Dismissing the third world

Englund, Steven

Pascal Bruckner's 'Tears' & the politics of contempt DISMISSING THE THIRD WORLD STEVEN ENGLUND Frenchman the demographer Alfred Sauvy, in a 1952 essay invented the concept of...

...most childish fantasies...
...My criticism here is above all a criticism of myself, [for] I myself was part and parcel of [the third-worlders'] excesses...
...As for women, they would do well to recall, says Beer, that "feminism was not the cause of increased social and political power for the American woman...
...As a statement of intention this is incredibly disingenuous...
...In place of political commitments and theory, they should embrace Bruckner's rhapsodies to "otherness" and his dissertations on the final impossibility of "true" intercultural/societal communication...
...it was the consequence of her emancipation.'' And not to forget, by the way, that Beer "hopes" that his indictment will be "part of the healing process...
...In reducing third-worlders to a group of conscience-stricken masochists, Bruckner, for all his disclaimers, is making political capital...
...The globe may be small and finite, but it has never before been so dark...
...has its homegrown forms of infantile leftism masquerading as third-worldism...
...The conclusion the author draws is that whether you be "Communist, socialist, or simply a believer in democracy . . . you must temporarily put aside your leftist sympathies, because the intellectual construction of this position has nothing to do with the present situation...
...Bruckner again and again celebrates "self-critical reason," which he arrogantly arrogates as a European specialite: "Europe alone has risked its own identity by uniting its cultures in anxiety and doubt...
...or the observation that "during the six hours you will take to read this book, 2500 people will die of hunger...
...Would-be serious intellectuals have "reduced" entire societies "to a few salient features," notably their poverty...
...To take the book only on its own terms, as some American reviewers have done, is to conceive of third-worldism as a neurosis...
...It has simply been another addition to the steady stream of neoconservative debunking of all suspiciously egalitarian initiatives...
...At the end of this long attack comes a long conclusion in which Bruckner offers his remedy: Western third-worldists must extricate themselves from the ' 'self-hatred'' that has' 'become a central dogma of our culture...
...Such shorthand he calls ' 'the headhunter complex,' ' and says that engaging in it" is to kill the country twice...
...The author has convinced a certain number of center-moderate Frenchmen that thirdworldism if not a neurosis is nonetheless a sort of passe mood, fad, or style...
...534: Commonweal Normally, a book which wished to "deacquisition" a major holding like "third world" from the museum of ideological concepts would offer reasoned analysis and empirical evidence...
...Guilt," he writes, " is what you have left when you run out'' of good arguments...
...For example, it will greatly relieve Cubans, Filipinos, and Spaniards to learn that "the United States never had a colonial empire," hence we don't have the same "guilt-inspired" third-worldism that the French do...
...This is not really a hopeful development in a country where the right returned to power with a vengeance in 1986, where unemployment sits at 20 percent in many industrial regions (with no sign of decreasing), and where the ensuing social malaise is alltoo-readily blamed on third-world immigrants and not merely by the overtly racist, neo-nationalist National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen...
...In one of his few reportorial sections, Bruckner vividly describes a tour of Calcutta in order to detail the effect on the foreign visitor's mind and sensibility of the endless waves of filthy, begging humanity that break on him every time he ventures out of his hotel...
...In sum, " the threefold sin of abstraction, skepticism, and lukewarmness" has been substituted for what should be "the unremitting effort to put oneself in the place of others, 25 September 1987: 533 the rite of passage of all researchers...
...What Bruckner has in fact done is to throw off a youthful fling with thirdworldism by neuroticizing it...
...he seductiveness, par excellence, of Tears is its childlike passion and sincerity...
...Tears is a political attack devilishly masquerading as psychological analysis...
...The effect of this , not surprisingly, is politically reactionary...
...The ploy is familiar...
...What one reviewer called its "brilliant wrath'' has gone a distance to ridicule third-worldism in a culture where previously it had undeniable prestige, even from its antagonists...
...Pascal Bruckner's 'Tears' & the politics of contempt DISMISSING THE THIRD WORLD STEVEN ENGLUND Frenchman the demographer Alfred Sauvy, in a 1952 essay invented the concept of "third world," and now another Frenchman is trying to disinvent it...
...The fact that mass media and cheap travel make it easier to conceive "other societies does not mean that they have become understandable to us...
...The French title of Bruckner's book, LeSanglot de I'homme blanc, better captures what the author sees as the "tiersmondain's" masochism (sanglot means sob) than does the English word, "tears...
...No refuge, either, in Christian principles for the would-be magnanimous...
...Building on that fact, Beer tries among other things to trivialize or belittle the Old and New Lefts, Black Power and the civil rights movement, the counterculture, and the cause of American Indians and Mexican-Americans (the latter two groups, Beer concludes, had only to imitate their Chinese and Japanese counterparts...
...There's nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that our forebears escaped from what we now define as underdevelopment by launching an industrial revolution...
...When, he asks, will the UN admit that anti-white racism is also a crime against humanity...
