A French Philosopher Challenges Europe’s Sympathy for Third World Despotisms
The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism – Pascal Bruckner. Translated from the French by Steven Rendall. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010 (original French version, 2006).
Pascal Bruckner is one of that inimitable French breed of public intellectuals: philosopher, academic, novelist, and polemicist. Born at the end of 1948, he is a veteran of the sixties, when he had a certain sympathy for Maoism. Today he is a firm liberal, in American terms perhaps a very moderate leftist. He is a leading figure among the New Philosophers who broke with Marxism in the early 1970s, others including Alain Finkielkraut, André Glucksmann, Alain Badiou, and Bernard-Henri Levy, though even those grouped under this sobriquet share no common platform.
Bruckner presents an unapologetic defense of liberal democracy in its confrontations with religious and third world authoritarians. He endorsed the NATO intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo in defense of Muslims under attack by Serbian forces in the former Yugoslavia. He supported the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship in Iraq, though he was later critical of the U.S. conduct of the war. And, like Paul Berman in his Flight of the Intellectuals, Bruckner came to the defense of Somali exile Ayaan Hirsi Ali when she was contemptuously labeled an “Enlightenment fundamentalist” by leftist authors Ian Baruma and Timothy Garton Ash for her campaign against Islamic female genital mutilation, the two authors contrasting her unfavorably to the supposed Islamic moderate Tariq Ramadan. Bruckner dismissed Ash and Baruma as epitomizing the “racism of the anti-racists.”
He has penned the most cogent argument I have seen to be skeptical of the often hurled charge of “Islamophobia”:
“At the end of the 1970s, Iranian fundamentalists invented the term ‘Islamophobia’ formed in analogy to ‘xenophobia’. The aim of this word was to declare Islam inviolate. Whoever crosses this border is deemed a racist. This term, which is worthy of totalitarian propaganda, is deliberately unspecific about whether it refers to a religion, a belief system or its faithful adherents around the world.
“But confession has no more in common with race than it has with secular ideology. Muslims, like Christians, come from the Arab world, Africa, Asia and Europe, just as Marxists, liberals and anarchists come or came from all over. In a democracy, no one is obliged to like religion, and until proved otherwise, they have the right to regard it as retrograde and deceptive. Whether you find it legitimate or absurd that some people regard Islam with suspicion – as they once did Catholicism – and reject its aggressive proselytism and claim to total truth – this has nothing to do with racism. Do we talk about ‘liberalophobia’ or ‘socialistophobia’ if someone speaks out against the distribution of wealth or market domination. Or should we reintroduce blasphemy, abolished by the revolution in 1791, as a statutory offence, in line with the annual demands of the ‘Organisation of the Islamic Conference.’” (SightandSound.com, 3/1/2011)
In The Tyranny of Guilt Bruckner returns to a theme he advanced in The Tears of the White Man (1983 in French, 1986 in English), that European guilt over the continent’s history of fascism, communism, imperialism, and other barbarisms has ended in passive isolationism, a loss of belief in the worth of people’s own culture and history, and an unwarranted tolerance of foreign repressive and dictatorial movements and governments, mainly in the third world, often expressed in the name of multiculturalism. This goes hand in hand with a reflex anti-Americanism, and a hatred for Israel completely disproportionate to the actual relations between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East.
Though Bruckner’s attribution to excessive remorse of the very real appeasement of despotism is largely his own idea, his general world view is shared by a current that ranges from moderate leftists to staunch liberals. Its exemplars include Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, Jonathan Chait, Oliver Kamm, Bernard-Henri Levy, Nick Cohen, Michael Ignatieff, Bernard Lewis, and the late Jean-Francois Revel and Francois Furet, as well as, historically, figures such as George Orwell.
Christopher Hitchens called them the anti-totalitarian left, and counterposed them to the anti-imperialist left. There is little point in arguing that this anti-totalitarian left, or liberal interventionist school, does not share some ground with neoconservatives. It does, though before any kind of conservatives claimed this ground there was a long and honorable leftist tradition of anti-fascism and, for many, anti-Stalinism, that did not shrink from foreign battles against totalitarians outside of the home country.
