Why democracies despise themselves
About this blog: Western democracies have many reasons to feel guilty: They have been home to fascism, racism, genocide, slavery and imperialism, and since World War II, they've been engaged in self-flagellation over their failings. In “The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism,” released earlier this year by Princeton University Press, Pascal Bruckner explores the roots of this bad conscience and argues that enough is enough. As societies that nourish many large ideals such as freedom and enlightenment, the Western democracies should curtail their obsessive guilt and instead stand proud and ready to defend their values. Here, Bruckner, the author of 18 books of fiction and nonfiction, including the forthcoming "Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy," explores how the rhetoric of guilt often precedes a country’s decline.
Unlike dictatorships and theocracies, which are nourished by lies and self-embellishment, democracies prosper by constantly examining their mistakes. The existence of a free press, a legislature and an opposition means that government is subjected to a continuous barrage of daily criticism.
This apparent weakness is in fact a strength that enables a dynamic people to perpetually reform itself instead of wallowing in blissful self-satisfaction. The concern for introspection includes the past as well, and leads public opinion to exhume the most unpalatable aspects of the nation's history: apartheid in South Africa, slavery and segregation in the United States, Nazism in Germany, colonialism and collaboration in France.
These are all dark episodes in the respective national epics that have to be explained, brought to light and made known to everyone. This work of memory is the greatness and the honor of free governments.
The paradox is that democracies seem more corrupt and criminal than other governments because they admit their faults, whereas tyrannies conceal them and represent themselves as irreproachable.
But this culture of suspicion is always in danger of degenerating into vilification and facile defeatism. The critical spirit then devours itself in a kind of self-cannibalization, taking a gloomy pleasure in destroying itself that leaves nothing intact. Hyper-criticism ends in self-hatred and leaves nothing but ruins behind.
That is more or less the current state of France, which is brooding on its failures and lost grandeur, and throwing itself into strikes that are not signs of vitality but rather of exhaustion and national depression.
Although sometimes a particularly serious crime must be expiated, a community cannot excuse itself for existing unless it dissolves and disappears. History consists in common remembering and forgetting, in the cancellation of the blood debts that human societies contract with one another.
While all peoples have to ruminate on their respective grievances, if everyone were as unforgiving as the nationalist Serbs were in the 1990s with respect to their neighbors, the world would be ablaze. The status of victim is not transmitted automatically any more than the status of tormentor.
We have to give up the idea of one-for-one reparation of past injuries: those who were tortured and persecuted will not be avenged; no financial compensation can bring them back to life.
What they are owed is historical truth, not an insatiable desire for vengeance on the part of their great-grandchildren. We cannot forever demand payback for past misfortune; prosecution must cease after a few generations, once the biological period has been respected, and be replaced by the work of the historian. A time comes when we have to let the dead bury the dead, and carry off with them their dissensions.
Forgetting is what makes room for the living, for newcomers who do not want to bear the burden of old resentments. For coming generations, it is a way of beginning anew.
But despising oneself may also be a paradoxical form of pride: When some people in the West acknowledge Europe's barbarism but deny it to other continents, which are always exonerated of their errors, they evince a paternalism of penitence. By seeing themselves as the kings of infamy, they still remain at the pinnacle of history.
Thus for European powers in decline, with China, Brazil and India nipping at their heels, self-flagellation is a way of blowing their own horn, of proving to the world that if they are not the best, at least they are still the worst. The grandiloquence of the remorse thus flaunted hardly conceals the shrinking of ambitions and resources.
As soon as a nation, large or small, adopts the rhetoric of guilt, it confirms its decline: It apologizes instead of acting. If the United States also sinks into the culture of doubt, the fall of the empire will soon follow.
Posted by: ZZim | November 19, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse