There’s a tremendous essay in the new issue of City Journal by Pascal Bruckner titled “Europe’s Guilty Conscience –Self-hatred is paralyzing the Continent” It’s brilliant writing, but also tremendously depressing, if not at all surprising, watching from afar Europe’s response to 9/11 and beyond:
Brooding over its past crimes (slavery, imperialism, fascism, communism), Europe sees its history as a series of murders and depredations that culminated in two global conflicts. The average European, male or female, is an extremely sensitive being, always ready to feel pity for the world’s sorrows and to take responsibility for them, always asking what the North can do for the South rather than asking what the South can do for itself. Those born after World War II are endowed with the certainty of belonging to the dregs of humanity, an execrable civilization that has dominated and pillaged most of the world for centuries in the name of the superiority of the white man. Since 9/11, for example, a majority of Europeans have felt, despite our sympathy for the victims, that the Americans got what they deserved. The same reasoning prevailed with respect to the terrorist attacks on Madrid in 2004 and on London in 2005, when many good souls, on both the right and the left, portrayed the attackers as unfortunate people protesting Europe’s insolent wealth, its aggression in Iraq or Afghanistan, or its way of life.
Europe has surely engendered monsters. But it has, at the same time, engendered the ideas that made it possible to slay monsters. European history is a succession of paradoxes: arbitrary feudal power gave rise to democracy; ecclesiastical oppression, to freedom of conscience; national rivalries, to the dream of a supranational community; overseas conquests, to anticolonialism; and revolutionary ideologies, to the antitotalitarian movement. Europe sent armies, missionaries, and merchants to distant lands, but also invented anthropology, which is a way of seeing through others’ eyes, of standing at some distance from oneself in order to approach the stranger. The colonial adventure died of this fundamental contradiction: the subjection of continents to the laws of a mother country that at the same time taught its subjects the idea of a nation’s right to govern itself. In demanding independence, the colonies were applying to their masters the very rules that they had learned from them.
Since the time of the conquistadors, Europe has perfected the art of joining progress and cruelty. But a civilization responsible for the worst atrocities as well as the most sublime accomplishments cannot understand itself solely in terms of guilt. The suspicion that colors our most brilliant successes always risks degenerating into self-hatred and facile defeatism. We now live on self-denunciation, as if permanently indebted to the poor, the destitute, to immigrants—as if our only duty were expiation, endless expiation, restoring without limit what we had taken from humanity from the beginning. This wave of repentance spreads through our latitudes and our governments like an epidemic. An active conscience is a fine and healthy thing, of course. But contrition must not be limited to certain parties while innocence is accorded to anyone who claims to be persecuted.
The United States, despite its own faults, retains the capacity to combine self-criticism with self-affirmation, demonstrating a pride that we lack. But Europe’s worst enemy is Europe itself, with its penitential view of its past, its corrosive guilt, and a scrupulousness taken to the point of paralysis. How can we expect to be respected if we do not respect ourselves, if our media and our literature always depict us by our blackest traits? The truth is that Europeans do not like themselves, or at least do not like themselves enough to overcome their distaste and to show the kind of quasi-religious fervor for their culture that is so striking in Americans.
That’s just a sample; definitely read the whole thing. Though heed Andrew Stuttaford’s cautionary warning at the Corner:
It’s well worth reading, but do so with care. The topic is the sense of guilt that Europeans are meant to feel about their past, but, as I read on, it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that Professor Bruckner has succumbed to the temptation of assuming that the supposed values of Europe’s elites are those of the European in the street. In the age of the post-democratic EU, that’s an understandable mistake to make, but I still read lines like this with amazement:. . . since the end of World War II, Europe has been tormented by a need to repent. Brooding over its past crimes (slavery, imperialism, fascism, communism), Europe sees its history as a series of murders and depredations that culminated in two global conflicts. The average European, male or female, is an extremely sensitive being, always ready to feel pity for the world’s sorrows and to take responsibility for them, always asking what the North can do for the South rather than asking what the South can do for itself. Those born after World War II are endowed with the certainty of belonging to the dregs of humanity, an execrable civilization that has dominated and pillaged most of the world for centuries in the name of the superiority of the white man.As a description of what “average Europeans” think, this is close to nonsense. Of course, there are quite a few Europeans who feel or claim to feel the way that Professor Bruckner describes, but most of them belong to the continent’s governing class, a class that now spends a great deal of its time trying to convince its distinctly skeptical fellow citizens that they share the proudly proclaimed morality of their bien-pensant betters.
To be fair, Bruckner goes on to make a fine case showing how this sense of guilt (which he describes in more detail in the rest of the piece) is overdone, and how disastrous its consequences are becoming. Nevertheless, by missing the key distinction between the views of Europe’s elite and those of its people, he misses the way in which “guilt” is being used by the elite as a device to drain power (and justify draining power) from uncouth electorates and, of course, the nation-states that are, unforgivably, the reasonably authentic expressions of the populations that live within them.
Still, it sounds like the 1970s-vintage “punitive liberalism” that James Pierson once described in the Weekly Standard is very much alive and well and working overtime in the minds of European elites, as it is amongst of the many of those who make up America’s entrenched Ruling Class (to reference another recent magnum opus essay.)
In 2005, Jonah Goldberg wrote:
The ideas, assumptions and prejudices held by the statistically typical Democratic voter, according to the Pew study, are quite simply, European. Europeans believe in a strong social welfare state, for rich and poor alike. Europeans are cynical. They look askance—these days—on patriotic sentiment (hence the rush to form a new European nation). The church pews of Europe would make a great hideout for bank robbers since they’re always empty. The United Nations is, in the typical European’s worldview, the last best hope for mankind. From the death penalty to gay marriage, the more similar you are to a typical European in your political and social outlook, the more likely you are to be a Democrat.
How much of America’s punitive liberalism was an offshoot of this sort of Euro-nihilism? And for elites, academics, and those who presumably are making a more than reasonable wages, how can one live day to day in a country — or a continent — one loathes so painfully?
(Cross posted at Ricochet, where I’m guest-blogging this week.)
Related: Steve Green on “Old Europe’s Old Recipe for a Very Modern Failure.”