Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

Prisoner of our own barbarians

Civilization versus the brats spoiled by its successful advance.

It is by now a familiar cliché, long propagated by Western thinkers and the media, that Europe and European culture are responsible for a multitude of ills. Europeans have been raised to detest themselves, certain that they have inflicted evil for which they must relentlessly atone. This evil is known by two terms: colonialism and imperialism, both driven by capitalism. Nothing today is more European than this self-hatred, this passion for cursing and lacerating ourselves. Yet, by issuing their anathemas, the high priests of defamation only signal their membership in the universe they reject. How can we fail to see that we take a strange pride in being the worst? Self-denigration is all too clearly a form of indirect self-glorification. Evil comes only from us; others are always motivated by sympathy, goodwill, and candor. Such 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. Europe remains messianic in a minor mode, campaigning for its own weakness. Barbarism is the European’s great pride; he denies that others are ever barbarous, always finding attenuating circumstances for them, which also denies them all responsibility.

The terrible presumption of the cry “we are civilized” too often meant, earlier in European history, that “we are superior to you.”

Terrible presumption? I’d argue that it happens to be the simple truth, actually. Which does NOT amount to a license to exterminatye inferior, more barbaric cultures, or otherwise victimize or denigrate them. Being fallible and human, though, probably makes such victimization pretty much inevitable.

It also happens that the bourgeois, in turn, can transform himself into a barbarian under the pretext of defending civilization, as when torture is sanctioned in the fight against terrorism. When that happens, there is a grave danger of adopting the enemy’s ways of seeing and doing, the better to defeat him; of setting up a system of generalized surveillance of citizens on the pretext of protecting them; of weakening the marvelous edifice constructed by the founders of the open society. “When fighting a monster, beware of becoming a monster yourself,” warned Nietzsche.

This is an oversimplification. Often, when fighting monsters, the pursuit of victory requires turning their own monstrous methods—their own inhumanity—against them. But I believe it’s possible to make use of those methods without succumbing to them—to recognize the necessity, while careful to maintain the proper abhorrence for them. Thus:

The civilized man must constantly look barbarism in the face, to remember where he comes from, what he has escaped—and what he could become again.

Even more importantly, to see that he does not allow civilization to be overrun by barbarism.

Two dreams confront each other in our Western democracies. One, European, wants to eradicate human malice solely by means of dialogue, tolerance, and constant reminders of past horrors. The other, American, wants to put the darker powers of human nature in the service of social perfectibility—a creative barbarism, analogous to Greek catharsis. An angelism of niceness on the one hand; the channeling and sublimation of violence, on the other. Such is our predicament. We are urged to defend the law, civilization, and decency against savagery, while knowing perfectly well that we need savagery to awaken us. We want to defeat the barbarian and also preserve him, so as to preserve the energy he instills in us. He is both detestable and desirable.

Such irresolvable paradoxes are a part of life on this planet, natural and inescapable. They can be examined; they can be analyzed. Their terms can maybe even be adjusted somewhat—their effects mitigated, their iron grip on us loosened slightly. But they can never be made to just go away, as hubristic, foolish Proggie seems to believe.

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