“From existentialism to deconstruction,” writes Pascal Bruckner in his broadside, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, “all modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasizing the latter’s hypocrisy, violence, and abomination.”
I wouldn’t say that John Rawls or Jürgen Habermas or Benedict XVI fit that description. Yet Bruckner, one of the so-called “new philosophers” in France who made a big stir in the 1970s when they criticized the habitual Marxism of French intellectuals, points to a very real and powerful trend in contemporary Western culture. We seem to love to hate ourselves.
The self-accusations are familiar. We are imperialists, racists, and purveyors of unsustainable consumption that threatens to engulf the world in an environmental disaster. The colonization of the New World amounted to genocide. Our greed supports brutal tyrants. Capitalism depends upon the exploitation of the world’s poor. On and on goes the litany of shame.
To a certain extent, our present self-laceration reflects one of the virtues of Western culture. Socratic philosophy and Old Testament prophecy combined to create a strong impulse toward self-criticism as a way to overcome self-deceptions and false loyalties. It was not an accident that St. Thomas began his analysis of the truths of Christianity by surveying the objections. As he knew, the pressure of criticism pushes us toward a fuller and more self-aware grasp of the truth.
Yet, as Bruckner recognizes, our postmodern age does not seem to view criticism as a way of refining and deepening our loyalty to the real achievements of Western culture, not the least of which is the freedom to criticize. We seem to relish denunciation for its own sake.
Why? To begin, the notion that the West is the Great Satan feeds our egoism. As Bruckner explains, “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.”
For a long time the liberal establishment in America believed that our society was the source of good in the world. The traumas of the 1960s undermined this complacent belief in American exceptionalism. But it did not lead to a more nuanced view of America's place in the world. The vanity remained intact, transforming itself into a belief that America is the exceptional source of evil in the world.
We are still the great exception, but now we're exceptionally bad. Our litanies of shame differ from Woodrow Wilson’s naive Americanism only in the conclusions they draw. Islamic terrorism? Caused by Western imperialism. African kleptocracy? Caused by the legacy of colonialism.
There are other enticements to orgies of self-criticism. For example, Bruckner overlooks the joys of destruction. Blowing up buildings is thrilling, and so is deconstructing cultural institutions. To show that America was founded on the slaughter of Native Americans, the evil of slavery, and a naked quest of profit–what a delicious prospect. In their small way, the postmodern intellectuals whom Bruckner quotes so extensively share in an eroticism of demolition. It’s an excitement of the soul familiar to adolescent males, and one central to the early years of Nazi hegemony in Germany.
Slashing self-criticism also creates a slapstick, carnival atmosphere. Showing how the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet operates according to a hidden suppression of otherness is like throwing cream pies at the school principal. Demonstrating the sexism of the church fathers is akin to giving the finger to a policeman as you drive by. It’s titillating to flaunt authority, especially when you are applauded for doing so. High fives all the way around.
In the main, however, the tyranny of guilt tends to please because it feeds our moral conceit. As St. Augustine recognized, all societies are deeply implicated in human sinfulness. We may achieve a degree of justice, but our common life remains haunted by perverted desires. Hyper-critique promises to lift us out of our fallen condition. We ascend to a place were we imagine that we can see all the evils–and we assume, falsely, that such a place must be good, and that our residency there makes us good in turn.
It’s not surprising that we are tempted by the illusion of purification-by-self-criticism. As I observed a couple of weeks ago, we often take the same approach to knowledge, thinking that if we can see all the errors, then we’re on our way to truth. But it is not so. In fact, if we paralyze ourselves with fear of error, then we end up isolated from the real drama of the intellectual life, which involves drawing closer to what is true.
The same holds for justice. Cultures and societies can be conquered and subjugated from the outside, but they only be reformed from within. It’s not an accident that Charles de Gaulle was able to end France’s colonial fantasies in Algeria. His loyalty to France was primitive, and although he had many ideological enemies, few doubted his visceral patriotism. He could steer the ship, because the sailors knew he would not abandon them.
Or take an American example. Lyndon Johnson had an acute sense of the failures of American society–racism most poignantly, and neglect of the poor as well. And yet no one doubted his loyalty to the American project. When he declared a war on poverty, it was not seen as a war on American culture, but an attempt to reform and improve it.
Today, the greatest impediment to justice in the West may be a growing lack of patriotism among elites: captains indifferent to the ships they command. Hyper-critique breaks the bonds of solidarity that bind our hearts, offering nothing to love, no loyalty to place or people or history in its place.
The West has much to regret, as do all societies, all cultures. The critical moment remains necessary, otherwise we make an idol of our worldly loves. Yet, as Pascal Bruckner recognizes, today we gorge on critique. We need to recover the affirmative moment of solidarity, rededicating ourselves to what we have inherited rather than imagining ourselves at a denouncing distance. For gratitude and loyalty bind the heart, motivating us to restore, renovate, and reform.
R.R. Reno is a senior editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, to which he contributed the commentary on Genesis.