The Vanities of Self-Hatred

    Excerpt from The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, by Pascal Bruckner (Princeton University Press, 2012). Reprinted with permission from the author.

    From Chapter 2: The Pathologies of Debt

    The Vanities of Self-Hatred

    Nothing is more Western than hatred of the West, that passion for cursing and lacerating ourselves. By issuing their anathemas, the high priests of defamation only signal their membership in the universe they reject. The suspicion that hovers over our most brilliant successes always threatens to degenerate into facile defeatism. The critical spirit rises up against itself and consumes its form. But instead of coming out of this process greater and purified, it devours itself in a kind of self-cannibalism and takes a morose pleasure in annihilating itself. Hyper-criticism eventuates in self-hatred, leaving behind it only ruins. A new dogma of demolition is born out of the rejection of dogmas.

    Thus we Euro-Americans are supposed to have only one obligation: endlessly atoning for what we have inflicted on other parts of humanity. How can we fail to see that this leads us to live off self-denunciation while taking a strange pride in being the worst? Self-denigration is all too clearly a form of indirect self-glorification. Evil can come only from us; other people are motivated by sympathy, good will, candor. This is the paternalism of the guilty conscience: seeing ourselves as the kings of infamy is still a way of staying on the crest of history. Since Freud we know that masochism is only a reversed sadism, a passion for domination turned against oneself. Europe is still messianic in a minor key, campaigning for its own weakness, exporting humility and wisdom.[6] Its obvious scorn for itself does not conceal a very great infatuation. Barbarity is Europe’s great pride, which it acknowledges only in itself; it denies that others are barbarous, finding attenuating circumstances for them (which is a way of denying them all responsibility).

    Thus it wants to be the sole seat of inhumanity in action and wears this evil disposition as its insignia as others wear their decorations. Even natural catastrophes do not escape our delusions of grandeur: there are always many analysts who see in the slightest hurricane, flood, or earthquake the perfidious hand of Euro-America. Regarding the tsunami in December 2004, some even saw the goddess Gaia rising from the ocean floor to punish our industrial civilization. Like prayer, self-accusation is a way of acting symbolically at a distance when one can do nothing. Megalomania without borders: by attributing all the misfortunes of the world to man, a certain kind of ecology shows an unbridled anthropocentrism that confirms our status as the “master and destroyer” of the planet. To think, for example, that tomorrow we will be able to determine whether we have rain or sunshine, that we will eclipse nature, is to relapse into the Promethean fantasy nourished by the most fanatical adepts of progress. We can, then, contest everything except our own depravity. A blatant case of imperialism in reverse. Decolonization has deprived us of our power, our economic influence is constantly decreasing, but in a colossal overestimation we continue to see ourselves as the evil center of gravity on which the universe depends.

    We need our clichés about the wretchedness of Africa, Asia, and Latin America to confirm the cliché about the predatory, murderous West. Our loud stigmatizations serve only to mask this wound to our self-esteem: we no longer make the laws. Other cultures know it but nonetheless continue to blame us in order to escape our judgment and call us, at the slightest tremor, “people in pith helmets telling other people what to do” (Vladimir Putin). If colonial independence’s record of achievement is at present problematic, there is no doubt that someday Africa will take off, and the Arab world as well, that they will cease to be objects of our compassion and become direct competitors, partners on equal terms. Then we will no longer be the “masters of the world” but only formerly well-off people with pale faces. The whole paradox of a sobered-up Europe is that it is no less arrogant than imperial Europe because it continues to project its categories on the rest of the world and childishly boasts that it is the origin of all the ills that beset mankind. Our superiority complex has taken refuge in the perpetual avowal of our sins, a strange way of inflating our puny selves to global dimensions.

    It has often been said that decolonization was the detour taken by the countries of the South in adopting the Western world. The planet has modernized itself, no doubt, but it has only partly Westernized itself: it has unified itself under the triple sign of economics, technology, and communications, not under that of respect for persons or of a parliamentary system. Even if the number of democracies is increasing, many governments are still seduced chiefly by our weapons, our state-of-the-art technologies, and our large companies that balk at promoting equality or basic freedoms.[7] To that extent, hatred of the West is still hatred of human rights and democracy. To welcome the West is to open the door behind which lurk daring and chaos, challenges to the abuses disguised as traditions and inequalities based on nature. It imposes on every society insurmountable tasks: freeing themselves from their pasts, emerging from the reassuring cocoon of custom. It is detested not for its actual faults but for its attempt to amend them, because it was one of the first to tear itself away from its own bestiality and invited the rest of the world to follow its example. It broke the circle of connivance among the violent, and that is what it is not pardoned for doing. As soon as it began to moralize history, it was caught in its own trap, and people began to throw all its wrongs in its face to confound it, especially since it provided the evidence to do so.

