“Sixty thousand blacks are annually embarked from the coast of Guinea, never to return to their native country; but they are embarked in chains; and this constant emigration which in the space of two centuries might have furnished armies to overrun the globe, accuses the guilt of Europe and the weakness of Africa.”
—Edward Gibbon

Among the few writers who can counter accusations of white man’s imperialism without empathizing with the spirit of Cecil Rhodes is the French novelist and journalist Pascal Bruckner. He has identified faulty arguments about the Third World and presented them in a visionary and iconoclastic essay.

In the American context, Bruckner could not be called either conservative or liberal. He chastises all of us for readily accepting the terms of the discourse handed down to us by those wielding much power and little authority. In the European context, he shows once again that when the chips are down, we can depend on the French tradition of clarity and common sense to counter the monstrosities of thought and imagination begotten in the Dark Ages of Teutonic Romanticism. It is not accidental that, as Terry Eagleton recently admitted in Diacritics, France is now the center of anti-Marxist reaction and not England, Germany, or, in spite of its tremendous resources of manpower, the United States.

Bruckner sets out to dismantle a term whose roots are Marxist, Romantic, and (in a perverse sort of way) Christian: the Third World. By implication, the notions of the First and Second Worlds are also questioned. He cuts across evidence in ways which place his work somewhere on the border between academic scholarship and journalism, in an area where many influential books have been born. In Dispensations, a panoramic series of interviews with prominent South Africans, Richard Neuhaus provides case material for Bruckner’s arguments. Bruckner identifies several ways of falsifying issues while tacitly assuming that the First World-Third World distinction makes sense. One consists in declaring readiness to be guided by the nonwhite man. In South Africa, the former Dutch-reformed cleric Beyers Naude is now such a self-declared penitent who advocates “deliberate subordination, our readiness to be reeducated; we have to learn to be learners under black people.” For Bruckner, this equals perpetuating the old imperial idea in reverse. While colonialism set up the teacher and pupil relationship as absolute, third-worldism reverses this relationship but retains its component of uncritical submission.

Another way to falsify issues is to worship the nonwhite cultures as perfect while reserving abuse for our own. They are supposed to be “natural,” i.e., developed without attempts at manipulation of human relationships for sinister purposes. At the same time, they are declared to be so different from our own culture that they cannot be judged by our criteria of what makes a good life: Liberty is not what people “over there” really need and want; a single killing by a white imperialist is more important and odious than the killings of thousands by black African tyrants. Neither does corruption of monumental proportions, of which Neuhaus cites several examples among the South African blacks, evoke moral condemnation. While worshiping at the altar of naturalness, the white man denies that liberty is indivisible and that human life has the same value everywhere.

Declarations that nonwhite cultures are spontaneous and perfect, while cultures originating in Europe are corrupt, carry another falsification, says Bruckner. They infantilize the nonwhite man by denying him his share of human frailty as well as his right to make mistakes and take blame for them. Here contempt masquerades as respect. This, again, is an inverted imperialistic impulse: ignoring the fact that nonwhites too are capable of barbarism and inhumanity; that injustice was not born in feudal estates or in modern cities.

This infantilizing attitude exerts a destructive influence on individuals in poor countries. They are encouraged to think of themselves as victims of Western imperialism and wait for the rich and guilty West to bail them out. They are urged to take dependence for granted: a continuation of the old imperial attitude. When help is not forthcoming, or when it does come but disappears in the sea of corruption, a new share of blame is put on the West. As a result, a welfare mentality develops in the nonwhite world: the West will provide. These things have already been made in the West; the trick is to get them from “them.” “They” owe it to us.

While admiring the social structures of Third World societies, we readily extend sympathy toward their starving members. Bruckner calls this the “celluloid pity” syndrome. It arises at the dinner table over television news when we are confronted with dying children in a remote part of the globe. Tears are shed, and we absolve ourselves of any specific responsibility while at the same time assuming the burden of guilt on an abstract level. The Dostoevskian attitude that “we are all responsible” leads to a paralysis of initiatives to help individuals. We are encouraged to deal with the question of hunger in the world as if it were solvable by “changing the system imposed by the West” into a Utopia conceived by Western intellectuals. In this Utopian world, the poor will no longer be with us. By confusing individual morality with technical economic questions, we falsify our choices. The conceptual apparatus of the ANC strategist Mfanafuthi Makatini (whom Neuhaus interviewed) is an example of total surrender to Western Utopias on the one hand and hatred of the West on another.

