Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Is Western Civilization Drowning in Guilt?

His name may not be very high on your to-read list, but you should still pay some attention to the thinking of French philosopher Pascal Bruckner. Generally considered among the more conservative voices in France, he has just offered, by way of Quillette, (via Maggie's Farm) a short treatise on the current devolution of Western civilization. We have following this story conscientiously for years now. Today, we will look at Bruckner’s analysis.

Interestingly, he begins with an analysis of European guilt. Since I have often written about guilt (alongside shame), I was intrigued. Bruckner explains that most of Europe is being consumed by guilt for having supported and collaborated with the Third Reich:

Thus, the European victors over the Third Reich were contaminated by the enemy they had helped defeat, in contrast to the Americans and Soviets, who emerged from the conflict crowned in glory. Ever since, all of Europe—the East as well as the West—has carried the burden of Nazi guilt, as others would have us bear the guilt of North American slavery and Jim Crow.

I would mention that the Soviets signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler, and thus should not be let off free. The only nations that were never tainted with Nazi obscenity were Great Britain and the United States. It makes some twisted sense that the guilt ridden leftists of the world blame all of humanity's ills today on the Anglosphere. Thus, I take a slight exception with Bruckner’s analysis, and note that the current conflict between Great Britain and the European Union feels like a replay of World War II. Europeans will do anything in their power to humiliate the newest incarnation of Churchill, Boris Johnson. And they are happy to support Hitler's heirs in Tehran. What does that suggest, beyond an inability to think at all.

By Bruckner’s analysis, the European nations that supported and sustained Nazism chose, after the war, and for over seven decades, to make their politics into a form of penance, or therapy, if you will, for their sins. In place of realpolitik, or balance of power politics, they chose to punish themselves for their dereliction, thus, to purify their souls before they meet their maker: 

Having scaled unprecedented peaks of barbarity, the Europe of Brussels has decided to redeem itself by privileging moral values over realpolitik. Henceforth, we were enjoined to adopt what Auguste Comte and Victor Hugo, each for his own reasons, called “the religion of humanity,” grounded in altruism and devotion. Western Europeans dislike themselves. They are unable to overcome their self-disgust and feel the pride in their heritage and the self-respect that is so strikingly evident in the United States. Modern Europe is instead mired in shame shrouded in moralizing discourse. It has convinced itself that, since all the evils of the twentieth century arose from its feverish bellicosity, it’s about time it redeemed itself and sought something like a reawakened sense of the sacred in its guilty conscience.

If you want to know why Angela Merkel was admitting over a million Muslim migrants into Germany, the answer is: to atone for German guilt. One mentions, if only in passing, a remark made by fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, to the effect that Merkel was expiating her guilt for Nazi atrocities against Jews by inviting hundreds of thousands of Jew-haters into her country. The point is, when you merely set out to cleanse your psyche, you lose touch with reality and become a living contradiction:

What better example of this proclivity exists than Angela Merkel’s embrace of about a million refugees fleeing war-torn Syria in 2015? Even though this gesture that would help replenish a shrinking labor force was not strictly disinterested, for this pastor’s daughter it was also a spectacular way to repudiate Nazism and escape its shadow. After the catastrophe of the Second World War, the Federal Republic would now offer itself as an ostentatious example to the world. Germany would practice open-heartedness in a single country, just as Stalin in the USSR had once practiced socialism in a single country. Already pre-eminent in Europe, Berlin would call the shots, whether exercising toughness or kindness. Merciless with the Greeks in July, when the Chancellery wanted to eject them from the eurozone, but beneficent with the Syrians in September, it could demonstrate severity or an ever so imperial charity.

A continent that defeated German dreams of hegemony has allowed itself to be ruled by Germany. Fancy that:

It’s paradoxical that, notwithstanding its massaging of public opinion, the Federal Republic of Germany, in the guise of a “modest nation,” became the leader of the European Union, upon which it has ceaselessly imposed its will for nearly three decades now. It renounced military adventures and conquered through economic pre-eminence. The problem with virtuous theories, however, is that they often mask a desire for power, or produce unintended consequences.