    In this respect, the true driving force of fundamentalism is less scrupulous respect for tradition than the fear of a way of life based on individual autonomy, perpetual innovation, and the dislocation of authority. Advances in freedom go hand in hand with advances in refusing freedom, especially the emancipation of women, which was a fundamental symbolic change in the last century. Whence the new generations of jihadists born in Europe, those “emirs with blue eyes” in distress in their own society, who are looking for rigid rules that can reassure them. “We are not afraid of death,” the suicide bombers say to show their superiority to ordinary people. But they are afraid of life, constantly trampling on it, slandering it, destroying it, and training children still in their cradles for martyrdom. Observers have noted that the photos of terrorists taken a few hours before they made their attacks show people who are serene and at peace. They have eliminated doubt: they know. It is the paradox of open societies that they seem to be disordered, unjust, threatened by crime, loneliness, and drugs because they display their indignity before the whole world, never ceasing to admit their defects, whereas other, more oppressive societies seem harmonious because the press and the opposition are muzzled. “Where there are no visible conflicts, there is no freedom,” Montesquieu said. Democracies are by nature uneasy, they never realize their ideal; they necessarily disappoint us, creating a gap between the hope they elicit and the realities they construct. They repeat the slanders proffered by their enemies, according them the right to hate them in all sincerity. From the imperfection of our governments, their fundamental perversity is deduced. But we should maintain the reverse: to publicly exhibit our faults is to be conscious of our vices, whereas the real fault is being ignorant of what ails us.

    The terrible presumption of the cry “We are civilized!” too often meant, during the imperial period, “We are superior to you.” The colonial system could not fail to degenerate into de facto segregation, into an apology for the white race, along with all that presupposes in the way of the mutual debasement of both the native and the colonist. The exportation of violence into distant lands, where it could be practiced without witnesses, allowed the conqueror to abandon laws and rules and turn back the wheel of progress, especially since Europe left this business to its rogues, desperados, and unscrupulous adventurers. But this violence had to be adorned with the culture’s forms and alibis to enjoy a total impunity in the name of a superior vocation. Today, being civilized means knowing that one is potentially a barbarian. We Europeans are obviously cowardly and decadent, pathetic in our aspirations and pitiful in our pleasures. At least we are aware enough to try to mend our ways. Woe to the brutes who think they are civilized and close themselves up in the infernal tourniquet of their certitudes.

    Excerpted from The Tyranny of Guilt by Pascal Bruckner. Copyright © Princeton University Press, 2012. All rights reserved.


    [6] There is even a fanatical form of skepticism that reproduces in its own way the faith that it wants to extinguish: when Cioran writes, for example, that to refuse to acknowledge the interchangeable nature of ideas is to condemn oneself to cause bloodshed, he expresses an idea that is itself not interchangeable with its contrary. Similarly, when the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo asks Christianity to understand, in the name of charity, that it is not the sole possessor of truth, that in the intercultural dialogue it must henceforth keep quiet and listen to others, and reconnect “with its univeralist vocation without any colonial, imperialist, or eurocentric implication,” he is producing what La Rochefoucauld called an “artifice of pride.” This demand for a one-way street is addressed to Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism; Christianity is thus the only religion that is supposed to recognize the partial nature of its teaching. This amounts once again to considering it the sole religion that agrees to efface itself before others, unique in the way it acknowledges the plurality of beliefs and the relativity of dogmas. Gianni Vattimo, Dopo la cristianità: per un cristianismo non religioso (Milan: Garzanti, 2002).

    [7] Is Turkey Western? No Muslim state, it is true, has done as much for secularism, promoted such reforms, engaged in such an upheaval, or shown such a desire to join Europe. But in moving away from the heritage of Ataturk through rampant re-Islamization and by continuing to evade any official recognition of the Armenian genocide, ethnic cleansing of Greeks in Asia Minor, the crimes of the Ottoman Empire, or the repression of the Kurd minority, Ankara seems to be practicing a merely superficial democratization out of a simple desire to share in European prosperity. That is what makes its candidacy for entrance into the European Community problematic, because the arguments for rejecting it balance those for accepting it. In truth, it is less Turkish ambiguity than European weakness that is troubling; Europe absorbs countries without enthusiasm and rejects them without passion. Have we forgotten in what a climate of hostile indifference the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe were brought into the Union? More than the equivocations of potential candidates for admission to the Union, it is our half-heartedness that is the true source of perplexity.

    Pascal Bruckner is a French writer and intellectual and a leading critic of cultural trends in Europe. He is one of France’s most creative and original minds and the author of over 20 books. Critic Clive James has called him “one of the indispensable philosophers of our time”. Historian Richard Wolin said Bruckner “might well be the most distinguished essay writer in France today. … Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, he does the life of the mind an invaluable service.”

    The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism
    By Pascal Bruckner
    Princeton University Press; Tra edition (April 1, 2012)
    ISBN-10: 0691154309
    ISBN-13: 978-0691154305
    $19.93

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