So I’ve been reading Pascal Bruckner’s classic 1983 cantankerous screed, "The Tears of the White Man." In English, the book is subtitled "Compassion as Contempt" but, from a Venezuelan standpoint, a better subtitle might by "An Archeology of PSFery."
Bruckner is an odd bird: a Left Bank intellectual who’s also a reactionary crank. For all its excess, the precision with which the book captures the mindset of chavista fellow-travellers is simply extraordinary. Extraordinary enough for me to keep turning back to the copyright notice to confirm, time and again, that yes, this really was written back in 1983 – back when Hugo Chávez was just a junior army officer with a penchant for grandiloquent oaths taken under old trees.
For Bruckner, the First World activist’s identification with the Third World,
Enables a Mannichean vision that sees the sins of the former as evidence in perpetuity for the grace and virtue of the latter. The spiritual poverty of some liberation movements and the most reductive slogans of their leaders are carried forth as Holy Gospel, while intellectual rigor, logic, education – all monopolies of the rich countries – are rejected as dirty tricks of imperialism. We sanctify the ignorance, the sectarianism of tropical gangsters, we glorify the splendid march of Asian peoples called forth to destroy European Civilization, in short, the greatest follies are championed by beautiful minds who are only too happy to submit themselves to a primitive authority, to prostrate themselves "in front of the splendour of a healthy barbairism" (as Leslek Kolakowski put it).
Following this line of thought, all that elevates, praises or celebrates the West is suspected of the darkest secrets while, on the other hand, modesty, humility, the taste for self-destruction, all that could drive Europeans to eclipse themselves, to fall back into ranks, is honored, saluted as elevated progressivism. The golden rule of this form of masochism is simple: what comes from us is bad, what comes from the Other is perfect. "Love thine enemies": in this era of disbelief, the Christian injunction has been followed to its wildest extreme.
Later, discussing the way this simple dichotomy creates a stunted vision of the Third World, we get this:
A spontaneous, sentimental and just Third World; a West that is rapacious and cruel: on this primary antithesis a whole current of the European Left has built a philosophy of conscience. But this brutal dichotomy strains to hide its ambivalence: to render the developing countries innocent, it must infantilize them. To endow them with the candour lost forever amongst us, it must despoil them for a second time of the same sovereignty that our ancestors took from them so cheaply.
Let us risk here a hypothesis and become aware of a strange coincidence: in the West, the promotion of childhood is contemporaneous with the colonial adventure and its agony. It is not by chance that in France, the founder of public schooling, Jules Ferry, was also the promotor of overseas empire; if all of colonial ideology insists strongly on the immaturity of the peoples subjected to the European whip and on the need to educate them.
The infantile, credulous, capricious nature of these peoples was used to justify the mission of civilized society: Africans, Asians and Arabs needed us too much to be abandoned to their own luck. The need was always there that, "from the shapeless clay of primitive multitudes, France patiently model the face of a new humanity."
It is also not by chance that, in our time, we trust the child more and more to instruct the adult, much as primitive societies are charged with guiding the civilized world. This modern tendency to see maturity as degeneration, our focus on the failure to live up to the promise of youth, maps precisely onto this adulation of the South as the only hope for the North.
Nothing has really changed in the way we see non-European peoples since the colonial age: we keep seeing them as children, it’s just that we now project onto their immaturity such value that it morphs into wisdom, into superiority. On this illusion, the Third World activist remains hooked. It is because he is under-developed that the African, the Chinese, or the Peruvian surpasses us; he is ahead because he is behind, he was left behind because he was precocious, and if we will accept that all growth is downfall, that all history is decay, then this inferior is our master, because he touches the origin of the world while we are at its twilight.
Why is colonial conquest so interpreted? Because this narrative echoes the myth of downfall, of our expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
What follows is a masterful dissection of the PSF fixation with attributing every single problem to a projection of Imperial power.To protect this vision of the Other as innocent, childlike and pure, every non-virtuous aspect the South must be seen as a manifestation of the North’s corrupting influence.
"Third-world activism cannot bear the notion that the troubles of the South could be of their own making," Bruckner argues, "because for him the countries of the South don’t exist as such, but only as a mental protectorate of the industrial nations."
Of course, an Other too infantile to be evil is also too infantile to be responsible for its own mistakes.
It’s a thrilling read, profoundly un-P.C., and deeply, viscerally contrarian. Because, let’s be clear: Pascal Bruckner hates everybody. The thing is a book-length rant, carried out stylishly yet with an unmistakably unhinged "I’ve-been-needing-to-get-this-off-my-shoulders-for-years" tinge that you’re bound either to love or to hate. I guess you know by now which side of this debate I’m on.
Yet, as I read it, a thought keeps cropping up for me…these debates, the deep exasperation I feel at seeing my country, my experience, my history turned into a screen onto which first world lefties project their impotent fantasies, this entire conversation is a full generation past its sell-by date.
That copyright notice – that 1983 plastered right on the front of the book – comes to look more and more like an indictment, a fierce denunciation of the irrelevance of our experience of being intellectually recolonized by the ThirdWorldist left of the rich countries.
Bruckner himself has moved on. His latest misanthropic jeremiad isn’t about "tiers-mondisme" at all, it’s about the way the European paleo-left has increasingly concentrated its attention from the developing world in general to the Israeli-Palestinian question in particular.
As any serious intellectual would have to do, Bruckner has processed the realities of the last 30 years: the way the geostrategic rise of India, China, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey – among others – has made the old vision of a monolithically martyred Third World obsolete. The way new left-wing fantasies are focalized on what European socialists see as the last virtuous post-colonial struggle: the Palestinian Struggle, and on an identification of Israel as the all-purpose imperialist baddie.
It’s that copyright notice, in the end, that’s the greatest indictment. What chavistas like to imagine as a struggle of world-historical proportions is an anachronism: a contribution to a debate that ended a generation ago. From a world-historical perspective Venezuela under Chávez is no vanguard, it’s something like an acid flashback the most retrograde detritus of the first world left is collectively having.