In 1784, Georg Forster, James Cook’s famously unbiased companion on one of his around-the-world voyages, a gifted draftsman, a pioneer of travel writing, and a promising naturalist, received a teaching appointment in Vilna (now Vilnius), then a hub of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. His contemporaries lauded the 30-year-old academic prodigy as a steadfast proponent of Enlightenment values—and a dedicated correspondent of Immanuel Kant, no less.
They recognized Forster as a freemason who saw the world through the prism of freedom, equality, brotherhood, tolerance, and humanity. In his lifetime and thereafter, few doubted that the open-minded South Sea explorer had been a committed, and intrepid, revolutionary.
Intrepid, that is, with one significant exception. Unlikely as it may sound, the trip to Vilna—a journey of no more than several thousand miles—terrified the man who had once so cheerfully stomped around Polynesia. Succumbing to migraine, insomnia, hay fever, and disgust, in his diary Forster launched into a litany of complaints about bad roads, fleas, atrocious coffee, and filth from the countless “Jews and Polacks”—a far cry from the “noble savages” with whom he had crossed paths in tropical climes.
Speaking out in freedom’s favor should qualify everyone for at least a modicum of authenticity without skepticism in return. And yet, in actuality, professing such authenticity ends up being the West’s exclusive privilege.
The fact that “not even masturbation” could cure his spleen worried Forster so much that he paid little notice to the liberation struggles burgeoning all around. Divided between Prussia and Russia in 1772, Poland was slowly gathering strength for a pushback, even if such a revolt would ultimately fail in 1794—only a year after the failure of the first German bourgeois revolution in which Forster was a protagonist.
Of course, Forster did not walk arm-in-arm with President François Hollande at the recent unity march in Paris—time travel had never been his thing. But his biography stands as a recognizable and resilient template for our usual reception of events like the rally as well as for their extensive media coverage. The template is simple: When the West rises for so-called “Western values”—for various freedoms, that is—it inevitably gets more solidarity, attention, and validation than any other part of the world trying to do the same.
Ultimately, the outpouring of support for the victims of the attack against Charlie Hebdo—a periodical that, as many point out, has had a tense relationship with Western values—not only veils the circumstance “that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies,” as Teju Cole has written. The upsurge in the magazine’s circulation from 60,000 to several million copies not only demonstrates just how easily the West’s tragedies overshadow those elsewhere—be it Boko Haram’s most recent attacks in Nigeria or China’s loss of 29 citizens in Kunming in March 2014. It also throws into sharp relief the double standard of our solidarity with worldwide expressions of ideals and hopes. In the end, at stake is something much bigger and more lasting than the Charlie Hebdo incident and its aftermath.
By looking back at our most immediate response to the attack on the magazine’s offices, we are looking at a centuries-old narrative of Western entitlement to owning that scarce and barely tangible commodity—freedom. This was the narrative that allowed the revolutionary Georg Forster to fret about his private parts and turn a blind eye to the upheaval around him.
How does this story work in the 21st century? The unity march provides but one example. On January 11, over three million people marched on the streets of Paris, several heads of state among them. And while some critical voices have questioned the rally’s motto—the omnipresent “Je suis Charlie”—for its unproblematic identification between the outspoken and deliberately (if indiscriminately) offensive magazine and the many sedate individuals who had joined the crowds, nobody has doubted the protesters’ sincerity.
Nobody has suggested that a foreign power had lured the masses with lucrative rewards—for who would dare propose such a thing, in liberty’s cradle? It did not occur to either German Chancellor Angela Merkel or European Union President Donald Tusk that delaying their visits would be a prudent choice. And no news agency let the protests slip off its pages, cameras, or screens. Such trust makes plenty of sense—but, let us realize, not only in France.
Speaking out in freedom’s favor should qualify everyone for at least a modicum of authenticity without skepticism in return. And yet, in actuality, professing such authenticity ends up being the West’s exclusive privilege. As anniversaries of the last year’s most important pro-democracy stand-offs—in Ukraine and, later, in Hong Kong—approach, it becomes obvious that the West does not share this privilege willingly. At the time, our media scrutinized these protests’ indigeneity to the end. “Are the protesters paid?” We wondered even when, in Ukraine’s case, they died by the dozen. Like Georg Forster, we tend to navel-gaze while others around us scream for attention—to get a fraction of what we grant ourselves.