In a text dated February 1941, one of the most poignant among those collected and republished recently in “Pas de défaite pour l’esprit libre“, Stefan Zweig (while finishing his last tour of Europe and the United States, before returning to Brazil and committing suicide there) recounts having read in the “Histoire de la Révolution Française” (of which he does not specify the author and whom I failed to identify), that at dawn on January 21, 1793, just as Louis XVI was climbing the steps leading him to the guillotine, a few meters away, impassive sinners sitting on the banks of the Seine “remained concentrated on their floating plugs.”
These fishermen were no worse than those who applauded the beheading of the King and rejoiced over the spilled blood. Each person in his own way, out of indifference or fanaticism, allowed acts of extreme barbarism to be carried out.
Zweig deduced that in the midst of the most terrible tragedies, many people remain indifferent; either because they are naturally insensitive, or because they have seen so much misfortune that nothing affects them anymore, or because they no longer want or can bear the sight of blood.
We know what followed: nauseated by the spectacle of the massacres of the Terror, the French ended up abandoning themselves in the arms of a general, for whom all, even the fishermen, declared they were ready to die.
We are at this point again, today. And this is a very bad sign for the future.
Right next to us, like the guillotine erected on the square that became the Place de la Concorde, a very large number of human beings no longer want to know anything about the misfortunes of the world. Is this assertion excessive? No! Today, most people prefer, for example, to ignore the fact that 500,000 children and 2.5 million adults are trapped, at this very moment, in a creel basket in Idlib, Syria; and that many of them die there every day under bombs. Similarly, no one wants to see that locusts’ invasions have caused the starving of more than 12 million people in East Africa today. Or that in many camps around the world, from Guatemala to Bangladesh, people without anything, and especially without any hope, are crowding together and dying. And so many other political, social and environmental woes to which we are turning our backs.
There is only one difference with the fishermen on the banks of the Seine: today’s indifferent and insensitive people no longer look at a plug floating at the end of their line. They spend their lives in front of screens; not to watch the tragedies and barbarities of the world, but to escape them.
The more barbaric the world becomes, the more people withdraw into their intimate sphere. Narcissism, distractions, false scandals, all of this exists only as an escape from today’s misfortunes and the dangers of the future.
It is time to learn a lesson: if we want peace to reign among mankind, if we want our planet to survive, and if we want democracy to flourish, we must have the courage to escape the thousands of distractions that new technologies have provided to us, and renounce our interest in derisory false scandals, so that we may face the world’s real tragedies, have empathy for the victims, and do everything to save them.
This is the secret for the survival of any civilization: it is by seriously caring for others that one is most useful to himself.