...What is Qaddafi but a Bedouin version of Mussolini...
...Bruckner has a truffle pig's nose for rooting out silly arguments advanced by blindered third-worlders as, for example, the journalist who "with a straight face" attributed homosexuality in Cuba to "leftover habits of Yankee civilization...
...Tears was predictably heralded by Jeane Kirkpatrick as "a powerful antidote to fashionable self-deceptions" and proof that "what passes for sympathy today" is really "self-serving...
...This might come as a surprise to Gandhi or Ibn Khaldun...
...The issue of third-worldism is, of course, profoundly political...
...What prevents us from loving all [of our fellow men] is what allows us to help some of them...
...Then he goes on to generalize his own previous style of commitment onto the mass of his former comrades, whom he can finally proceed to excoriate knowingly in denunciation masquerading as a pacific, apolitical confession...
...In other words, "the Calcutta syndrome," as he calls this process, has, and should have, the effect of depoliticizing people, particularly leftwing third-worlders...
...And, with brio, he compares the contemporary crop of third-world dictators to the ogres of European history...
...They should appreciate their own society and history notably the tradition of self-criticism, which, even more than financial aid, is needed in the third world...
...Let us see what kind, and how...
...Before the term is permitted to pass from usage, Credit Lyonnais, Ford, the Ministries of Overseas Territories, and a dozen or so Christian organizations may have something to say...
...In politics, much as in faith or love (understood as something more than romance) , a sign of adulthood is that people subordinate sentiment to reason...
...The Tears of the White Man is as irenic as Zola's "Taccuse...
...536: Commonweal...
...His is a seductive, but dangerous argument that has a growing number of American imitators and admirers...
...He denounces the "great silence of the left" toward repression in China or the exile of the boat people...
...Of what those improvisations might consist, the author says little except to warn us repeatedly not to attempt too much: "To be effective, responsibility must choose a limited field of action...
...Between original sin and masochism, the radical chic have, to Bruckner, not only exculpated heinous third-world leadership, but refused to grant the underdeveloped world "the most basic freedom the freedom to make mistakes, to be guilty in their turn...
...Reality is too complex: "Far from being a single, powerful community, a global village, in which all people are equidistant," the planet has "once again become a swarming of tribes'that are hostile and mistrustful...
...I get the impression that Pascal Bruckner retains traces of allegiance to the anti-colonialism of his youth...
...For more than a century, anti-Marxists have been claiming that "class" and "bourgeoisie" have "no more meaning," just as socialists have challenged the objectivity and admissibility of the hallowed notions of "nation" and "fatherland...
...More to the point, however, we must cease to think in terms of a unity called "third world...
...In the U.S., Tears has had a more modest impact, as far as I can tell...
...But in one very important sense Bruckner's prefatory "confession" is useful: as a taste of what we are in for...
...For Bruckner returns tenfold what he sees as the contempt lurking behind the thirdworlder's compassion, "this mischanneled eroticism in love with its own reflection," this "gushing" and "ghoulish" pity that eventually "becomes a form of hatred'' when the distant "beloved" lets us down...
...I don't doubt that Bruckner is acquainted with anxiety, doubt, and self-criticism but in his case they operate superficially, by and on emotion, and they are located on the near, not the far side, of conviction...
...Bruckner also turns his attention to the "pop ecumenicism," as he dubs certain Westerners' tendencies to revere thirdworld cultural or religious institutions: ' 'The sacred texts of the Orient have been mistaken for the Orient itself...
...Rather, the goal of what can only be called intellectual Luddism is to seek to remove a key concept ("third world") from debate...
...But to confuse this minority whatever the high visibility of a Bob Geldof and his "Band-Aid'' with the ranks of serious third-worlders (and in France they number in tens of thousands) would be like confusing the Moonies with religion in general, or student gauchistes with socialism...
...They will, doubtless, furnish him with the material for his next "sob...
...Regarding underdeveloped countries, we now know from hard experience (i.e., of colonialism as well as its selfhating antithesis, "third-worldism") what not to do...
...Certainly the U.S...
...Four years ago, Pascal Bruckner, a young writer, produced a brilliant piece of polemics (The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt, trans, by William R. Beer, Macmillan, 1986, $17.95, 226 pp...
...I do not aim to settle accounts...
...Rather, the book's rare forays off the plateau of psychologizing have a different purpose...
...It was not John Lennon or Jean-Paul Sartre but the elites of banking, international business, and church, as well as the colonialist forces in government who initially promoted the concept of third world for their own neocolonialism purposes, and for whom it still very much serves as an ideological centerpiece...
...This is a classic instance of projection...
...membership in the latter organization...
...He may find himself making some strange and, for him, I suspect, uncomfortable bedfellows among individuals and forces considerably to his right...
...This last activity Bruckner sees as the giveaway: the ' 'tiers-mondains'' used the third world to fight their domestic battles...
...Some people who were once benignly disposed toward this cause are now unsure or even scornful...
