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Guilt Gone Wild

France's leading philosopher on our father issues.

By 8.12.10

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Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism
By Pascal Bruckner
(Princeton University Press, 256 pages, $26.95)

The problem with us rugged individualists is we are hard ones for collective guilt. Maybe our forefathers did some pretty awful things -- who hasn't? -- but that's between them and their gods. All we ask is you leave us out of it. We may have inherited their genes, but not their sins. And certainly not their money -- not that mine had any.

America, being the land of rugged individualists, is an especially irksome place to the eternally guilt-ridden European. Because we stubbornly refuse to sackcloth and ashes, we can never experience the "comfort of redemption." Not a problem. We'll get by with the comfort of beer and television.

This explains why there is so much anti-Americanism "over there." The haters hate us because their ancestors produced fascism, communism, genocide, slavery and imperialism and they feel like hell about it. Then they see us happily going about our business and they demand we stop acting so innocent and smug. They throw the Trail of Tears up to us. Jim Crow. McCarthyism. We remind them that we saved their butts in two world wars, and they hate us even more. They get rankled when we speak up (or worse, do something) about genocide and human rights in the lands of the oppressed, when, as every "guilt peddler" knows, we should be flagellating ourselves and seeking repentance.

Since the West has pleaded guilty to all charges and then some, we naturally cannot be trusted to do the right thing, or even know what the right thing is. That was Germany's excuse to stand idly by during the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and it will be Germany's excuse for the next hundred years. "Our past crimes command us to keep our mouths closed," writes novelist Pascal Bruckner in his engaging new book-length essay. We dare not speak out lest we open ourselves to charges of hypocrisy by every tin-pot dictator or terrorist leader. How dare we condemn bin Laden when Custer massacred the Sioux? Oh, wait, the Sioux massacred Custer. You get the point.

This kind of fuzzy thinking is freely on tap in Western Europe and in the current White House. "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," Bruckner writes. It was a conceit that reached its peak in 2001 when so many Western intellectuals praised the Twin Tower attacks as America's comeuppance, when the oppressed finally struck back.

This faux remorse is actually a ragged disguise masking feelings of moral superiority. We have become our parents and the rest of the developing world is our naughty kids whose misdeeds can be blamed on their parents' sins (colonialism and racism). No wonder their development remains stunted.

Our historical guilt has now gone to such absurd extremes that it threatens basic liberties like free speech. In one example, Bruckner argues our unwillingness to offend Islam means the death of religious satire. At least religious satire of Islam. (Though I suspect episodes like Comedy Central's censoring of South Park was an instance of fear and cowardice, not political correctness.)

THIS COLLECTIVE historical guilt is puerile and destructive, Bruckner writes. Our good deeds vastly outweigh our bad. "There is no doubt that Europe has 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." No culture has been without sin, therefore none of us should be pointing fingers or throwing stones. But if, god forbid, somebody does start throwing stones -- or bombs -- some one needs to have the moral courage to put an end to it.

Europeans were once as proud of their heroes and traditions as Americans. Today they are uncomfortable honoring anyone save Gandhi or Mandela. But the West has a lot to celebrate, writes Bruckner, everything that falls under the general heading of Western Civilization: Democracy, the rule of law, human rights and equality, for starters.

Every once in a while I like to pick up a book heavy with ideas. Often, with French philosophers, the going is rough and seldom worth the effort. Most like to conceal their lack of ideas amidst a jungle of vapid and opaque prose. Bruckner's Essay on Western Masochism is, happily, the exception. He is a true individualist and his prose is clear and consequential, and you don't have to be a masochist to read him.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.