Self-Destruction and the West

The existential threat posed by a culture of guilt.

I have had occasion, in various articles and books, including a previous posting on this site, to refer with approval to the work of Pascal Bruckner, a member of the distinguished fraternity of Nouveaux Philosophes, or New Philosophers, in France and a major political essayist. He was one of the radical youth who earned his popular colors in the student uprising of May 1968, marching in the streets, holding banners aloft and adopting its revolutionary slogans. But unlike the majority of his contemporaries, he managed to resist the temptation of cheap iconoclasm and antinomian fervor to emerge in the course of time as a sane, thoughtful and leading conservative thinker commanding a wide and respectful audience.

But I do not read him entirely without criticism. Regardless of a certain aphoristic flair and a gift for the memorable phrase, his books are structured in the manner of patristic exegesis: an exordium, a long development and a homiletic conclusion, which imparts a medieval flavor to his argumentation. There is also a soupçon of the classical rhetorical tradition, with its three-stage pattern, inventio (selection of a thesis), dispositio (arrangement of material), and amplificatio (concluding with a homily and an exhortation).

It is primarily in this latter portion of his texts that his romantic nature comes to the fore, culminating in a series of radiant didacticisms and preachments. There is a touching innocence about his work accompanied, for all his undeniable astuteness, by patches of unawareness: he does not seem to know what is transpiring on American campuses—rampant leftist indoctrination, Israel Apartheid Weeks—though he has taught in the United States, and his knowledge of Middle East affairs, on which he comments extensively, is woefully lacking in detail and historical background.

There is, in effect, a curious insularity in his theoretical globality. And his confidence that Europe in its wisdom has much to offer the United States in its swaggering naivety is utterly misplaced, an expression, really, of that European conviction of supremacy which Bruckner has often condemned but from which he has not been able to free himself entirely. His unhappiness over what he conceives, in his most recent political book The Tyranny of Guilt, as the American tendency “to place itself above the common law of nations,” as its “dubious guerilla campaign against the International Court of Justice in the Hague” and “against the UN which it pursues the better to reject it afterward,” reveals a strain of Gallic smugness in his thinking and a certain complacency before the facts.

Of course, he could not foresee the ascendancy of Barack Obama, who would follow his recipe for the political meringue of global accommodation. Despite the audacity of his intellectual peregrinations, it sometimes seems as if Bruckner also maintains an office in the Berlaymont Building. Although, I am glad to say, he is no propitiator, far from it, nevertheless, there is a pocket of complaisance in his thinking in which the colonies of appeasers breeding prolifically in the Western world may find a certain comfort.

But where I disagree with him most is in his deprecating the apocalyptic mode of thought. “There exists among the Moderns a fascination for the theme of decline… Announcing… the decay of an empire makes you seem like a prophet.” The discourse of cataclysm or degeneration is, of course, a perennial temptation. One recalls Harold Brown, writing in The Sensate Culture: Western Civilization Between Chaos and Transformation, that “There seems to be a mentality that enjoys predicting the worst.” This is no doubt the case, but Brown goes on to assert that “a dramatic loss of confidence and hope for the future is typical of the kind of culture that prevails across most of the world today. For our contemporary society, there is a danger that these bleak prophecies will prove self-fulfilling.” In the current historical nexus such dismal visions of the future seem frighteningly apt, whether self-fulfilling or not.

Yet, like so many of us, Bruckner’s reluctance to sound “over the top” does not disguise or obviate a profound apprehension of the worst. He cannot, ultimately, resist his own clairvoyant intuitions. Irrespective of his disclaimers—perhaps even writing against his inherent grain—Bruckner’s crystal ball is filled with plumes of fire and smoke. One notes that Bruckner’s countryman, the novelist Jean Raspail, in his 1973 must-read The Camp of the Saints, sees a different kind of Armageddon approaching the West, but one no less dramatic in the long haul. This is not the death by a thousand cuts or a hundred bombs but by a billion refugees and immigrants come to claim their share of Western prosperity. Their slice of the Western pie, Raspail fears, will eventually morph into the whole pie itself.

The difference, however, is only between Gog and Magog. One way or another, I suspect that Raspail is right in his anatomizing of our public intellectuals, media types and politicians who, “bound by all the new taboos, conditioned by thirty years of intellectual terrorism,” have allowed their will to be “gelded of its instinct for self-preservation.” They are no match for what he calls “the Beast,” his term for the Western conscience made up of one part guilt for its colonial past, and one part a fashionable anti-racism which neutralizes any concerted effort to resist the future that is impending.

It seems evident that Raspail has exerted a formative influence on Bruckner’s thinking. “Remorse,” Bruckner writes in The Tyranny of Guilt, “has become a dogma, a spiritual commodity, almost a form of currency.” We are no longer permitted to judge other cultures or systems of thought, “except by approving those whom we formerly oppressed.” Bruckner quotes a speech by leftist poet Louis Aragon, which is very much to the quivering point: ‘We are those who will always hold out our hands to the enemy.’ Such “destructive jubilance,” says Bruckner, which “subsists in our reflex to spontaneously blame ourselves for the planet’s ills” while at the same time reveling in the conviction of our moral sublimity, has become the order of the day. Despite his discomfort with catastrophic scenarios and prophetic indulgences, Bruckner expresses his true apprehensions in a short, unvarnished statement: “The future of the West is self-destruction.”

The real Pascal Bruckner stands up here. And he may be right.