Today’s split largely occurred when a considerable section of the left and of liberalism, particularly in Europe, rejected that tradition when the ultraright religious or secular movements or governments were ensconced in nominally underdeveloped countries – though their victims are no less numerous for that. Unquestionably the issue that more than any other provoked this split has been the attitude to take toward Islamic jihad, one side seeing it as a dangerous right-wing millenarian religious fanaticism that acts as part of a would-be world revolution aiming to destroy non-Islamic societies; the other seeing Islamism as a legitimate insurgency of the oppressed against American and European imperialism, or, for some, as a fairly harmless regional liberation movement, the threat in its verbiage about world conquest and occasional terrorist attacks greatly exaggerated by Western governments.
Bruckner’s search for the origins of the self-disparaging guilt that he believes explains the moral paralysis in face of Islamicism and its similars looks beyond the contemporary argument about Islam or even the older politics of left and right, going still further back to the Christian doctrine of original sin. As this was secularized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he says, the doctrine of innate guilt remained intact, consolidating in new philosophical schools after the shattering experiences of Hitler and Stalin and the two world wars:
“From existentialism to deconstructionism, all of modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasizing the latter’s hypocrisy, violence, and abomination. In this enterprise the best minds have lost much of their substance. . . . one applauds a religious revolution [Islamicism], another goes into ecstasies over the beauty of terrorist acts or supports a guerrilla movement because it challenges our imperialist project. Indulgence toward foreign dictatorships, intransigence toward our democracies. . . . critical thought, at first subversive, turns against itself and becomes a new conformism, but one that is sanctified by the memory of its former rebellion.”
He sums this up as “The whole world hates us, and we deserve it: that is what most Europeans think, at least in Western Europe.” As a consequence, “the communist idea is becoming seductive again as the memory of the Soviet Union becomes fainter, Third Worldism is flourishing again as Maoism, the Khmer Rouge, and the South American guerrillas are forgotten. It is precisely the failure of these concrete utopias that explains the resurgence of the doctrine, which has suddenly been freed from the need to correspond to reality.”
The guilt-stricken ventriloquize rational explanations for their attackers’ behavior. 9/11 and such are reasonable responses to injustice, poverty, imperialist meddling. “It is true,” Bruckner responds, that “when existing pathologies find no outlet, terrorism grafts itself onto them. . . . However, its ultimate motivation is fanatics’ hostility to the principle of an open society in which formal equality is recognized for everyone. It is our existence as such that is intolerable for them. But this observation is intolerable for us: in order to remain within the bounds of reason and nourish the idea that ‘even the enemies of reason . . . must be, in some fashion, reasonable’ . . . we must at all cost provide arguments for the killers, even if in doing so we seem to justify their acts.”
An extreme case is the British Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party, who have formed an alliance with Islamic jihadists. As Bruckner puts it, “A certain revolutionary fringe’s hope that Islam might become the spearhead of a new insurrection in the name of the oppressed.” Each side tries to deceive the other: “one side supports the Islamic veil or polygamy in the name of the struggle against racism and neocolonialism. The other side pretends to be attacking globalization in order to impose its version of religious faith. . . . it is not hard to predict which one will crush the other once its objectives have been achieved.”
Europe, he concedes, “had given birth to monsters, but at the same time it has given birth to theories that make it possible to understand and destroy these monsters.” He adds that the fixation on the history of European colonialism more often than not ignores comparable behavior by other peoples:
“All great civilizations – Persians, Mongols, Chinese, Aztecs, Incas – were colonizers. Muslims invaded Persia, India, Southeast Asia, Sudan, and Egypt, destroying the local religions and massacring those who resisted them. But in official history writing this fact is often neglected.”