...This may be rather less so in the U. S. (though since Vietnam it has been edging up on the charts) than in the ex-colonial powers where it would be hard to find a hotter topic, and harder still to separate it from every other issue of political debate from unemployment to balance of payments to fixing cultural, defense, and foreign policy priorities...
...etc...
...have tried to present Bruckner's position and style as fully as space permits because I think he is profoundly misguided...
...A small library of serious sources has been laid up in recent decades refining the concept of third world, yet The Tears of the White Man shows no sign of assimilating this discussion, Still less does its author, for all his paeans to "the other," evince much interest in the underdeveloped nations themselves...
...Beyond this we only know we must "develop patterns of thought that are appropriate...
...Yet on closer inspection, these adjurations turn out to be not just platitudes on the order of "charter flight is still the best vehicle for friendship between peoples," and certainly not stubborn empiricism eschewing easy generalizations (for Bruckner has no interest in empiricism...
...At the outset Bruckner writes, in a confessional tone, "I do not wish to wage yet another campaign of denunciation...
...No less than the French is American public life vulnerable to emotional appeals which conceal political agendas...
...Out of this darkness, there are no easy exits...
...It would not surprise me if other Beers, moved by Bruckner's "wit and style," stood up to "courageously" throw off what Ms...
...scorching what I shall punningly call the "tiers-mondains" those radical chic "third-worldists" who wore Nehru jackets, talked about their guru in Madras, and passed their time denouncing their own government's policies...
...Events in the southern hemisphere got replayed as political theater in the north, the restagers thereby "demonstrating an intellectual laziness whose only aim was to preserve the socialist Utopia of [their] STEVEN englund teaches history at the Universite de Paris-VIII and is currently writing a book on French nationalism...
...One could catalogue half this entire genus by scanning the book's footnotes, for many of the individuals Bruckner derides are, like him, "lovers" who occasionally made foolish declarations in the course of their idylls, and many of whom run periodically through cycles of commitment-disillusionmentdisaffection-and-re-commitment...
...He mocks the notion that Western political freedoms are somehow "the bright side" of a brutal, subtle, "inequality that condemns three-quarters of the human race to the darkness of poverty and the biological struggle for survival.'' The actual impact of blaming the West for the "gigantic Buchenwald" that is the third world is not to mobilize people, says Bruckner, but rather "to make them yawn" (or change channels...
...Many, indeed, will do so including no small number of repentant ex-Moonies and reconstructed Jerry Rubinses but all their "sincerity" won't prevent their renunciations from being political acts, useful to forces in the public arena only too happy to trivialize the cause at hand...
...Given such terms, Pascal Bruckner's opponents are at the same disadvantage that opponents of orthodox Freudianism sometimes face: they have to defend their mental stability rather than debate the merits (or the politics) of the issue...
...The American edition opens with an essay by William R. Beer in which he imitates Bruckner's confessional mea (felix) culpa style to a "t" while applying his psycho-reductionist argument with reckless facility...
...but the English subtitle, Compassion as Contempt, comes even closer to the author's tone and content...
...or historical reasons, the impact of Tears was strong in France...
...Bruckner believes that original sin is misplaced in modern culture...
...What's interesting and new in Bruckner's case is that here one splinter of the political right a neo-conservative crew of disillusioned radicals and ex-Maoists has tossed overboard a concept ("third world") which another, far more senior and powerful segment of the right long ago appropriated and still makes considerable capital from...
...In short, this book arose out of a political context and plays a role in it...
...History has become improvisation again...
...Kirkpatrick calls their "sympathy' ' not only for third-worldism but for all aid to underdeveloped nations and the UN (and for U.S...
...A cri du coeur, it reads as though its author gave little thought to "mere politics.'' In this, Bruckner typifies a certain breed common enough these days: the young, passionate, intellectual child-man, who '"falls in love," for sentimental reasons and in a purely emotional way, with some Great Cause such as "tiersmondisme...
...In France, as elsewhere, most thirdworlders are politically committed adults who, even if they did take the time to inventory their emotions, would not feel "masochistic" or psychologically "guilty," but would, on the contrary, see themselves as working hard to oppose institutions and individuals who are responsible for, and in some cases guilty of, the condition that the world (first and second, as well as third) is in...
...on the contrary they have increased our incomprehension and obscurity...
...The mass of tiers-mondistes are activists, working for religions, agencies, relief or economic aid groups, health and human rights organizations, government bodies, labor or trade missions, for whom commitment is not a function of hot-and-cold running feelings, but day-to-day activity in a myriad of long-standing organizations, coordinated by a theory or theories which view the concept of' 'third world'' as one relatively useful, if far from perfect, idea (among others) in grasping the international relations of power...
...The Ashram becomes the Club Med of the mind.'' And he has an easy time mocking those melodramatic assertions we all got an earful of in the seventies: the south is dying of hunger because the north is overfed...

Vol. 114 • September 1987 • No. 16


 
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