Self-serving white guilt

Guilt, stirred up by leftist thinkers, is now de rigueur in the west. But Pascal Bruckner believes our soul-searching is both hypocritical and injurious
July 21, 2010
The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism by Pascal Bruckner, trans Steven Rendall (Princeton, £18.95)

According to Pascal Bruckner, we in the west suffer from neurotic guilt, a condition imposed upon us by the high priests of the left. This secular clerisy are heirs to the Christian tradition of original sin, which universalised guilt by claiming that humans are fallen and must redeem themselves. Nietzsche denounced Christian guilt as a psychic evil which forces man's will to power in on himself. Pascal Bruckner is a latter-day Nietzschean who gives no quarter when it comes to excoriating our new moral elite.

Bruckner represents a distinct species of French intellectual. Born in 1948 and coming of age in the upheavals of 1968, he initially indulged the revolutionary fervour sweeping Paris but soon became affiliated with the nouveaux philosophes, a group of anti-Marxist intellectuals. Consisting of figures like Andre Glucksmann, Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard-Henri Levy and Jean-Marie Benoist, this cenacle may be considered France's second generation of anti-communist thinkers.

Bruckner's day job is that of novelist—one item in his bulging portfolio, Bitter Moon, even received film treatment at the hands of Roman Polanski. As a result of his literary background and immersion in the fiery French essayist tradition, he writes in a sparkling prose, captured well here by his translator, Steven Rendall. The resulting tone is redolent for Anglo-Saxon readers of an earlier era, when social critics like Marx or Nietzsche conveyed their ideas with combative gravitas.

Beneath Bruckner's eloquence is a serious message: we remain prisoners of a white guilt whose victim is its supposed beneficiary. Our guilt, he writes, is actually a means for us to retain our superiority over the non-white world, our masochism a form of sadism. After all, if everything is the fault of the west then the power to change the world lies squarely in the hands of westerners.

This belief demeans Frantz Fanon's "wretched of the earth"—the non-western poor who we are supposed to redeem. Worse than this, it excuses the barbarism of tinpot dictators from Mao to Mugabe, who are considered irresponsible children, their crimes the result of colonialism, racism or capitalist exploitation. In upholding one moral code for the west (and Israel) and another for the rest, we retard human progress. Surely the column inches devoted to Israel's atrocities, which Bruckner doesn't gloss, should be overshadowed by the more significant carnage of Darfur. Yet "Nazi" Israel excites leftist ideologues like Gilles Deleuze, while the more serious war crimes of Congo et al do not.

The left avoids these contradictions through relativism. Bruckner, however, staunchly defends Enlightenment liberalism. He has no truck with those who blame the west for jihadism—notably the postmodernist stalwart Jean Baudrillard, who reacted in "pornographic jubilation" to the fall of the twin towers. Moreover, leftist radicals remain cloaked in a respectability which we would never accord the far right, and Bruckner seeks to rip through this bogus status.

Take multiculturalism, which for Bruckner "imprisons" minorities in separate boxes outside the mainstream. He rightly fulminates against the creed of identity politics that originated on the left and took the western policy elite by storm in the 1970s and 1980s. He saves special bile for the purveyors of collective guilt, exemplified by the Holocaust memorial industry. Despite his Jewish heritage, Bruckner characterises Auschwitz as our new Golgotha, "as if Christ died a second time there." Holocaust fetishism set in motion a process that has resulted, he argues, in the "penitent state" whose history consists of a litany of shameful episodes. The result is a profusion of victim groups—racial, regional, sexual—each seizing on particular episodes to stake their legal and moral claims against the majority. This hampers the integration needed to address social exclusion.

Bruckner imagines a playground in which French children introduce themselves as descendants of slaves, colonised peoples, slave traders, bandits, peasants, beggars. Since only victimhood confers identity, one must ransack one's family history for any usable wrong. Public policy and official proclamations take their cue from this new zeitgeist. Immigrants are to be welcomed out of guilt—as a means of repaying the debts of colonialism—rather than selected for their ability to contribute to society. The result is that Europe bars talented Africans and Asians while accumulating an unskilled migrant underclass.

Substituting the complex reality of history for victimology, Bruckner's spade turns up some awkward truths. For instance, there has not been one slave trade, but three: an Arab, an African and a European. The first two were more enduring and trafficked more people than the western variant. The west's innovation was to end slavery on moral grounds, while it lingered in the Arab world until the 1980s. Despite these inconvenient facts, any questioning of the idea that slavery is a predominantly European crime immediately places one beyond the pale. On this note, Bruckner neatly juxtaposes the tirades of a contemporary professor who urges reparations for slavery from "the Christian nations" with the actual words of Frantz Fanon, the black intellectual whom the reparationists appropriate without a proper reading: "Don't I have other things to do on this earth than avenge the blacks of the seventeenth century... I am not a slave of the slavery that dehumanised my ancestors."

Bruckner seeks a more rounded history. Nations should celebrate their heroes and victories while acknowledging their stains, because there are "no angels and sinners among nations." In the west, the balance needs to tilt back toward a celebration of achievements and heroes who have fought for freedom and equality. Elsewhere, a little self-criticism would go a long way.

The book is not without its faults. Bruckner tends, like Alexis de Tocqueville two centuries ago, to project his dreams onto America. Yet if anything the US— home of the Afrocentric curriculum, political correctness and affirmative action—is more guilt-ridden than Europe. I recall a panel at the American Political Science Association meetings where a Native Indian panellist answered the impeccable liberal arguments of leading political theorist Jeremy Waldron by haranguing the room for "400 years of occupation." Throughout his diatribe, white heads nodded. Only when a black member of the audience spoke up for Waldron's arguments did sanity return.

Bruckner also wrestles with a number of contradictions. He wants Europe to embrace universalism, yet criticises the universal vision of the EU; he champions self-criticism as Europe's greatest achievement, but fails to come clean about the connection between self-criticism and guilt. He wants a forward-looking Europe which breaks with its past, but celebrates those "bizarre customs, old fashioned civilities and ancient solidarities" that make it a better place than the US, with its "crudeness of money." Despite his attack on the politics of memory, he also commends George Bush's apology to Japanese Americans, and asks for more for the Native Indians and African-Americans. He castigates European defeatism, but kicks the continent time and again: "France is no longer where it's happening. The centre of gravity has shifted."

There is more, too, to be said about guilt itself. Could it be that making guilty noises signals sophistication and status, with the high priests of the left earning psychic wages equivalent to bankers' bonuses? Or, given the collapse of ideology, are we witnessing a new form of spontaneous guilt, where ideas such as socialism give way to knee-jerk impulses like "my comfort makes me guilty." For all its flaws, this is a stirring and important book.