Although the term “white guilt” was inspired by the historically fraught relationship between America’s two principal racial groups, the phenomenon itself is more potent today in Europe than in the United States. Where the US had slavery and Jim Crow, Europe had colonialism and the Holocaust, and it is the last of these that has had the determining effect on the postmodern era. Furthermore, although the US has had its share of European-style penitents, including the last two Democratic presidential candidates, it also has world responsibilities that require it to maintain a dominant military establishment, while Europe, with its limited commitments, reposes comfortably under the American umbrella. Thus whatever one’s affinity for the European model in foreign affairs, the United States cannot give itself over to the kind of penitential posturing that Pascal Bruckner examines in his against-the-grain La tyrannie de la pénitence : essai sur le masochisme occidental (Grasset, 2006).
Bruckner accuses Europe in general and France in particular of taking a “masochistic” stance toward the world of its former colonies and dependencies. He detects in this self-flagellation an inverted moral narcissism through which former great powers attempt to retain their place at the center of the world by taking the blame for all its ills. Europe has become, in Bruckner’s view, a Hegelian “beautiful soul” who recoils from any concrete engagement with the world’s problems while pretending that they can all be solved through peaceful “dialogue,” leaving the heavy lifting to the United States.
While sharing the view defended in these Chronicles that the Holocaust provides the moral basis for the victimary thinking of the postmodern era, Bruckner detects this same inverted narcissism in the indiscriminate application of the paradigm of Nazi and Jew to every conceivable form of oppression, particularly including the noxious equation of Israeli self-defense measures with Nazi extermination. The constantly evoked Holocaust, he pointedly claims, has become an object of rivalry, with every “victim” seeking a verdict of Genocide. Bruckner carefully distinguishes this attitude of permanent victimhood from justified demands for equal rights. Like most French thinkers of both left and right, he is skeptical of “communtarianism” and sees the appropriate goal of anti-discrimination movements as seamless integration rather than the recognition of separate sub-communities.
Rare among European intellectuals, Bruckner maintains both a welcoming but not guilt-ridden attitude toward immigration and a positive one toward the United States. He has the courage to support Israel’s existence and to refuse automatic martyr status to the Palestinians, whom he accuses Europeans of fantasizing into the dernier bon sauvage. Immune to victimary blackmail, Bruckner denounces the cries of “Islamophobia” that seek to demonize legitimate concern with Islamic radicalism. That at the time of writing in 2006 he joined the rest of the Western intelligentsia in its knee-jerk repudiation of George W. Bush is no longer of great consequence.
Bruckner’s book provides a welcome occasion for reflection on our civilization’s self-destructive tendencies. Is it implicit in the development of an economically and technologically advanced social order that it will become paralyzed with guilt at its own superiority and succumb to blackmail from its purported victims rather than defend itself as the only conceivable source of benefits for the rest of the world? Can Western firstness sustain itself long enough to transmit its advantages to the rest of the planet, or is the resentment it arouses fated to destroy it from within as well as without?
The common denominator of the “penitential” behavior described by Bruckner is the globalization of the human conversation. For the first time in history, every non-intimate assemblage must consider itself as virtually including every human being.
In this context, any assertion of Western firstness puts into question the moral model of universal reciprocity that is the basis of all human interaction. Prior to WWII it was tacitly accepted that some human societies were more advanced than others; the point of contention was whether their differences were biological and absolute or cultural and relative. In particular, the vast increase in productivity brought about by the Industrial Revolution provided an objective guarantee of European superiority over the rest of the world. This superiority was not limited to economic and military power; European societies were demonstrably and increasingly more successful than others in every domain of “quality of life,” from lifespan and public health to education to the availability of household goods. This does not of course imply that Western colonialism was a generally effective or appropriate way of opening up the rest of the world to this superiority.
What the Holocaust accomplished was to destroy the acceptability of any assertion of one group’s superiority to another. The very economic and scientific factors that had seemed to put Europe at the acme of social progress had contributed to the greatest moral horror; the industrial efficiency of death-camp “processing” cast a shadow over industrial society in general. Above all, the allegation of the superiority of the Western (“Aryan”) social order as a pseudo-scientific justification for the extermination of the Jews, arguably market society’s best adapted members, was fatal to the West’s pretensions of superior moral enlightenment.
In this overall context, the shift later in the postmodern era (“1968”) from the demand for (equal) civil rights to that for (unequal) affirmative action might have been anticipated from the outset. The imperative that emerged from Auschwitz was not to end discrimination but to include all humanity in one virtual conversation. The shift was nonetheless revelatory; the “color-blind” optimism of the civil rights era, with its clearcut heroes and villains, had spawned a virtual universalism that would be revealed to require not simply the discarding of “prejudices” but the rejection of any comparison among groups that might reveal invidious differences. Even conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh criticized Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (Free Press, 1994) for correlating America’s racial problem with the 15-point difference between black and white IQs.
