frgavin on March 16th, 2010

Guilt trip, writ large


All the world knows what causes great global problems. It’s the West, meaning the United States, Europe, the countries that inherited British politics and of course Israel.

There’s nothing that can’t be blamed on the West. Many countries are poor today because Western capitalism keeps them that way. If they are undeveloped, that’s the fault of colonialism, which was invented by Europe after it invented slavery. Colonialism’s numerous crimes will never be forgotten or forgiven, its numerous virtues never celebrated.

Pascal Bruckner describes the melancholy results of these attitudes in his forthcoming polemic, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism (Princeton University Press). His angry book could change a whole civilization’s opinion, if only that civilization had sense enough to pay attention.

“Nothing is more Western than hatred of the West,” Bruckner says. It runs through the bloodstream of opinion, a river of poison that thrives in our universities, affects our media, saps the spirit of foreign policy, and routinely gets subsidized by genial NGOs.

In theory, guilt has a positive effect when it encourages better behaviour. Everyone could use some improvement. But the guilt of the West, as Bruckner correctly sees it, takes a morose and cynical pleasure in moral failure.

“We Euro-Americans,” Bruckner argues, “are supposed to have only one obligation: endlessly atoning for what we have inflicted on other parts of humanity.”

Bruckner identifies guilt as an indirect form of self-glorification. Popular American memoirs express the same syndrome when the authors describe, for large audiences, their earlier lives of degradation as alcoholics or drug addicts. Old sins become the basis of a new importance. In the same way, Europe’s barbarity in the fascist and communist eras gives it the authority of an expert witness.

It acknowledges, of course, only the barbarity of the West. For the crimes of non-Western states, the West likes to find extenuating circumstances, a way of denying them responsibility.

Bruckner was one of the New Philosophers who emerged in Paris in the 1970s. They were passionate anticommunists, more academic yet more flamboyant cousins of the American neo-conservatives. In 1983, Bruckner created intense discussion with The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt, a vehement critique of the West’s sentimental and mainly unsuccessful aid programs. He influenced many writers, though perhaps fewer policy makers. His fiction can generate as much controversy as his essays. (One novel became the basis for an unfortunate Roman Polanski film, Bitter Moon.)

In the 1990s, Bruckner argued in favour of military action against Serbia in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. He supported the war against Saddam Hussein but later decided the human cost was insupportable. Even so, he writes in The Tyranny of Guilt that the pacifists who paraded against George W. Bush in 2003 were supporting one of the worst dictatorships in the Middle East. He sets down a typically rueful conclusion: “Iraq was an exemplary case of the double bind: whether one approved of the intervention or not, one was wrong.”

Israel has suffered spectacular collateral damage from Western masochism. We might guess that Europeans would empathize with the state of Israel, which was in large part founded by Europeans on mainly European models. But those in the West who consider their own history shameful find it natural to dislike its offspring in the Middle East. Pathological hatred of Israel has reached grotesque levels in Europe.

Bruckner, no admirer of recent Israeli governments, nevertheless suspects that supporters of the Palestinians are essentially Europeans pursuing their own guilt trips in a foreign theatre. He agrees with Bernard Lewis’s remark that for many people, “the Arabs are in truth nothing more than a stick for beating the Jews.”

Why do those who love the Palestinians never march for the Chechens, the Tibetans, the Sudanese, the Congolese? People who speechify endlessly on the Palestinians show no interest in the Uighurs. Those who care about only one of the world’s downtrodden peoples naturally arouse suspicion that something other than humanitarian feeling is behind their rhetoric.

Europe displays its paralytic guilt complex, Bruckner notes, even on its common currency. Once the great artists of Europe (and some not-so-great monarchs and politicians) appeared on European money. Travellers in Europe found themselves paying their bills in Michelangelo, Cervantes or Voltaire. No longer. The European heritage has disappeared from the cash, to be replaced by unidentifiable arches, bridges and doors. Artists are too blatantly specific—too European, in fact. Chastened by its history and terrified by its enemies, Europe prefers to advertise nothingness.


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