He could have said more about the Muslim conquests. Islamists remain bitter about the Christian Crusades, 1095-1291, which held a few cities of the Levant for a century and generally failed after that. The Muslims on their side conquered Spain in 718 and were not fully expelled until 1492. They held most of Greece as a colony from 1453 to 1821, Bulgaria from 1393 to 1878, as well as the rest of the Balkan states. Muslim armies waged two long bloody sieges of Vienna, in 1529 and 1683, in an effort to conquer Western Europe. The ledger hardly shows the Europeans to have been the greater villains, the Muslim colonization of Western countries having been infinitely more extensive, far more recent, and of vastly longer duration, even if we add the brief French and British mandates following World War I.
By extension Bruckner regards the aspiration of Saudi Wahabism and the Muslim Brotherhood “to take over European society” as a form of colonialism.
In contrast, Europeans, he insists, see only their own evil. In what is perhaps the central thesis of his book he writes:
“Barbarity is Europe’s great pride, which it acknowledges only in itself; it denies that others are barbarous, finding attenuating circumstances for them (which is a way of denying them all responsibility). . . . Decolonization has deprived us of our power, our economic influence is constantly decreasing, but in a colossal overestimation we continue to see ourselves as the evil center of gravity on which the universe depends. We need our cliches about the wretchedness of Africa, Asia, and Latin America to confirm the cliche about the predatory, murderous West.”
This syndrome is not at all limited to Europe. I encounter it endlessly from my Marxist friends, with the United States substituted for Europe as the global font of evil. This way of thinking is a form of ethnocentrism. I recall forty years ago in the American Socialist Workers Party trying to discuss Mao’s Cultural Revolution with some of the older party leaders, who saw everything the Chinese Communists did as a response to some act of the United States. I knew enough about China to understand that the struggle between Mao and his technocratic opponents had practically nothing to do with America.
Tyrannical forces outside of Europe and America are not mere responses to imperialist crimes but active fighters for their own goals. Bruckner is particularly impatient with Islam’s claims:
“It considers itself not the heir of earlier faiths but rather a successor that invalidates them forever. The day when its highest authorities recognize the conquering, aggressive nature of their faith, when they ask to be pardoned for the holy wars waged in the name of the Qur’an and for the infamies committed against infidels, apostates, unbelievers, and women, when they apologize for the terrorist attacks that profane the name of God – that will be a day of progress and will help dissipate the suspicion that many people legitimately harbor regarding this sacrificial monotheism. Criticizing Islam, far from being reactionary, constitutes on the contrary the only progressive attitude at a time when millions of Muslims, reformers or liberals, aspire to practice their religion in peace without being subjected to the dictates of bearded doctrinaires.”
Bruckner is not championing Jesus against Muhammad:
“Let us add that Jewish and Christian fundamentalism are no less grotesque, and that seeing the Republicans in the United States court the most obscurantist and well-organized religious Right is a matter of concern. But apart from the fact that they are not setting off bombs all over the planet, these fundamentalists remain in the minority within their own denominations, where they are restrained by liberals and traditionalists.”
What Islam demands of the West to salve Muslim “humiliation” is not negotiable. “We are not going to confine women to the home, cover their heads, lengthen their skirts, or beat up gay people, prohibit alcohol, censure film, theater, and literature, and codify tolerance in order to respect the overly sensitive whims of a few sanctimonious persons.”
Where Europe has largely caved in to Muslim ire has been in its fear of offending, hesitancy to defend the right of the Danish cartoonists to portray Muhammad, and general apologetics for Islamic terror. Popular attitudes are quite different when it comes to the United States or to Israel and the Jews:
“For condemned Europeans, there remains one exit that will allow them to avoid decline: shifting the blame to two nations unworthy of European civilization, Israel and the United States, repudiating them in order to redeem ourselves.” And if Israel is to be consigned to the outer darkness, “there still remains, to quench their thirst for the absolute, a final noble savage: the Palestinian. He is the great Christ-like icon, the oppressed of the oppressed, whose beatification has been proceeding for the past thirty years. And the fact that his situation has hardly improved makes it possible to keep alive the revolt he incarnates.”
Bruckner explains the centrality of the Palestinians to European leftists as due to their poverty, that some of the Jews they are fighting came from Europe, and that the Palestinians are Muslims, “that is, members of a religion that part of the Left thinks is the spearhead of the disinherited.” Of course, the final push is the dissipation of the more traditional vectors of leftist hopes: the collapse of communism, the growing conservatism of the proletariat. “What is surprising about this,” he adds, “is that the preference of a minority has become a majority choice.” And finally:
“People who support the Palestinians are not hoping to aid flesh-and-blood human beings but pure ideas: on the east coast of the Mediterranean, intellectuals, writers, and politicians are not so much engaged in inquiring into a specific antagonism – a real estate dispute involving two equally legitimate owners, as Amos Oz put it – as in settling accounts with Western culture.”
There are, of course, legitimate grievances on the Palestinian side (as there are on the Israeli), but these are obsessively promoted by Europeans – and by American leftists – prodigiously disproportionately to the far more distressed peoples of Chechnya, Tibet, Darfur, and the Congo, listed by Bruckner. I could add Zimbabwe, North Korea, Burma, Somalia, and Syria, and probably a dozen other places where there is greater repression or blood-letting than in the occupied territories, even miserable Gaza, for whose suffering certainly Hamas with its actual and threatened violence must bear important though not sole responsibility.
Bruckner explains this, for Europe, as an opportunity to “clear itself of its past offenses against Judaism.” Israel’s Western critics have shown no second thoughts about the side they are supporting when high levels of the Arab and Iranian governments and commercial media accuse the Jews of fabricating the Holocaust, of secretly carrying out the 9/11 attacks, of creating HIV/AIDS to wipe out the Gentiles, of secretly hiring the Danish cartoonists, and even, Bruckner notes, of having caused the December 2004 tsunami, using a secret underground nuclear blast. There is also the flood in Arabic and Farsi of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and a large swath of old Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda materials. Anyone who follows the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) translation service would also find that government newspapers and television and very senior religious leaders regularly call for the physical extermination of the whole of the Jewish people, in and out of Israel, who are referred to as descendants of apes and pigs.
“Zionism,” which by its Arab and leftist critics has been reduced to any defense of the right of Israel to exist, is little more than a swear-word, while “anti-Zionism” most often means not some dispute over the right of return or Israel’s proclaimed status as an international homeland of the world’s Jews, what the term has meant historically to Jews, but the much narrower call to disenfranchise the existing Jewish population of Israel, either by way of expulsion from the region or their submersion as a minority in an Islamic state.
In Europe, Bruckner writes, “the Palestinian question has quietly relegitimated hatred of the Jews. Here we can certainly agree with Bernard Lewis when he says that for many of their supporters, ‘the Arabs are in truth nothing more than a stick for beating the Jews.’”
Bruckner quotes from a 1986 work by Vladimir Jankelevitch:
“Anti-Zionism is in this respect a rare Godsend, because it gives us the permission and even the right and even the duty to be anti-Semitic in the name of democracy! Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism justified, finally made available to everyone. It is the permission to be democratically anti-Semitic. What if the Jews themselves were Nazis? That would be great. We would no longer have to feel sorry for them; they would have deserved what they got.”
The leftist Israel haters – and in Europe this current spreads much wider than the left – repeatedly deny that they are anti-Semitic, or that calling for the destruction of Israel has any anti-Semitic coloration, or even that any significant degree of anti-Semitism still exists in the world outside of a few right-wing fringe organizations. For anyone who believes this I would suggest a look at Robert S. Wistrich’s A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, which in its sections on Europe alone provides shocking evidence that a very large minority of the population of all the major countries (Italy and Spain are the worst but France is a runner-up, where thousands of Jews have fled the country to escape physical attacks and synagogue burnings by Muslim immigrants) harbor extreme hostility toward domestic Jews as well as toward the Jewish state. And in the United States a deep anti-Americanism on much of the far left has included a long campaign against all the currents of Israeli society except a handful of Jewish Marxists and the Arab sector. This has spread to a hostility to American Jews who support Israel, even critically, hardening into a widespread left-wing anti-Semitism.
