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Remorse As a Way of Life

April 19, 2010

Brendan Simms in WSJ Books:

Over the years, historians and political scientists, studying the ways in which societies organize themselves, have come up with a range of categories to describe the state itself: the “feudal state,” for instance, or the “garrison state,” or, more recently, the “knowledge state.” Properly applied, such labels can be a useful way of understanding the character of a nation or society at a particular historical moment.

In “The Tyranny of Guilt,” the French novelist and philosopher Pascal Bruckner adds yet another variant: the “penitent state.” Its principal characteristic is an eagerness to apologize for the sins of colonialism and genocide and other Western crimes. The penitent state, by definition, is never an innocent victim of terrorist attack but a deserving one: It has, after all, provoked the wrath of the oppressed, either at home or abroad. Mr. Bruckner cites literary figures, journalists and intellectuals throughout the Western world making the case that whatever punishments the West has been made to suffer—e.g., the horrors of 9/11—are merely well deserved. The problem with such self-flagellation, Mr. Bruckner notes, is not factual error. On the contrary, the list of Western crimes, from slavery to genocide, is long. The problem is that a culture of remorse makes the justified, and necessary, criticism of non-Western crimes almost impossible. [More]

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