As happens in America, Europeans are consumed by their guilt. They are giving themselves over to self-punishment as a form of atonement, and they blame themselves for everything that is going wrong in the world. When Muslims rape their women they blame white Europeans for being Islamophobic.

In America, the left as declared war on thought crimes and blames our nation for everything that has gone wrong in the world. You can see it most clearly in the climate change hysteria. Since America is reducing its production of atmospheric pollutants and even carbon dioxide, the climate change fanatics are blaming America-- including Great Britain and the Industrial Revolution-- for destroying the planet. About the world’s leading polluters, China and India, they have nothing to say.

Analyzing the European soul, Bruckner writes:

We have become the continent of the uneasy conscience and we wish to show the rest of the world the face of moral law in all its purity. Europe sees itself as a sacrificial offering, through which the entire world can expiate its sins. It offers to assume the shame for every misfortune that befalls the planet: famine in Africa, drowning in the Mediterranean, terrorism, natural disasters, they are all directly or indirectly our handiwork. And when we are attacked—by terrorists, for example—it’s still our fault; we had it coming and are undeserving of compassion. Since we are overcome by such a torrent of sins, all we can do is bear up and attempt to correct and atone for them all, one by one. An unctuous discourse intended to edify is replacing what was once political and historical analysis; an ideal society must replace the existing one of ordinary men, and be cleansed of its impurities. Two areas in particular reveal this delusion of sanctity—immigration and ecology.

And, of course, Bruckner is quite right to see that our new flagellants believe that by expiating their guilt they will give rise to a new and better society, a New Jerusalem, if you will.

That is because, like everyone else, they know that only in Europe will they find a sense of exacerbated culpability; it’s pretty much assured that they will be able to arrive on its shores, preferably under the gaze of the media, confident of being taken in, or at least listened to.

Pope Francis has proposed hospitality as the solution. Though we can only wonder how the fine people of Argentina would react if millions of Muslim migrants were resettled there. Yet, an open arms policy, a hospitality policy does nothing but to invite people who have never thought to do so, to migrate. And, Bruckner adds, the European welfare state will be crushed by the new burden.

At a practical level, hospitality cannot be granted as a simple offering to the detriment of national sovereignty. The fear, not of the foreigner, but of the stranger in one’s home, of not being protected by the state, the fear of cultural insecurity and expropriation—these are not reactionary fantasies. How can the welfare state, already overstretched, cope with the costs of retirement benefits and medical care if it must also cater to the needs of new arrivals? In former times, such an influx would have been called an invasion, an occupation, colonization. Today, such pejoratives are forbidden. From now on, it is simply a matter of love and listening and radiant outwardness instead of ugly inwardness. But we are forgetting a simple truism: were it a matter of just a few thousand people, one’s duty to help would be clear. But when we talk about tens or hundreds of thousands, even millions, priorities necessarily shift—where there are overwhelming numbers, morale collapses.

And also:

For having accepted the challenge of migration we have become accountable for every individual who has died at sea. In a strange twist, those who rescue people from the waves have become the executioners. The European of virtue is thereby ensnared in his own trap: he has confused attention to a problem with a duty to fix it.

Given that the left has not given up its Marxist dream, it has simply recycled the Marxist class struggle narrative by casting the migrant as the instrument that would overthrow the capitalist order:

Today, the migrant has replaced the proletarian and the guerrilla warrior as the new hero of contemporary victimology. He is both the epitome of oppression and the source of our salvation. Every other consideration must fall before him. One isn’t allowed to have one’s own thoughts or entertain any doubts about him, because his wretched condition demands only charity. In the same way that a “racialized” person can never be a racist, the idea that someone wanting to leave his own country to come to Europe could be duplicitous, or lie about his identity or intentions, amounts to a thought crime. Deprecating the European goes hand in hand with idealizing the foreigner, who embodies all virtue. He is at once the persecuted and the redeemer who’s come to shock us out of our comfort and complacency.

If you prefer a more spiritual slant, Bruckner is surely correct to see those who promote and support illegal immigration as animated by the spirit of Christian charity. Or by a secularized version of same.

