In 1999 the French novelist and thinker Pascal Bruckner published a book-length essay entitled La tentation de l'innocence, in which he ponders the question of why in the West--the freest, most affluent society in the history of the world--so many people purport to be discontented, alienated, and oppressed. Ultimately, he arrives at the conclusion that many westerners, deprived of much in the way of spiritual education, satisfy themselves with a consumerist mentality, viewing themselves primarily as physical beings, whose endless desires are endlessly catered to by a capitalistic society that encourages consumerism so as to foster its own wealth. As a result, many in the West have lost touch with basic human values--particularly freedom, which allows individuals through rational choice and hard work to make meaningful and ultimately virtuous and happy lives.
Instead, says Bruckner, many in western society have adopted an attitude of passivity and often of infantilism, since doing so assures them that like the infants they aspire to be, their needs and desires will be met, not so much by their own parents but by the state, which in alarming ways acts ever more, as time goes on, in loco parentis. And acting like infants entails adopting the pose of the victim. Whoever is a victim, says Bruckner, is entitled to the sympathy of society, to the protection of the paternal state, to a life free from the possibility of catastrophe or failure. Indeed, Bruckner gives several examples of even radical Muslims who play the ultimate trump in the game of sympathy--identifying themselves with the Jews of the Holocaust. For whoever can claim to be currently in the position of European Jewry in the middle decades of the last century has it bad; no misfortune in history, as Timothy Snyder has shown again in his masterful Bloodlands, compares with that of the Jews subjected to the Holocaust.
Bruckner provides good evidence for his thesis--some shocking, some (as in the case of the woman who, after bathing her poodle and then attempting to dry it in her microwave, sued the manufacturer of the oven for not issuing a warning against using it to dry live animals) amusing (depending, of course, on how one feels about poodles)--and all of it adds up to a depressing assessment for those who subscribe to Edmund Burke's belief that free societies require a virtuous populace. More depressing still when one reflects that were he writing the book today Bruckner might find in the riots currently under weigh in England (to say nothing of the anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece, Spain, and Israel) more examples to hand than he could possibly use.
But it strikes me that Bruckner's analysis also goes far toward explaining our present discontents here in our fretful American summer of 2011. At a time that requires robust leadership we have in the highest office in the land a President who embodies the infantilization of culture lamented in Bruckner's book. Does Bruckner argue that we are plagued by people with no discernible values? One might ask what President Obama's core values are--besides his obvious thirst for reelection. As many have pointed out, "hope and change" is curiously devoid of any specific content, since the phrase can mean anything one wants it to. Indeed the mantra functions very like a mirror: the content it provides is only a view of whoever happens to look into it at the moment. If Bruckner writes about a populace in which everyone is convinced of his own uniqueness and therefore his own special right to privileges that do not extend to others, one is reminded of the sheer amount of money our President and his family have spent on junkets and self-serving indulgences afforded by the office he holds. And if in Bruckner's view many westerners behave like children because they wish not to hold responsibility and are therefore free from the need to act, one is reminded starkly of President Obama's incessant, ungracious habit of blaming others for our current problems. He is never responsible; Democrats--even when for two years they held the White House and large majorities in the Congress (including for a time a supermajority in the Senate)--are never to blame. His habit of never calling for and never proposing a budget (except for his feckless budget in the spring, which even every Democrat in the Senate voted against) demonstrates that he wishes to enjoy the office without ever taking the responsibility of holding a position, itself a perfect illustration of what Bruckner means when he writes of the citizen as child.
If Bruckner's book, however, helps us see that a little thoughtful cultural criticism can help us diagnose pressing difficulties, the book also yields melancholy reflections as well, such as the fear that if the problem was alarming enough in France and Europe to call for attention twenty years ago, might the malady have now crossed the Atlantic and come to our shores? Does the fact that we have in the Oval Office a leader who perfectly embodies the infantile behavior that Bruckner discusses mean that America is now very far down the yellow brick road to the puerile utopia of Oz, or is Barack Obama a cautionary tale, a warning that if we are not careful we could end up like Europe--i.e., at the mercy of the marauding yobs currently setting Britain aflame? It is difficult to know, but the next election should go far toward answering that question.
Whether or not Barack Obama represents American character, one thing is certain: his current lack of leadership should come as no surprise at all. He has spent the past three years complaining about the state of the Union, and with some justification, for we are in difficult circumstances. But a complaint is a dodge. It is an admission of powerlessness; it is an assertion that nothing is to be done but, as Shakespeare's very passive Richard II puts it when faced with the great crisis of his reign, "sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings." It is an admission by the passive man-boy that he is not up to the task, that the world is too much for him to handle. The habit of blame in itself tells us that our President has no real solutions. If he did, if he were confident in his principles, if, in short, he were a leader, blame would be irrelevant. He would welcome difficulty for the challenge that it is; he would remind this nation it is great because God has blessed our character with a spirit that rises to a challenge and delights in difficulty, and, as if to illustrate that very truth, he would square his shoulders and get to work. As it is, he blames. He points out tirelessly that he is not responsible. And in so doing he convinces more than any speech he could ever give that indeed he is not responsible--in any sense of the word.