Observing and opposing this current does not require prettifying the Israeli system as the American Right does. The settler movement is a blot on Israel’s honor, the Netanyahu government has stalled the nominal peace process into deep freeze. At the same time, Hamas remains unremittingly opposed to even the presence of Jews in the region much less with a state in any borders, and there is no guarantee that Fatah will remain dominant in the Palestinian lands and not lose ground to Hamas as it did in Gaza. Still, the occupation has gone on too long and its persistence is untenable.
But opposition to the Israeli occupation by Western leftists and liberals has become pathological. There are many repressive regimes in the world, Israel’s mainly in the occupied territories, not so much within the 1967 borders. The Israelis are repeatedly accused of being “Nazis.” To Nazify the Israelis, Bruckner writes, “is to delegitimize the state of Israel, and it is also to Judaize the Arabs, shifting the ancient battle against ignominy to the banks of the Jordan. Ultimately, it is to justify in advance the possible disappearance of Israel, that ‘usurping entity.’”
“The counterpart of the extreme Right’s ancient accusation that the Jews are cosmopolitans is the Left’s claim that the state of Israel is illegitimate. So now the hatred of the West finds its vehicle in hatred of the Jews, who have become its emblematic community after having been, for centuries, its scapegoat. . . . And thus we also find an incredible tolerance among our intellectual, political, and media elites for Palestinian terrorism: attacks and suicide bombers are condemned, but only faintly, and even justified as acts of desperation. . . . In their view, no horror committed by candidates for suicide, with their grotesque mythology of the seventy virgins awaiting them in Paradise, will ever make up for the ignominy of the Israelis. The victims of these explosions matter little, and still less the culture of death spread among the youth of the West Bank and Gaza. Our indulgence is deeply imbued with condescendence; we don’t ask whether the encouragements sent out by militants hiding in their European or American bastions isn’t suicidal for the Palestinians themselves or burdens their desire for peace and decency.”
In some cases this anti-Jewish tilt is not even justified as ideological belief but is crass politicking, as when Pascal Boniface, director of a major French think tank, advised the Socialist Party in 2001 to abandon support to Israel in order to court the French Muslim vote.
Leftist anti-Semitism in Europe is closely linked to anti-Americanism, the penance Europeans do to exculpate their own colonial past:
“The phobia of America, our last civic religion in Western Europe, allows us to escape our guilty conscience by affiliating ourselves with formerly colonized continents. France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, having become political dwarfs, seem to proclaim in the public eye: we are divorcing ourselves from the West in order to come closer to the South.” He notes that this is also a concession to Ahmadinejad and Al Qaeda, who have promised to go lightly on Europe if it will break with the United States and Israel.
Judging America’s place in the world order depends on how one views its adversaries. For those who see only the, now former, colonial world it looks one way. For Bruckner, the United States “As the victor, along with its allies, over Nazism and then communism, and as the leader of the fight against Islamism, it can be proud of its recent history, despite its flaws.” Of course, essential here is how one regards jihadi Islamism, perhaps the single greatest touchstone of contemporary international politics.
Bruckner’s instinct is for an interventionist part in global life. It is what he most admires about the United States, its postwar absence much of what he despairs of in contemporary Europe:
“[T]he true crime of old Europe is not only what it did in the past, but what it is not doing today – its inaction in the course of the 1990s in the Balkans, its scandalous wait-and-see attitude in Rwanda, its silence on Chechnya, its indifference to Darfur and western Sudan, and in general its indulgence, its kowtowing, its servility.” It leaves “to the Yankee big brother to do the dirty work, while criticizing him harshly later on. Whatever America does, whether it intervenes or stands aside, it is always wrong.” This could be said as well of much of the American left.
The Tyranny of Guilt was written in 2006, so perhaps could be modified a bit by the show of backbone in French and British aid to the Libyan opposition in 2011 and the EU’s decision in 2012 to refuse to purchase Iranian oil.
George Orwell during World War II complained of the Europeanized British Left, unable even in a mortal national crisis to bring themselves to feel anything like patriotism to their country. This same mood of detachment from history and place numbs much of Europe today.
