I have always regarded guilt as an overrated emotion. I am not, nota bene, speaking about genuine repentance, through which one acknowledges a fault, makes what amends one can, and then gets on with things. Rather, I am talking about remorse, the hothouse-bred allotrope of repentance. What’s the difference? For one thing, repentance aims at expiation. Remorse aims at emotional enslavement. Forgetting, or at least recognizing a statute of limitations about airing the tort, is a beneficent codicil to effective repentance. Remorse recognizes no terminus. “Remorse does not repent of its sin,” observes Pascal Bruckner in his remarkable new book The Tyranny of Guilt; “it feeds on it, wants to remain attached to it forever.”
When it comes to the sweaty metabolism of guilt, Bruckner is perhaps the most accomplished anatomist since Nietzsche. (He is also, like Nietzsche, an extraordinary stylist, commanding a sinewy, memorably epigrammatic prose.) In the 1980s, Bruckner presented Volume One of his researches into this moral swampland, Le sanglot de l’homme blanc (The Tears of the White Man). Dilating on the seductive temptations of “Third-Worldism” among leftist intellectuals, he warned about “the dangers of self-hatred,” showed how frequently “a guilty conscience is an illness,” and concluded that “solidarity with oppressed peoples is above all a gigantic weapon aimed at the West.” A weapon, yes, but also an excuse: hence the subtitle of that book: “Compassion as Contempt.” The cultivation of guilt not only affords the pleasures of self-denigration, it also provides an unassailable alibi for inaction.
The Tears of the White Man was a bravado performance. Writing in the waning years of the Soviet colossus, when virtually every French intellectual cherished his anti-Western hatred almost as much as he cherished his anti-Americanism, Bruckner committed the unpardonable sin of articulating some fundamental distinctions. “There is,” he pointed out, “no society not founded upon crimes, massacres, or conquest of the weak — neither Islam, the great empire-builder by conquest and the sword, nor China, Japan, India, Inca Empire, precolonial African Kingdoms, or the Ottoman Empire.” What distinguishes much of Western Europe and the United States is not that they were born in a crucible of blood and violence; that is a common origin. What distinguishes them is that they have managed, to an extraordinary extent, to transcend those sanguinary beginnings in order to propagate the values of individual liberty and democratic capitalism.
The Tyranny of Guilt takes up where The Tears of the White Man left off. Even in the 1980s, anti-Western animus was fed largely if not wholly by the mesmerizing narcotic of Communism and its progeny. Hence the idealization of such butchers as Che Guevara, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Stalin, Lenin, and Mao. Today, the source of Western self-hatred is more diffuse. But its result is not, alas, any less pointed. “From existentialism to deconstructionism,” Bruckner notes, “all of modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West.”
The West generally, and America in particular. “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.” We all remember those Western intellectuals who, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, muttered that America “had it coming.” The rise of Islamic terrorism (notwithstanding the fact that the Obama administration assures us no such thing exists) has been occasion for rejoicing on the left. Among other things, it has afforded great scope for the exercise of some of their favorite muscle groups. Moral equivalence, for example: In 2004, after Islamist terrorists bombed trains in Madrid, killing 191 people, Spanish prime minister José Luis Zapatero smugly announced that “I never speak of Islamist terrorism, but only of international terrorism” because all religions include “an element of religious fanaticism.” The “root cause” muscle has also been getting a good workout. Did a handful of well-heeled, educated Saudis just steer a couple of airliners into the World Trade Center? Don’t forget, as French prime minister Dominique de Villepin put it, that the real causes of terrorism are “injustice, resentment, and frustration.” (And here I thought that the cause of terrorism was terrorists!) Finally, the rise of Islamic terrorism has given a new lease on life to a certain species of intellectual legerdemain. Commenting on 9/11, Jacques Derrida introduced the concept of involuntary terrorism, which, he says, is the sort practiced by the United States and Western Europe.
The “hard place” that all of this intellectual energy is expended to negotiate is the fact that what the terrorists really object to is — us. They hate us. They hate open, democratic society. “It is our existence as such,” Bruckner points out, “that is intolerable for them.” But this is intolerable for us. So we start manufacturing reasons to justify them.
Bruckner is especially canny on the odd compact between Islam and the Left, the remarkable fusion of militant atheism, on one hand, and a theocratic fundamentalism, on the other. Is it merely a temporary alliance against a common enemy, the West with its bourgeois attachment to freedom and economic vitality? Or is it something deeper? “If the far Left courts this totalitarian theocracy so assiduously,” Bruckner reasons, “it is perhaps less a matter of opportunism than of real affinity. The far Left has never gotten over Communism and once again demonstrates that its true passion is not freedom, but slavery in the name of justice.”
This short book is long on political wisdom. Bruckner is perfectly willing — indeed, he is positively eager — to acknowledge the manifold nastiness that populates the history of Europe and the United States. Both, he says, have “given birth to monsters.” But Europe (and by extension the United States) has also given birth to redemptive self-knowledge. Where is that in Islam?
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.
Western society, Bruckner says, is like a jailer who throws you a key even as he slams the cell door. Despotism was part of Europe’s heritage; liberty is the promise of its legacy. The problem is that historical self-knowledge is Janus-faced. It offers a way of atoning for past misdeeds. Perverted, it degenerates into a means of perpetuating them. “Nothing,” Bruckner notes, “is more Western than hatred of the West.” But that animosity is less a window on the world than a mirror, a version of narcissism. “Self-denigration is all too clearly a form of indirect self-glorification.”
Most conservatives will like The Tyranny of Guilt. Most liberals will loathe it. The irony is that Bruckner himself is clearly a liberal. In his postscript to the English translation, he writes excitedly about “the Obama moment” (“a tremendous outburst on the part of the American people”) and earlier suggests that European nations should attenuate their commitment to national sovereignty for the sake of a supranational Europe. But this is one of those books — ferociously intelligent, passionately argued, stylistically brilliant — that make local disagreements seem almost beside the point. Partly a plea for intellectual honesty, it is also a plea for that modest but essential component of civilization: patience. “The only war that ultimately matters,” Bruckner writes, “is the war of ideas. . . . This war has one defect: It is long. . . . We have to combine our impatience for freedom with the wisdom to wait.”
–Mr. Kimball is publisher of Encounter Books, and co-publisher and co-editor of The New Criterion.