Thursday 24 June 2010

Guilty fantasies

The Tyranny of Guilt, an Essay on Western Masochism, by Pascal Bruckner (Princeton University Press, 2010)

The other day on the train I came across a copy of the Daily Express. It’s not a paper I normally read, so I was surprised to find I enjoyed it. As it turns out, well over half the content of the Daily Express consists of ‘health and safety gone mad’ stories. The most astonishing story concerned a primary school child who became stuck in a tree in the schoolyard during break. On realising this, the teachers had retreated inside the school and observed the boy; they were under strict instructions that in such a situation the worst thing to do was to try and rescue him. It was unclear what the ‘best practice’ outcome was. After about an hour a passer-by, seeing the distressed boy, walked in and lifted him down. As the passer-by happened to be a woman, we can assume the boy was not stuck very high. Unable to understand why the teachers had left the boy, the woman’s surprise was compounded when she was visited by the police and received a scolding. Yes, the teachers had actually called the police because the woman had rescued the child from the tree.

It’s no put down of Pascal Bruckner’s latest book to say I enjoyed it in the same way as the Daily Express, although his canvas is bigger and his style more literary and erudite.  Bruckner is a French writer and intellectual of some renown in Europe. He is well known for his controversial views on the problems of multiculturalism and Western leftist thought. In this work, he has many shrewd insights into contemporary Europe. However, ultimately his book is a collection of grumbles with some intriguing statements rather than any coherent intellectual exploration. Despite his insight, Bruckner falls back on the tired arguments of Robert Kagan, that nostalgic fantasist of American will.

The Tyranny of Guilt offers a passionate critique of what is considered a serious contemporary malaise in Europe. Bruckner’s argument is that Europe is stifled bya sense of guilt for past wrongdoings. The horrors of colonialism, the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulags (for starters) mean that Europe labours under the burden of its past. Europe feels it deserved the suicide attacks in Madrid and London; it was only reasonable after all as payback for past misdeeds.

Were the Eiffel Tower blown up, Bruckner argues the citizens of Europe would simply accept they deserved it (Bruckner specifically differentiates between Europe and the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world). Europe sees itself as nothing but a force for evil in the world, the font of all of the ills of the third world. Europe is seeped in anti-Americanism and thinks that America deserved 9/11, taking comfort in seeing America trashed by Jihadists. This deep self hatred and guilt has led Europe to withdraw from the world, paralysed by relativism.

Throughout, Bruckner insightfully comments on the contemporary uses and abuses of history in Europe. He argues, for example, that particularly on the left people cling to such historical injustices as the Holocaust and colonisalisation as an ersatz way of achieving moral clarity in a world without clear moral divisions (p129). The Holocaust in this context has become the ultimate badge of moral authority, with many groups wanting to claim their own holocaust to achieve the exalted victim status such suffering confers. At the same time, the Holocaust is de-historicised, presented as simply the last in a long line of Western atrocities, whose antecedents lie in numerous terrible events perpetrated by the West. That this understanding is simply ahistorical and illogical is a point well made.

Bruckner offers critical observations on multiculturalism and its attendant victim culture. In particular, he highlights the poisonous implications of multiculturalism when social and economic problems and divisions are reinterpreted as ethnic or racial ones. He points out the degraded nature of identity politics with its competing tales of victimhood and explicit focus on the past. This makes people into prisoners of their accidental history, locked into a ‘racial’ or traditional identity rather than being free to make themselves. He has harsh words in particular for France and the insidious role of the French state in supporting ‘ethnic’ or cultural identities and endlessly focusing on past injustices (p162). In no particular order he also lobes some harsh criticism at what he argues is the essential conservativism of French youth who protest that the state will no longer provide for them for life with jobs (p184) and the health and safety rules in the state (p185).

There are some apposite comments about the Israel-Palestine conflict. The so-called progressive left focuses without stint on the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is not because it’s interested in that very real conflict, but because it projects its own fantasy onto the conflict in which the Palestinians (and Muslims more generally) are the last heroic representatives of progressive politics and Israel a representative of all of Western sins. Meanwhile, the Arab world uses Israel as a fantastic scapegoat to channel Arab frustrations against an external enemy, rather than the brutal Western sponsored regimes of the Middle East. Certainly if Israel didn’t exist, the despotic regimes of the Middle East would have to invent it. Whilst in the West we enjoy the sight of Jews behaving badly as an exculpation for past atrocities against European Jews – see, Jews can be bad too - Europe sighs with relief.

And yet, argues Bruckner, if Europe has engaged in monstrous injustices, it has also created the ideas and means by which these can be challenged. As he points out, when the Haitian slaves rebelled, they did so in the name of the rights of man and citizen. Haitians did not reject that liberal ideal, they sought to make it a real living thing.