No doubt, for participants in the universal conversation, this is the contemporary world’s problem in a nutshell, like the relative lack of female scientists that Larry Summers lost the Harvard presidency for trying to explain. But, precisely, naming the problem in this way, let alone attempting to find inherent differences to explain it, contravenes the moral model, which is the one thing that all humans have in common and the only conceivable basis on which they can interact harmoniously on a global scale.
The extent of this global urgency appears in other guises, notably in the hysteria surrounding “global warming.” Whatever the actual danger of climate change or the possibility of modifying it through human action, the significance of the mobilization against global warming (as opposed, for example, to creating an international consortium to develop ways for preventing an asteroid from hitting the earth) is that it both affirms the existence of a universal human community and provides sacrificial acts for everyone to perform, from the individual user of a low-flow toilet to the United States of America pledging to reduce its CO2 emissions by 83%. In this configuration, the planet, or “nature” itself, becomes our ideal Other, uniting us all in caring for it, while concomitantly subordinating our individual ambitions to the needs of the ecology-conscious community. The recent revelation of the falsification and destruction of climate data in East Anglia only confirms the passion with which the “science” of global warming has been charged. That this passion is also a vast source of research funds is an auxiliary consequence of the root phenomenon, which is the reinforcement of the global community, a cause many find sufficiently worthy to justify prevaricating and nudging ambiguous data. Sadly, proof appears to be accumulating that the planet is not cooperating.
Bruckner would like guilt-obsessed Westerners to remember their contributions to moral progress. The West may have practiced slavery, but so did every other society capable of profiting from it; yet the West abolished it, while it persists to this day in Africa and the Arab world. The West may have created the twin monstrosities of Nazism and Stalinism, but it also defeated them, while brutal dictatorships continue to flourish elsewhere. But the very need to make such obvious points, or to refute the absurd notion that Western prosperity is a product of the exploitation of the rest of the world, demonstrates the elemental power of the originary moral model, which, in the absence of ideological barriers, reads every unequal configuration as a zero-sum game whose winners can only have stolen from the losers.
Since the emergence of the first big-man, societies have generated ideological justifications for their inequalities as belonging to a divinely ordained order of things. But the market system has no all-reconciling ideology. To accept the market is to accept inequalities that cannot be justified a priori; the market’s openness to innovation is incompatible with any prior assignment of roles. This limits the persuasiveness of Western liberalism’s most consequent attempt at justifying firstness, John Rawls’ “theory of justice.” Rawls’ model of the inequalities that we should accept under the “veil of ignorance” is a model of distribution, yet the creativity of the market system requires that the roles that create inequality in a market system be dynamically generated rather than distributed. Hence it is not surprising that, although Adam Smith has defeated Marx in the field, he has not won the hearts of the intelligentsia, who with few exceptions take the side of the global economy’s resentful Other now that he (or she) can no longer be excluded from the conversation.
Bruckner’s frequent use of the term rivalité mimétique reveals a Girardian sensibility. He understands the double-bind faced by Europe, whose resentful reliance on America resembles a surly adolescent’s dependence on his parents. A sidebar entitled L’Europe sans frontières (214 ff) suggests that a mature, post-nationalist Europe that accepts its natural frontiers rather than seeking to blur its identity in indefinite expansion could set an example for other regions in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, or Latin America. This may be read as Bruckner’s modest variant on the hopes expressed in Girard’s recent Achever Clausewitz (Carnets Nord, 2007) that Christian Europe might continue to serve as a fount of wisdom for the world at large.
The final question posed by Bruckner’s essay is whether Western-style liberal democracy can survive and flourish in a world that increasingly understands itself as a global community. At a time when the transatlantic alliance seems increasingly frayed, Bruckner sees Europe’s most urgent task as rejecting the temptation to isolate itself in its “cocoon of repentance” and taking its place alongside the United States in shouldering world responsibilities—although he curiously ends the book with the more modest exhortation to Europe to “inoculate” the world’s shameless dictators and authoritarians with its “poison” of shame, the very attitude he had devoted the rest of the book to denouncing.
But for even this to be possible, Bruckner affirms that “il s’agit de changer le regard que nous portons sur nous-mêmes, de procéder à un renversement complet des valeurs [we will have to change our attitude toward ourselves, carry out a complete reversal of our values] (246).” That is a tall order indeed. Bruckner’s lucid analysis of European white guilt and its dangers offers finally little reassurance against Mark Steyn’s ominous vision of Europe’s failure to resist jihad from without and depopulation from within: America Alone.