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Pascal Bruckner and the Tyranny of Guilt

An eternal movement: 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. Yesterday’s audacity is transformed into clichés. Remorse has ceased to be connected with precise historical circumstances; it has become a dogma, a spiritual commodity, almost a form of currency. A whole intellectual intercourse is established: clerks are appointed to maintain it like the ancient guardians of the sacred flame and issue permits to think and speak.

— Pascal Bruckner, The Tyranny of Guilt

My daughter was sitting in a university lecture one day when the professor put a rhetorical question to the class. “I mean, how many of you are proud to be British?” Her voice dripped with disdain (and, if you know how these things work, also with threat: don’t you dare put your hand up!).

Being rather more impressed by her grandfather’s participation in the British 8th Army’s defeat of Rommel in the North African desert than by the petty bullying of an academic at the lectern, my daughter shot her hand in the air. Unfortunately, she was sitting in the front row. Turning around, she realized that every other hand was being sat on. (One day she may do something to make me more proud, but it is hard to think what that could be.)

Pascal Bruckner’s The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism is about that moment. The book is a frontal challenge to thinking that is common in humanities and social science departments across the Western world. Their “criticality,” Bruckner writes, is nothing but a new conformism—“the whole world hates us and we deserve it”—that has stifled genuine thought as surely as every other intellectual orthodoxy before it. More: its politics and theory of guilt and self-loathing have gone so far as to become a pathology—and an obstacle to both reason and the defense of liberty and democracy at home and abroad. 

The book is a brilliant history and anatomy of this new conformism.

Bruckner is not inviting us to become cheerleaders. Dissent has been an essential ingredient in the story of Western civilization and must remain so. But the “tyranny of guilt” contributes virtually nothing to those reform fights. Rather, it functions more like an inverted religion, only it brings not a god-spell, or good news, but bad news: Western civilization is nothing but a barbarism—“the sick man of the planet which it is infecting with its pestilence.”

Like Christianity, this new conformism has a notion of “original sin.” The West is “eternally guilty,” and thus unable “to judge or combat other systems, other states, other religions.” When faced with the existential question, “Who is to blame?” many intellectuals’ “standard spontaneous response is: ‘We are.’”

And the new conformism is also a kind of universalism: “There is no monstrosity in Africa, Asia or the Near East for which it is not to blame,” observes Bruckner.

The religion of guilt offers salvation in return for repentance. When Europe withdraws from a harsh world in the spirit of “well, who are we to tell anyone…” it is saved. And self-conscious displays of piety to the new conformism are rewarded not in heaven but the here and now. Like any establishment, the clerks dole out the appointments and invitations and the access. (In a bizarre twist, the new conformism manages to control large parts of the academic-media complex while thinking of itself as insurgents from the Devil’s Party. Win-win for the herd of independent minds!)

Bruckner argues this conformism is now a stifling orthodoxy in the West, instilling within us the desire to “practice self-flagellation” and making us think that the habit of “wallowing in shame and self-loathing”—for example, presenting our national story as a catalogue of enormities—is an exercise of virtue.

At the personal level, the politics of guilt is a perfect accompaniment to another dubious legacy of the (late) Sixties—what Christopher Lasch once called a culture of narcissism; an infantile and expressive and therapeutic culture of the self, self, self. 

At a political level, guilt acts as a set of blinders. Bruckner points out that although Western democracies won the Cold War by defeating totalitarianism, the intellectuals have not allowed us to reach that self-understanding. We really don’t understand what that conflict was about (wasn’t it all just anti-Communist McCarthyite paranoia?) or why we won it (didn’t that nice Mr. Gorbachev do it all?).

During the Cold War, many intellectuals were straight-up apologists (or celebrants) for Stalinism. They told us it was unutterable crass to be an anti-Communist (but they did not know where Kolyma was). And after 1989 they didn’t miss a beat, using their cultural power to make it the height of bad taste to talk of anything so crass as a victory for the West. Instead, they created an “atmosphere of renunciation” and so robbed us of the self-understanding the West needs today in the face of other threats.

Bruckner’s essay offers an array of theoretical tools to make sense of the tyranny of guilt (and maybe to laugh at it a little). One especially useful notion is the “Third Worldism of introspection.”

We used to suffer from a “Third Worldism of projection,” Bruckner writes. Back then, the old utopian dream was alive and, even if the first world proletariat had let us down, the third world offered hope in the form of “regimes thought to incarnate the new revolutionary Eden.” Actually, they were mostly thugs and maniacs, from Mao to Enver Hoxha, but they provided a certain comfort. Today even these consoling acts of projection are not available.

The function served by the “Third Worldism of projection,” however, is now served by a “Third Worldism of introspection.” Guilt-ridden intellectuals, even as they enjoy all that Western liberal democratic society has to offer, retain a deep personal need to feel wholly oppositional to a “fallen culture.” So they turn in on the West itself, which must now be as bad as the East was once good. Now we “hate ourselves much more than we love others.” 

Guilt becomes our sense and our sensibility. Look around, says Bruckner: “one applauds a religious revolution, another goes into ecstasies over the beauty of terrorist acts, or supports a guerilla movement because it challenges our imperialist project.”

Mostly, we sit on our hands in the face of the new conformism because we are frightened of its clerks. So we go along with the easy consensus of “indulgence towards foreign dictatorships, intransigence towards our democracies,” writes Bruckner.

Would it not be better if we resolved, as the late, brave, missed Christopher Hitchens wrote in his Letters to a Young Contrarian, to “seek out argument and disputation for their own sake, [for] the grave will supply plenty of time for silence”?

It’s time to get our hands up.

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