adopt defeatist philosophies like Existentialism and its offshoots. France’s time as an idea and a people and an empire is waning. All it can do is mock the Muslims who pour in to fill the holes in its decrepit foundations, and pretend that everyone marching around with je suis Charlie banners is enlightened as to the real French way, and that such enlightenment matters. It doesn’t. There’s no reason ignorance and darkness aren’t just as fit to reign in this millennia as intelligence and light reigned in the second half of the last one. If there is such a thing as the Western ideal of progress, France has reached its logical end. It has achieved all it set out to accomplish. It has completed its purpose. Just like the other mainstream cultures of Europe, stick a fork in its ass and turn it over, it’s done.
Which is one of the reasons oil prices cratered over the last half year, and why the Continent has never really recovered from the Great Recession, and never will. Europe is old and dying, literally, in a physical sort of way, as birth rates most often fail to even hold populations steady, and psychically, in its lack of animating ideas. If the 20th century represented the beginning to the decline of the West relative to the East, as Niall Ferguson has theorized, then the 21st century will surely harken decline as an absolute reckoning.
Absolute decline was first manifest with the Great Recession of 2008/2009, a demographic event if ever there were one. As the Continent rapidly ages and its population shrinks, it won’t find a way out of its deflationary trap. Deflation is when money becomes more valuable relative to the goods and services it is meant to represent. And with a declining population, the value, or burden, of collective debt on a per capita basis relentlessly increases, and particularly so when the government is running interminable deficits and thereby continuing to borrow more and more. Absent an epic flood of money into the economic system—enough to incite dangerous instabilities–aging and declining populations make deflation inevitable. Ask Japan. Keynes had the prescription for growing populations about right—borrow and spend to spur demand. But for populations that are foundering or declining, his prescriptions are exactly wrong. The loathed austerity, where debt declines, or at least ceases to rise, on a per capita basis, is the proper strategy, which is why it will be eschewed, and the French and, to some extent, everyone else, will thereby eventually discover what the Greeks have already learned about how bad things really can be, even in this magical age of hipsters with skinny jeans and beards and heirloom everything able to broadcast their coolness across the world with a phone on a stick. Another hundred years and skinny jeans won’t be cool anymore. The ability to wear them will be a sign that starvation is just around the corner. Fat, and jeans to accommodate it, will be the new black.
The worse things get in Europe and Japan and even China and India, the better things look in America, at least superficially. The dollar gets stronger every day, which means that Europe and Japan are effectively exporting their deflation, even as America is not as demographically impaired as any of them.
America’s population is relatively young (median age in the late 30’s, as opposed to mid-40’s for much of Europe and East Asia), and is still growing, about 1% a year. But almost all of that is due to immigration, or to the newly immigrated giving birth at rates higher than replacement. European Americans quit having babies, just like Europeans did. It’s as if white woman across the Atlantic picked up on some silent cue only they could hear and pulled their wombs out of the reproductive game. Except that women have done the same in Hong Kong, Korea, China and Japan. The Ponzi schemes that are the social welfare states of Europe and East Asia and the United States and Canada can’t possibly keep promises made to their seniors if their kids and grandkids don’t have any babies.
The deflationary aspects of declining oil prices are what has turned the markets even more psychotic than normal lately, bouncing up and down in excess of one and two percent on a daily basis. It would seem that cheap oil would be an unmitigated good. But things aren’t always what they seem. There is a supply and demand reason for the decline in prices, and a monetary reason for the decline. The only part of the price decline that arises from American strength is increased supply. The lack of demand and the strengthening dollar that are the main contributors to the decline (oil is priced in dollars) are ill economic winds for the world and thereby America. It is surely true that in this second age of globalization (the first was circa the nineteenth century fin de siècle until World War One), America is not an island that can prosper alone.