“[W]e refuse to defend our societies: we would rather abolish ourselves than show even a tiny bit of attachment to them. This is a double error: by erecting lack of love for oneself into a leading principle, we lie to ourselves about ourselves and close ourselves to others. It is a mistake to think that self-devaluation is going to open us up, as if by a miracle, to distant peoples. . . . In Western self-hatred, the Other has no place. It is a narcissistic relationship in which the African, the Indian, and the Arab are brought in as extras in an endless drama about settling scores.”
And finally, “Let us beware of anyone who values the foreigner only out of disdain for himself.”
Bruckner’s plea for valuing the Western heritage rejects uncritical jingoism. “We are not talking here of falling into extreme nationalistic pride . . . of the kind defended by the extreme Right, which seeks . . . to provide a glorifying vision of history: this school asserts the grandeur of a country despite its crimes, but we have to be proud of ourselves against our crimes because we have recognized them and rejected them.”
In the later part of his essay Bruckner critiques professional victimhood and the excesses of multiculturalism.
Each victimized people of course supposes that its sufferings have been the greatest the world has ever seen. And because the Holocaust is the gold standard of victimhood, it has been common, even for Holocaust deniers, to say that their people are undergoing a Holocaust, and at the very least a genocide. “It is as if other peoples, competing with Jews for the privilege of annihilation, were to shout: ‘Auschwitz is us!’” In England, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, has declared that “Muslims feel hurt and excluded that their lives are not equally valuable to those lives lost in the Holocaust time.” He asked that the Palestinians and the Iraqis killed in the U.S. war be included in a general “Day of Genocide.”
Bruckner also cites numerous authors who project Nazism far into the past to describe many kinds of governmental atrocity of the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries as prefiguring Hitler, the gold standard of evil. These excursions into hyperbole are generally claims to pride of place among victims, often staking out an ironclad claim to exemption from any responsibility for crimes or racist acts perpetrated by proclaimed victim people.
Our author similarly has little patience for present-day warriors against neocolonialism. Perpetually rehashing the crimes of the past is very different from having fought them at the time. “They make one think of those Japanese soldiers scattered around the Pacific islands who at the end of the twentieth century still didn’t know that the Second World War was over. It is a vocation to be a hero once the fighting is over; it gives you the luster of being a sniper without exposing you to the slightest danger.”
In today’s globalized world, he says, the real danger for former colonial peoples “is not expansion but abandonment. . . . According to the economist Paul Bairoch’s brusque formulation, ‘The West doesn’t need the Third World, which is bad news for the Third World.’ In short, to the misfortune of being exploited corresponds the still greater misfortune of no longer being exploitable, of being abandoned. What threatens many deprived countries in the South is not the invasion of the capitalist octopus, but the inverse: no longer interesting either investors or large economic groups, being excluded from global circuits.”
Bruckner turns to multiculturalism. If its originating idea is the worthy promotion of ethnic, religious, female, or gay pride, its unintended consequence has been to whittle away at what unites a people:
“Unless there is a federating national or supranational narrative that brings all the diverse components of a country together and gives them a common impulse, the country becomes an agglomeration of black, North African, Gypsy, Antillese, Corsican, gay, etc. tribes unified by their mutual dissensions and relying on the state only as a simple mediating authority. Then identity ceases to coincide with citizenship; it is in fact what makes citizenship impossible.”
He explores this theme in its various dimensions. For immigrants – and this is a particular problem for Europe in its general failure to integrate the very large numbers of Muslim immigrants into the majority cultures – if nations are to survive they must have enough self-confidence to inspire allegiance to their general values, not simply provide some sort of housing and living for hostile enclaves within themselves, not a process of homogenization in which minority cultures are submerged but in which they also share core values with the other components of the national body.
On another axis, Bruckner sees a great obstacle for individuals to be seen for themselves if society has segmented itself into many distinct camps, most of them claiming recompense for some form of victimhood. “Individuals exist as such only when their singularity is more important than their nationality, the color of their skin, or their membership in a group.” And further:
“All the ambiguity of multiculturalism proceeds from the fact that with the best intentions, it imprisons men, women, and children in a way of life and in traditions from which they often aspire to free themselves. The politics of identity in fact reaffirm difference at the very moment when we are trying to establish equality, and lead, in the name of antiracism, back to the old commitments connected with race or ethnicity.”
