The Cant of Pity

BY CONOR CRUISE O’BRIEN
THE TEARS OF THE WHITE MAN: Compassion as Contempt by Pascal Bruckner, translated from the French and with an introduction by William R. Beer. The Free Press, $17.95.
MOST OF MR. BRUCKNER’S book consists of a sottisier, or collection of snippets, interspersed with aphorisms. The sottisier, which is a rich one, is drawn almost entirely from books and articles by French left-wing intellectuals about the Third World, mostly written during the sixties and seventies, but with some examples from the present decade. The aphorisms, which are Mr. Bruckner’s, constitute a commentary on the contents of the sottisier, with reference not just to its sottises but to what Mr. Bruckner believes to be going on under the cover of the sottises. The aphorisms are in the high French manner. Some are shrewd, some are profound, some are just flashy. All are peremptory—take it or leave it. The aphorist does not try to build up a case; he hits you with his conclusions, reached intuitively.
For readers accustomed to Englishspeaking intellectual conventions, a sottisier punctuated by aphorisms is not particularly easy to read. The difficulty is increased by the fact that the sottises themselves belong in the same aphoristic tradition; a sottise is an aphorism that falls flat on its face. So in the pages of The Tears of the White Man peremptory affirmations of one kind alternate with peremptory affirmations of a different kind; it is less like a reasoned argument than like some kind of intellectual shoot-out. This is a short book—171 pages of text—but it can seem long. When I reached the last page, I experienced the same sort of relief that one feels when someone turns off a very noisy radio.
Yet the book is worth reading, even at the price of a slight headache, for the sake of the important truths it contains in the better aphorisms. Let me offer some examples.
On the fad for “primitive man":
It is reverse racism, but racism all the same. The easy ecstasy of being someone else leads to the crudest sort of reductionism. What is blessed in the “other" is nothing but the opposite of our own society; it is the hidden solution to our own anxieties, the expression of what haunts us. Primitives are pure ideas, just as the Bolivian guerrilla or the Palestinian gunman were nothing but ideas for the Third-Worldist of the Left. They are a veritable miracle drug, to be taken regularly to immunize against the state, capitalism, pollution, frigidity, or whatever else happens to bother you. Prehistoric man is a source of ecstasy because he does not want to become a capitalist, establish a state, or get rich, and we dream about him because we project on him the characteristics that are the opposite of what we are.
On guilt as self-aggrandizement:
If you are going to be the guilty party, it is more thrilling to be guilty on a universal scale than on a region-wide or family-wide scale. Civil wars and children with bloated bellies are my fault. Clouds of locusts and devastating droughts are my fault. Catastrophes, poisonings, tornadoes, butcheries are all my work. Paradoxically, this chaos has order to it, because these millions of people are acting according to an invisible logic that emanates from me.
On the destructive potential of compassion:
We care about the countries of the Southern hemisphere not because of the good they could do us, but because of the harm we can do one another with their help.
These truths are highly relevant to every European country in which the intellectual left is powerful and making use of “compassion for the Third World" to increase its power. Writing in 1983, Mr. Bruckner acknowledged that the kind of Third Worldism against which he discharged most of his aphoristic artillery was in decline. Indeed, he saw it as replaced by a blend of hostility and indifference:
Because we merely looked at our own reflection when we turned the mirror toward China, Angola and Vietnam, we are really only damning our own reflection when we attack these countries today. Our neurotic devaluation of anything Western has changed into a systematic phobia against anything that is not. The upheavals of the world, the continuation of flagrant injustices, the continuing impoverishment of destitute countries, the wanton slaughters committed by many governments—all this leaves us coldly impassive.
Aphorists never do anything by halves, nor do they acknowledge fine shades or small shifts. Still, Mr. Bruckner’s point about an underlying continuity between apparently conflicting attitudes is acute. “Compassion as contempt” is succeeded—in a significant part of the Parisian intellectual world with which the author is principally concerned—by contempt as contempt.
Yet, as it happens, compassion as contempt has had a second flowering since this book was written. The great South African crisis that visibly opened in 1984 and has raged continuously ever since has precipitated—along with a multitude of other things—a new torrent of white men’s tears of the type that, in other contexts, rightly attracted Mr. Bruckner’s suspicions and sardonic attention.
The tears in question have been flowing, for example, in Britain, especially at Southampton. The British organizing committee of the World Archaeological Congress, held at Southampton in September, decided to disinvite South African archaeologists because of their nationality. This broke a rule of the competent international body, the International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences (IUPPS), that no bona fide scholar should be discriminated against “on grounds of religion, nationality or philosophical conviction" (a rule adopted in the 1930s against Nazi encroachments). The British organizers broke that rule under pressure from the local city council and students’ union, the British Association of University Teachers, and Third World contingents who said they would not attend the congress if South Africa were represented. The organizers later defended their decision on the grounds that the need to “damage the regime in South Africa” overrides lesser considerations such as academic freedom, rules, and so forth.
