The pernicious persistence of the West’s guilt

by Limbic on October 16, 2010

@Guilty_ By Surreal Sways


Great article in Prospect reviewing a new book by Pascal Bruckner on Western guilt, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism.

Here is an excerpt from the article “Self-serving white guilt”:

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.

…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…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.”

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