IFW Response of Joe Golsan (Texas A & M University)
Throughout his career as a writer, intellectual and activist, Pascal Bruckner has demonstrated a continuous fascination with contrast, contradiction and paradox. Indeed, this predilection for opposites, for extremes, and also for irony, manifests itself not only in his approach to writing, but also in his role as public intellectual and moraliste. In a recent interview, Bruckner stated that he writes fiction in order to explore the outer limits of the human condition, whereas he writes essays in order to return to reality to analyze and understand the harsh realities of political, ideological, and cultural identities and conflicts.
In his essays dealing with the current state of European and global realities, Bruckner also examines and explores contrasts, contradictions and paradoxes. He does so in order to expose the realities as well as the painful truths behind appearances, and to draw conclusions and prescriptions for the future that will, potentially, help alleviate some of the ills besetting the planet. Bruckner’s reach in these essays is ambitious. His prescriptions, however, are more modest. They aspire to the sagesse, the wisdom of themoralistes of the French tradition from Montaigne to Camus. One could argue that they imitate Moliere’s quest for the juste milieu, that effort to reconcile the extremes of the human condition in the name of realism as well as a measure optimism where the future is concerned.
The lecture Bruckner has presented follows the model just described very closely. He begins with a strongly worded discussion of European and American unpreparedness and impotence in the face of Russia’s recent aggression in Georgia. Bruckner’s aim is, first, to underscore the fact that the Western democracies are under siege in many areas and dangerously susceptible to their enemies. The fact that Bruckner begins with a comment made by Adolf Hitler concerning their complacency in the fact of their enemies a half century ago only underscores the urgency of the current situation. Then as now, complacency and unpreparedness are recipes for disaster.
But if the Western democracies, Europe and America, were united in the tepidness and inefficacy of their response to recent Russian aggression in Georgia, there is also a great deal that distinguishes them from each other. Indeed, the contrasts between the two are striking. They are almost polar opposites.
First, Europe and America embody two different conceptions of the Enlightenment. Europe is profoundly skeptical, whereas America combines ‘optimism and religiosity’. Second, while Europe, after a century of untold horrors and bloodshed, despises conflict and believes in converting its enemies into friends through diplomacy, America has suffered less bloodshed and warfare and, certainly in the new millennium, has taken a more self-righteous, moralistic and ultimately belligerent approach to dealing with its enemies. Thus, for Bruckner, Europe rejects history in the name of its recent, brutal past whereas America embraces history and makes it, in its efforts reshape the world, to its liking.
If Europe and America are different in so many fundamental ways, they can also be said to resemble each other in that each is limited and indeed on occasion crippled by its own paradoxes, self-contradictions and blind spots. Europe, as Bruckner notes, obsesses on the horrors of its recent past -the not-so-dead body in the basement as one commentator has colorfully phrased it, while attempting to come to terms with the terrible irony that all of Europe’s intellectual and cultural accomplishments led to ”mass graves, gas chambers, and the Goulag”. At the same time, European anti-Americanism, a favorite theme of Bruckner’s and a pervasive and perpetual phenomenon in France and elsewhere, hides a secret envy of the New World.
America, on the other hand, undermines and destroys the foundations and principles of its own democracy in places like Abu Grahib and Guantamo, ostensibly in order to spread democracy around the world. After 911, its efforts to restore American credibility and respect in the eyes of the world through the invasions of Afganistan and especially Iraq, accomplished precisely the opposite of what was intended. Finally, as opposed to Europe, which underestimates its own strength, America tragically overestimates its own. This is a bitter pill, and one which many Americans are loathe to swallow.
Having elaborated the enormous differences that separate the American and European democracies, and having also exposed the self-contradictions and delusions that plague both, Bruckner does not conclude on a pessimistic note. Quite the opposite. He reconciles opposites in the name of the measured wisdom and guarded optimism of the realist and moraliste. Bruckner argues that Europe and America can learn from each other in important and constructive ways. America’s zealousness and overconfidence, that have lately produced a reckless and often tragic adventurism, can benefit from the modesty and caution of a Europe chastened by the murderous excesses, terrible crimes and unspeakable horrors of its own recent past. Similarly, Europe can benefit from American optimism and can-do spirit in overcoming the psychological traumas associated with its recent history and in looking toward the future rather than the past.
In their combined efforts (and in Bruckner’s view, their obligation) to spread the benefits of democracy around the world, Europe and American can benefit from each other’s wisdom as well. Both must recognize that not all peoples aspire, at this stage, to a western form of democracy. The national and cultural roots, the religions and ethnicities of these peoples are the glue of their societies. If democracy is eventually to take hold, it will be a slow process of maturation, of conversion and persuasion based on the exchange of ideas, and not on armed conflict and invasion. This is Europe’s contribution. But because democracy also has its sworn enemies, Europe and America must also be able to defend themselves. The recognition of the need for military strength and preparedness is America’s contribution.
Bruckner leaves us, then, with a guardedly optimistic vision of the future of Euro-American cooperation and indeed collaboration in a slow but determined process of global democratization. Along the way, America and Europe may also well overcome their own worst characteristics and impediments through learning from each other.
But for the skeptic, problems remain. As Bruckner himself has pointed out on numerous occasions, Europe’s and especially France’s deep-seated hatred and disdain for America, while self-contradictory and in many ways self-defeating, are long-term phenomena dating not just from the Cold War but centuries into the past, as Philippe Roger’s excellent recent book, L’Ennemi American (‘The American Enemy’) has vividly demonstrated. Virtually all the media in France and Europe suggest, moreover, that should John McCain and especially Sarah Palin win in two weeks, that animosity is not likely to change any time soon. Already, the financial crisis has further soured attitudes toward the US since Europe’s own woes are blamed in many quarters on America’s and Wall Street’s fiscal irresponsibility.
But if anti-Americanism in Europe is an obstacle to Euro-American conciliation and therefore to future partnerships for the spread of democracy, it is even more of an obstacle in precisely those areas that one could hope would eventually welcome democracy. As Amy Chua has written recently in Day of Empire, the ironic and indeed tragic result so far of the American project of ‘democratic world dominance’ is “a rampant, raging anti-Americanism.” The problem is not only that peoples in these areas are suspicious of democracy, and American democracy in particular, it is also that, as Chua writes: “ in the eyes of billions, America is the (complete) antithesis of what they are. They are poor, exploited, and powerless, often even over the destiny of their own families. America, in their eyes, is rich, healthy glamorous, confident, and exploitative.” (328) For Chua, at least, American efforts to spread democracy in the future, even tempered by the wisdom of a European partner, would be a mistake. America, in her view, “would be far truer to its own history and principles in striving to be an exemplar for the world -a city on a hill – rather than arrogating to itself the Sisyphean task of remaking societies around the world in its own image.” (336)
There are certainly other obstacles to achieving the kind or Euro-American cooperation and the spread of democracy Pascal Bruckner has proposed here. Perhaps some of these will be brought out in the discussions that follow. But whatever these obstacles turn out to be, Bruckner’s desire for a Euro-American partnership is certainly worth aspiring to, and his fundamental faith in the decency of a tolerant democracy is a faith all can share. Given the terrible excesses and catastrophes of the post-911 world with its war on terror, its disastrously misplaced crusading spirit, its religious fanaticism and intolerance, isn’t the kind of reasoned and realistic idealism Bruckner proposes worth pursuing?