This is a fine specimen of compassion as contempt. The people concerned showed no signs of knowledge of, or interest in, the specifics of the situation that purportedly moved them so deeply. The regime could in no way be “damaged” by the banning of the archaeologists. On the contrary, Pretoria must be tickled pink. The leading South African universities have long been thorns in the side of the apartheid regime. The Afrikaner right has a virulent hatred for historians and archaeologists in particular, because their scholarly work has knocked holes in some of the most sacred myths of the apartheid culture. Seven years ago the distinguished Afrikaner historian Floors van Jahrsfeld was for that reason tarred and feathered in front of an audience he was addressing at the University of South Africa at Pretoria.
If the next international conference of historians follows the same line as was adopted in the case of the archaeologists congress in Britain, Professor van Jahrsfeld will be banned, in order to register international disapproval of the cause whose adherents tarred and feathered him.
(In fairness to archaeologists generally, it should be added that the IUPPS repudiated the British decision and the Southampton Congress, and will hold an “official” congress, at Mainz next year, to which the South African archaeologists are invited.)
The logic applied at Southampton reminded me of an argument I had in the fifties with an Irish Department of Justice official about the admission to Ireland of a Hungarian family. The official reminded me that Hungary was a Communist country. “Yes,” I said, “but these people are anti-Communist, and that’s why they’re in trouble.” “All I know,” the official said, “is that they’re mixed up with communism, some way or other.”
I AM GLAD TO see that the Tears of the White Man is being published in London, which seems to stand in need of its message. I doubt that the message is equally needed in America, where the left is in eclipse, and the right cock-ahoop with its own forms of nonsense, including occasionally its own versions of compassion as contempt (compassion for the suffering people of Nicaragua, beneath the Sandinista yoke, for example: send them the contras). The right is likely to welcome The Tears of the White Man, not so much for the sake of its aphorisms as for the abundance of its sottisier. Mr. Bruckner’s industry, with the aid of his nose for nonsense, has amassed a notable anthology of left-wing idiocies about Third World countries. I can imagine it all being fed into the computers of the relevant institutions. Three specimens from the sottisier, all about China, must suffice here:
“In the appearance of the first Chinese he sets eyes on, the traveler can feel a state of exaltation that is more impressive than happiness itself, because it is a perfect state of fertile, active creation”—Josué de Castro, Le Monde diplomatique, December, 1969.
“Millions of dedicated militants will arise throughout China, an unstoppable tide. They grew up during the cultural revolution, and passionately studied courage, heroism, devotion, loyalty, sacrifice, modesty, and disdain for death. That is the milk that has nourished them. Such a sum of virtues that it makes your head spin.” — M. A. Macciochi, De la Chine (Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1974).
“I have said that we must apply the thought of Mao Tse-tung even when we don’t understand it”—T. Grumbach, Les Temps modernes, April, 1972.
The right, of course, doesn’t carry on like that: gushing about foreigners has seldom been a right-wing weakness. Nor does compassion rate anything like as high in the scale of values on the right as it does in the public discourse of the left, in democratic countries. Yet the right also can play the compassion card, as when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan attempt to base their opposition to sanctions against South Africa on the suffering that these would bring to South African blacks. A case of “contempt as compassion,” perhaps.
Whatever about the compassion, the contempt seems to be fairly evenly distributed between left and right. On both sides there is a tendency to respond— positively or negatively—to the rhetoric of Third World leaders without paying much attention to what actually goes on, for good or ill, under the rhetoric. Thus the international left used to be enthusiastic about Ghana and Tanzania as examples of “African socialism.” If you reported that — as was the case — Tanzanian socialism was a mirage and Ghanaian socialism a rip-off, then you would be classified as a neocolonialist tool. For the right, however, once a regime uses the rhetoric of Marxism-Leninism, it is automatically part of the Evil Empire, a land of totalitarian oppression where there can be nothing good, except among those who resist the regime. If you report—from, say, Ethiopia or Nicaragua—that it isn’t really like that, but more mixed, then the right will depict you as a dupe, resembling the contributors to Mr. Bruckner’s sottisier.
The competition between the two kinds of rhetoric tends to swamp rational discussion of the Third World countries that are most discussed. The Tears of the White Man is helpful against the rhetoric of the left. A companion volume dealing with the rhetoric of the right is much needed. But that would have to be written by an American, not a Frenchman, and in a different style. Any volunteers?