Our only duty toward the refugee is to play the solicitous host, the zealous concierge, so that he may save us from ourselves and our shrinking demographics. Without him we’d be vegetating in a retirement home, or like the paralyzed old man pushed about in his wheelchair by a congenial black man in the 2011 hit movie Les Intouchables.9 Thus, the great nations of Europe have no other purpose than to serve as welcome centers and public lobbies for the world’s unfortunate.

The notion that immigrants will quickly become brilliant contributors to the advance of Western civilization, that they will save us from ourselves, and help us to build a brave new world is patently absurd. We are not inviting computer scientists to settle in our nations. We are inviting people who could not make it through elementary school.

Behind this argument, Bruckner writes, lies the presumption that we Westerners have never really accomplished anything… or, if we did that we did it by indulging in criminal behaviors, oppressing and exploiting the people and the natural world.

So, the arguments that favor illegal immigration represent a secularized Christianity, promoted by people who have lost their faith:

When it comes to migration, we must consider both our honor12 and the notion that our salvation lies entirely in the hands of others. Curiously, in Europe, unlike in the United States, this kind of sentimental Christianity goes hand in hand with a loss of faith. The more religious practice recedes, the more we abandon ourselves to a kind of goodwill that is as ardent as it is wrong-headed. Chesterton was right: “This modern world is full of old Christian ideas gone mad.” And here we are, since 2013, having adopted the notion of the migrant as Christ figure. We might call this strange mix of passivity and piety altruistic fatalism. Since we can’t stop the influx of migrants, we must enthusiastically embrace them. The Other is not like me; he shines, due to his very destitution, in a remote and inalterable splendor—an innocent figure untainted by modernity and capitalism. We venerate in him the mirror image of ourselves, the very opposite of our shortcomings and sins and of the world we inhabit. What better illustration of this than the spectacle two years ago of African immigrants dashing off their ship onto a Spanish beach amidst startled holiday makers lounging on their towels. On the one hand, the spoiled inhumanity of the affluent, on the other, the energy of the oppressed.

Thus, no more borders, no more boundaries, we will all be citizens of the world, belonging to no nation but to some international order:

As Le Monde put it in 2013, “the people of the future will all be dark beige with brown hair. France and the world will get more mixed.” That prophesy aside, let us understand this: one’s home no longer exists, my home is your home. Just like during the colonial period, the new global individual belongs on no particular soil. We have to dismantle and rebuild our society as if it were a Lego set. The old white European’s hegemony must give way to the richness of diversity. Migrant and minority identity is always positive, and that of the old nations always regressive. It’s not surprising that the people of Europe are unenthused by the reformers’ plans and fairy tales. They have forgotten the basic fact that an offer creates demand. The porousness of our borders, the constant stream of people traffickers, the haste of some rescuers to become service providers and create, via phone signals bouncing off satellites, an “uber-migration” (Stephen Smith)—all of these factors incentivize migration more than poverty or war. 

Embracing the Foreigner, Bruckner continues, is not a gesture of solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the world. It is an effort to expiate the guilt we are all supposed to feel for their failures. You see, the success of Western civilization was really a crime, based on the oppression of the masses. The longer we entertain this madness the more we will destroy the coherence of our own societies:

What we celebrate in the Foreigner is not a future solidarity but our own undoing. With this way of thinking, we are served notice that we must lose on all sides: the fear of being submerged by Africa and Asia persists, but the refugees already in our native lands, in France especially, and above all in Paris, are treated badly.

The universalist delirium has recently given rise to climate change hysteria. Why, Swedish truant Greta Thunberg addressed the French National Assembly, its House of Representatives:

Another example of this moral maximalism is what we now call the climate emergency. The reception given to a speech by the teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg at the National Assembly on July 23, 2019, is a case in point. Hailed like a Delphian oracle, Greta scolded the assembled deputies as if they were errant children. The episode will be remembered as among the most risible in the history of the Fifth Republic.

Of course, climate change hysteria, as has been noted, especially by Niall Ferguson, promotes economic policies that will impoverish the West. Asian nations are too smart to allow themselves to be led by teenagers. Besides, China tried it once. They are not ready to go back to that dismal past.