The end result is usually the creation of “a micro-nationalism that is just as jingoistic” as the majority state from which it distinguishes itself, “a legal apartheid in which we find the wealthy once again explaining tenderly to the poor that money won’t make them happy . . . you have the joys of custom, forced marriages, the veil, polygamy, and clitoridectomy. The members of these little congregations then become museum pieces, the inhabitants of a reservation whom we want to preserve from the ‘calamities’ of progress and civilization.”
Bruckner calls for “a double battle,” to protect minorities from discrimination, to preserve their languages where this applies, their cultures, but to at the same time protect individuals from within minorities who wish to break free of constraints from within or without the group that deny them an individual identity.
What, then, are we to make of Pascal Bruckner’s message? He challenges many of the beloved shibboleths of much of the American far left: the American evil empire, Israel’s uniquely ineradicable guilt, the beatitude of the Palestinian cause, the justification of jihad, the justness of the sectoral protest movements summed up in multiculturalism, the call for open borders and limitless immigration, and the celebration of Third World victims of imperialism. Is all of that overdone, one-sided, or outright wrong? I think so. The views Bruckner critiques, with the exception of left-wing anti-Semitism, which has deeper and darker causes, are left-overs from the sixties, the era when colonialism was just in process of collapsing, when white racism and male patriarchalism remained dominant paradigms in Europe and the United States, and the problem for members of minority groups of establishing identities as individuals not heavily defined by their race, religion, or sexual orientation not yet in the forefront.
It is natural that Bruckner would devote more attention to these flaws in a leftist world view than the claustrophobic truisms of the far Right. In France the Left has been dominant since 1945, the mirror image of the United States. In America the dominant, though declining, paradigm is that of the white religious Right. The whole of the Obama administration has been a defensive struggle against the very effective stonewalling by the ever more conservative Republican machine, while the current bizarre and extended Republican primary has been a contest over which candidate can present himself as the most religiously intolerant, the most ready to divert more money to the super rich, the most hateful toward gays and women, and the most hard-hearted toward the poor or even just the suddenly unemployed.
Curiously, in both countries the liberalism that Bruckner defends is repudiated by the predominant tendency. Speaking of France, Bruckner could just as well be talking about America when he writes: “One word synthesizes this feeling of dread, a word that has become indecent, like fascism or pedophilia: liberalism.”
In France it is the far Left that plays the obstructive role occupied by the Religious Right in the United States. “It is to the far Left that we have to justify ourselves, and it is the far Left that is preventing the development of a true social democracy on the English Labour Party model or the Scandinavian model: those who act or legislate must measure themselves against this ideological standard that has replaced the Church and moral authorities. All intellectuals bow down before it and embroider nice variations around its fundamental themes: no speech is accepted if it does not begin with a firm condemnation of the market.”
Bruckner concludes that both far Left and Right are obstacles to the necessary reforms: a regulated market economy funding a strong welfare state, as well as recognition that in today’s world, democratic countries face genuine threats: “Democracies have to be powerfully armed in order not to be defeated by the forces of tyranny.” In such a world a far Left that “supports any dictatorship provided that it is anticapitalist and anti-American” is a wholly negative element.
He sees the split between Europe and the United States as disastrous for the future of democracy. Europe must be taught “that battles are not won by compromise and incantation alone,” the U.S. “that it is not the only country on Earth, invested with a providential mission that makes it unnecessary for it to seek the approval of others, to listen and to debate, that trying to do what is good for people no matter what they want is a recipe for disaster.”
And finally, “If America were to collapse tomorrow, Europe would fall like a house of cards,” but if Europe were to be dismembered by internal and external predators, “America’s prospects would not be bright, either.”
Ideas that had some validity at some point in time become engrained in people’s minds and remain as new eras arise where they are falsified by events but still powerful. Marxists were among the first to grasp this fact with their theory of base and superstructure. Unfortunately the Marxists are as subject to such processes as every other current of thought. The truisms of progressivism of the sixties have in large part become problematic a half century later.