Europe: Tranquil Impotence, Peaceful Hell

Pascal Bruckner, a Frenchman writing in the City Journal, homes in on the European sickness which Barry and his followers wish for America:

…The suspicion that colors [Europe’s] 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…

There is nothing more insidious than a collective guilt passed down from generation to generation, dyeing a people with a kind of permanent stain. Contrition cannot define a political order. As there is no hereditary transmission of victim status, so there is no transmission of oppressor status. The duty of remembering implies neither the automatic purity nor the automatic corruption of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. History is not divided between sinner nations and angelic ones but between democracies, which recognize their faults, and dictatorships, which drape themselves in the robes of martyrs. We have learned over the last half-century that every state is founded on crime and coercion, including those that have recently appeared on history’s stage. But there are states capable of recognizing this and of looking barbarism in the eye, and there are others that excuse their present misdeeds by citing yesterday’s oppression…

Europe no longer believes in evil but only in misunderstandings to be resolved by discussion and dialogue. She no longer has enemies but only partners. If she is nice to extremists, she thinks, they will be nice to her, and she will be able to disarm their aggressiveness and soften them up. Europe no longer likes History, for History is a nightmare, a minefield from which she escaped at great cost, first in 1945 and then again in 1989. And since History goes on without us, and everywhere emergent nations are recovering their dignity, their power, and their aggressiveness, Europe leaves it to the Americans to be in charge, while reserving the right to criticize them violently when they go astray. It is notable that Europe is the only region in the world where military budgets go down every year; we have no armies that would be able to defend our frontiers if we were so unlucky as to be attacked; after the Haitian crisis, Brussels could not dispatch even a few thousand men to help disaster victims. We are well equipped to calibrate the size of bananas or the composition of cheeses, but not to create a military force worthy of the name.

In its worst moments, Europe seeks peace at any price, even what Saint Thomas Aquinas called a bad peace—one that consecrates injustice, arbitrary power, and terror, a detestable peace heavy with vicious consequences. Europe postulates freedom for all but is content with just its own. It has a history, whereas America is still making history, animated by an eschatological tension toward the future. If the latter sometimes makes major mistakes, the former makes none because it attempts nothing. For Europe, prudence no longer consists in the art, defended by the ancients, of finding one’s way within an uncertain story. We hate America because she makes a difference. We prefer Europe because she is not a threat. Our repulsion represents a kind of homage, and our sympathy a kind of contempt.

What is the point of our bad conscience? To purge our faults and to avoid falling back into old errors? Perhaps. But it serves mainly to justify renouncing political action. If the Old World invariably prefers guilt to responsibility, it is because the first is less burdensome; so one puts up with a guilty conscience. Our lazy despair leads us not to fight injustice but to coexist with it. We delight in tranquil impotence, and we take up residence in a peaceful hell. We allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with words of blame, a role we willingly adopt so as to be accountable to no one and to avoid taking any part in world affairs. Remorse is a mixture of good will and bad faith: a sincere desire to close old wounds and a secret wish to be left alone. Eventually, indebtedness to the dead prevails over duty to the living. Repentance makes of us a people who apologize for old crimes in order to ignore present ones.

Europe has developed a veritable fanaticism for modesty, but if it cannot preside over the destinies of the whole world, it must at least play a part, retain its special voice in favor of justice and law, and assume the political and military means to make itself heard. Penitence is finally a political choice; it is to choose an abdication that in no way immunizes us against mistakes. Fear of repeating yesterday’s errors makes us too indulgent of contemporary outrages. By preferring injustice to disorder, the Old World risks being swept away by chaos, the victim of a renunciation mistaken for wisdom…

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