Global warming places Europeans on the horns of a dilemma: either we change our way of life or we face imminent collapse within 10 to 20 years. Ecology, in the sense of legitimate concern about animal suffering and the waste products of progress, has mutated into a doctrine of the Apocalypse. In concrete terms this means that the generations to come have only two options: either widespread death in the near future or the halting of economic growth through some outbreak of unforeseen frugality. This cataclysmic discourse is, however, based on a paradox: the claim that enterprise is in vain, only helps to discourage it. What good does it do to mobilize, to clean our rivers and oceans and lakes, to plant trees and decarbonize the economy, if we are doomed? This doctrine of despair does less to mobilize our conscience than to thoroughly demoralize us.

And yet, climate change activists are all wanna-be despots. They want to impose their narrative, ignoring basic economic and meteorological truths:

Those who speak in the name of the planet seek to oppress. As a terrifying catastrophe looms in the future, the human species must rely on experts and break the bad habits that have brought them to disaster. If we want to prevent temperatures from rising more than two degrees, per the Paris Accord, we must achieve carbon neutrality as soon as possible. No one, we are reminded, must shirk this imperative, especially not Europeans, who were responsible for the capitalist revolution and for pillaging the globe.

In more religious terms, he continues, the climate change agenda promotes asceticism:

We must voluntarily become poorer, divide our standard of living by 10, and choose a life-saving asceticism over the comfortable indecency of our present lifestyles. Cleverly, the doomsayers locate the end of the world between 2020 and 2030. It’s close enough to terrify us but still far enough away to escape verification. The high priests of disaster don’t want to save the human race as much as they want to punish it. They are calling for the destruction they pretend to fear: humankind—and the European, in particular—is guilty and must pay.

We need first to get over the idea that Europe should become a charity:

Europe cannot turn itself into a charity. Unless it wants to disappear once and for all, it cannot, like the Catholic Church, seek political guidance from the gospels (which not even Rome itself can manage to follow). Either it becomes a convincing world player alongside the others (USA, China, India, Russia, Brazil), and forges a new balance between power and human rights, or it will be dismembered by hungry predators waiting to devour it piece by piece.

Europeans, and of course Americans, should regain their pride, their sense of having accomplished great things.

It is therefore imperative that we retain our self-confidence as combative occidentals, convinced of the uniqueness of our contributions to civilization, and who make no excuses for our existence. Europe needn’t make any pledges. In and of itself, it is a guarantor of democracy that knows better than anyone how to blend freedom and prosperity. America may one day succumb to its vices of violence, inequality, and segregation. But it is sustained by religion and patriotism, which bolster it despite its divisions. Unless Europe changes course, it will die of its virtues.

He concludes:

Its discourse of guilt has metastasized into one of self-annihilation. When a section of the ruling class abandons its responsibilities, the commonweal itself is attacked, and moral perfectionism becomes another name for abdication. Only mortally wounded civilizations can be destroyed. How can the Old World be resuscitated if it wants to disappear? Perhaps we must await a new generation to emerge to staunch our desire for self-destruction and save us from sleepwalking into oblivion as mystical penitents.


Sam L. said...

"The notion that immigrants will quickly become brilliant contributors to the advance of Western civilization, that they will save us from ourselves, and help us to build a brave new world is patently absurd. We are not inviting computer scientists to settle in our nations. We are inviting people who could not make it through elementary school."

Do they even WANT to go to elementary school? My guess is "no".

Europe is slowly killing itself. With freeloaders. Who will be very angry when the Europeans can no longer take care of their infrastructure.

There is no Therapy for this malady.

David Foster said...

I don't think this mostly has a whole lot to do with guilt: rather, it is about an assertion of superiority. The people arguing of 'progressive' positions don't usually feel *personally* guilty; rather, they want large numbers of their fellow citizens to feel guilty.

C S Lewis wrote about this phenomenon a long time ago:


UbuMaccabee said...

Dennis Prager says: The Germans always learn the wrong lessons from history. The correct lesson of WW2 was the need to fight evil, but they learned that it is evil to fight. Same can be said of Europe generally.

David Foster. Agreed. Great link. Lewis is, as always, morally indispensable.