World Affairs, 20 January 2012
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!)