Letter from a French citizen
America has always been good at summing up the spirit of an era in one single image. The image of the mob breaking into the Capitol will be one of them. While the French President Macron said that “this is not American”, and President elect Biden tweets “This is not America”, let’s not fool ourselves and have the courage to hold up the mirror : this is part of what we are. And this is why on this terrible day, the ground on which democracies around the world stand has been shaking.
You have become the incarnation of a world reduced to binary terms. Two parties, two colors, yes and no answers to complex questions. In our countries too, it is taking over our public debate, our medias, our schools. Oversimplifying, overstating, overdemonising. Ignorance spreads faster than knowledge, violence faster than agreement, the will to prove ourselves right faster than the will to be right. The conversation is broken between two sides of the population. Both living in two different realities, finding no common ground to agree on basic facts, and ignoring one another. In the ecosystem of medias and social medias, each side feeds its own beliefs, and goes on fact-checking, or humor-punching the other side. Feels good, but the thing is… it never reaches the other side.
As much as we need to condemn the ones who broke in the Capitol and the one(s) who inspired them, we also need to address what has made all this possible. The circle is closing here. Remember November 8th 2016 ? When the world woke up and realized it was actually possible that Donald Trump would be the 45th President ? Citizens who hadn’t voted and medias who had given so much space to the “clown”, suddenly realized they had a responsibility. Well here we are again. And this is not just happening in the US.
It is time for politicians and opinion-makers in all democracies, to question their responsibility when they stir crowds just to make a buzz, when they join lies when they know they are lies, or when they put aside facts that don’t match their arguments. And it is time for citizens to stop and reflect on what we are doing when we just sit and wait.
In the midst of a world pandemic, major economic crisis, continuous terrorist threats and an unprecedented environmental breakdown, people are more than ever in need of meaning, vision, path to follow, and feeling of empowerment. When they don’t get any of this, they look for simple explanations to complex realities, for a single villain rather than multiple causes, and for occasions to show off. They find it in fabrics of alternative truths. In a world of unlimited information, some have become experts at building alternative truths that become the sole truth for people who can feel perfectly legitimate to attack the Capitol.
January 6th should not be put under the rug of Joe Biden’s election and of Democrats’ feeling that everything will be fine now, that this will be just a bad memory, or that winning both Houses clears them from addressing these issues seriously. It should be the turning point leading to a remoulding of all the tools we use to build our knowledge and our representations of the world : medias, social medias, schools… While watching these people, I couldn’t keep wondering : how were they raised ? What did they learn in school ? What did they watch on TV ? Were they taught as children that if they scream loud enough they could actually get what they want ? Do they teach that to their kids ? Did they ever learn how to check fake news, how to compare rhetorics ? How to get in conversation with someone who doesn’t share the same point of view ? French people often mock the Americans. They still consider themselves as the country of debate, reason, high education. And yet the tremendous success of the two-and-a-half-hour conspiracy documentary Hold Up released last November is just a warning that it is not the case. We see how people can be brought to believe in lies, but also of how dangerous it is to mock, diminish and despise them when we think we are on the right side. The emergency is not to prove them wrong, but to give them the tools to use their reason and judgment again.
As a child of both French and North American cultures, I feel deeply worried for these two countries that have both claimed to be inspirations to the world. The days of United States standing as the world’s model for democracy and freedom have long been numbered. Now we know they are over. And yet you may still be what is ahead of us. In 1776 that was a glorious prospect. Today, it is a terrifying one. And yet, seeing all these Republicans, including long-term supporters of Donald Trump and a lot of those who questioned the outcome of the elections, resigning and condemning him because something sacred was attacked in which they too believe, that scratches the match of what US is still the best at : hope.