As Europeans engaged in slavery, so too did European ideas serve to undermine that practice. Bruckner argues that uniquely, the European enlightenment ushered in a new way of thinking about and understanding oneself and the world. In Kant’s famous dictum, the Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-imposed tutelage – have the courage to use your own understanding! This demands a rejection of old certainties, of tradition, and demands constant reflection and criticism.

Of course, this makes things more complicated for the individual and society and Bruckner shrewdly locates some of the attraction of fundamentalist Islam to Western converts and jihadists as offering a clear set of guidelines and rules about how to live.

In contrast to European passivity and withdrawal, Bruckner praises ‘Anglo-Saxon’ dynamism and confidence. For Bruckner, the US is a positive force in the world and a great power (in all senses). Here, Bruckner seems to understand the world in the terms set out by Robert Cooper and Robert Kagan in their polemical debate after the Iraq war. In this, Europe is characterised as a postmodern zone of peace and civilisation, quietly enjoying retirement and refinement, whilst outside the ‘modern’ world rages, patrolled by the USA. Bruckner simply repeats this debate, plumping for Kagan’s plea to Europe that the US is still a great power with which Europe must join forces so the two can go forward together gloriously into the future, spreading European values. Europe has been guilty of ignoring the Balkans, Darfur and letting America do Europe’s dirty work. As Europe indulges itself in guilt, the US takes responsibility.

Yet it is here the eclectic and unreflective nature of Bruckner’s work becomes more apparent. His is simply a collection of well observed gripes with no underlying political context or developed argument. For example, his characterisation here simply follows (unacknowledged) the superficial arguments of Cooper and Kagan. Here, the disagreement over Iraq is read backwards into a fundamental separation of ‘world views’. Yet the bust up between Europe and America over Iraq was certainly not one of principle (1); Europe certainly did not disagree with the idea of intervention, simply the method by which that should be done.

Moreover, it’s noteworthy that for all his shrewd criticism of the way the left projects its fantasies onto the Israel-Palestine conflict, Bruckner himself was a keen supporter of the break up of Yugoslavia and the punishment and demonisation of Serbia during the 1990s. Bruckner failed utterly to understand that the left (and indeed many on the right such as himself) were projecting a fantasy onto the Yugoslav break up and war. A fantasy in which noble Croatians and Bosnian Muslims, and later Kosovo Albanians, fought to maintain liberal multicultural policies against fascist Serbs who had to be crushed for Western values to triumph. In fact, the Yugoslav wars were absolutely pivotal in this sense. They offered an entire generation of leftwing academics and commentators a chance to achieve a sense of moral clarity and a clear political framework (2). Bruckner’s sharp analysis of the left and the Israel-Palestine conflict simply derives from his support for Israel as a European outpost in a sea of savage Muslims, rather than any proper analysis.

In supporting the Iraq intervention, Bruckner carries on with this fantasy view of international intervention. What he fails to realise is that these interventions are not in ‘defence of the Western values’ but an effect of the same loss of belief and political confusion that he understands multiculturalism stems from. Bruckner idolises American action, projecting onto it some kind of pristine pursuit of Western values, rather than the degraded attempts to reconstitute some kind of moral framework that are represented by recent American interventions.

For Bruckner the West, and Europe in particular, should intervene more (p106-107). Europe should believe in itself and act to spread European values more positively. Ultimately, his arguments for Europe are as vacuous as those of neo-conservatives such as Kagan, who fantasise that international activity will serve as a galvanising force for America. If the disaster in Afghanistan, Iraq (and Kosovo, the ‘peace’ has resulted in the expulsion of thousands of non-Albanians who live in fear guarded by UN troops) are not enough to teach Bruckner of the folly of his ideas in reality, then there is little hope that he will see the world as it is.

Moreover, whilst Bruckner makes some pertinent points about Western indulgence of Jihadists, he also ends up simply repeating the empty arguments made by Samuel Huntingdon in his ‘clash of civilisation’ thesis. For Bruckner, we in the West simply accept that when people blow themselves up on trains in Madrid and London we deserve it, we look to our own ill deeds (in Iraq for example) to explain the action. For Bruckner this is ludicrous: clearly the problem is within Islam itself, within the Koran. For Bruckner, Western jihadis who choose to blow themselves and their fellow citizens up, and Palestinian suicide bombers, are one and the same, motivated by the promise of virgins in heaven. Thus the real problem is within Islam itself, which has not begun the spirit of critical self-critique and apology that the West has: this would be the answer.

In conclusion, Bruckner’s book is an enjoyable and polemical read. But, anyone hoping for some substantive analysis and engagement with contemporary domestic and international politics will be disappointed.


(1) http://www.culturewars.org.uk/index.php/article/back_to_the_future/
(2) Phil Hammond (2007),  Media, War and Postmodernity (London: Routledge)


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