Related to such attitudes is contempt for the ruling elites of underdeveloped countries. They are viewed as the westernized Uncle Toms whom the revolution must destroy. The good guys are the voiceless masses, brutalized by poverty yet somehow pure and in no need of repentance. One is reminded here of 19th-century Russian ideologues who also despised “westernizing” Russians as sellouts to the West and admired the Russian peasant as the repository of virtue. When millions of Russian peasants began to engage in the destruction of millions of other Russian peasants, these Russophile ideologues emigrated to the West.

Are there any solutions? Bruckner urges us to improvise and to travel because “imperfect communication is better than a hostile silence.” Neuhaus’ Dispensations is an example of enlightened travel. His editorializing is sparse, in pleasant contrast to the heavy-handed rhetoric of many recent statements on South Africa by politicians and journalists. Neuhaus records a range of South African opinions and is wise enough not to offer instant solutions. At the same time he is not unsympathetic either with the “hidden agenda” of the ruling Nationalist Party or with the growing conviction among whites that the future of South Africa will and should be influenced by economic realities. As blacks urbanize, enter the economic mainstream, and become more productive, they will also be in a position to demand and gain political power. Neuhaus suggests that this agenda is hidden only from the willfully blind.

A much overlooked fact about South African politics is that from Beyers Naude leftward, all radical opposition depends on overseas funding. Such has been the case with Naude’s Christian Institute, with the largely black South African Council of Churches, and the African National Congress. In contrast, the independent black churches which have an aversion to politics are not beneficiaries of foreign largess.

Another relevant fact is the Afrikaner’s sense of national identity. Nationalism has become a dirty word, a substitute for racism and intolerance. Secure in their unchallenged nationalisms. Western men have long lost the sensibility which registers threats to one’s group identity. We like to emphasize that individual rights come first and nationality second. But we are not in danger of foreign occupation or of bans on our language. Such dangers are forever present to members of small nations, the Afrikaners among them, and not because they “missed the Enlightenment,” as Neuhaus somewhat patronizingly suggests. The white man’s sense of national identity is a fact of life, and while it may be an unfortunate by-product of Europe’s many centuries of development, it is not in itself evil or backward. The Afrikaners know that a civil war would inevitably be financed from abroad and thus would be a war against an external enemy.

This brings us to the underlying cause of the crisis in South Africa. Neuhaus’ left-wing interlocutors, along with public opinion in the United States, have agreed that the key is “the cancer of apartheid”: a variation on what Bruckner describes as the bash-the-white-man syndrome. Even William F. Buckley Jr. is so put off by the iniquities of apartheid that he recently declared that were he a black South African he would join the terrorist ANC. Since apartheid is so bad, since it is the root cause of the peril to their lives and property, one can only wonder why the Afrikaners are not able to grasp the fact and make the appropriate changes while there is still time.

Various explanations of Afrikaner behavior have been advanced. Most boil down to the premise that the entire economy of South Africa is based on cheap black labor. There is also the complementary notion of Afrikaner racism, which enables Afrikaner consciences to be untroubled by the reality that their comfortable existence can be maintained only by the essential enslavement of 70 percent of the population of South Africa. Comparisons are made between the Nationalists of South Africa and the National Socialists of Germany in the Hitler era.

How do the widely agreed upon assumptions above square with the facts? First, as to the incipient Nazism of the Afrikaners, it should be noted that South Africa was the only Western country which accepted unlimited Jewish immigration in the 1930’s, no questions asked, and it has remained one of the most philo-Semitic countries in the world. Any claims of the founding of the Nationalist Party based on neo-Nazi principles are simply ludicrous.

As to some moral flaw in the mentality of the white South African which enables him to profit from black anguish without batting an eye, the facts speak strongly against it. The Afrikaners are among the most devout Christians anywhere. The Afrikaner Christians might disagree with some of the “main-line” Protestant groups in the United States on homosexual marriages, etc., but their compassion for other human beings, black or white, is as real as that of believers anywhere.

Let us consider the notion that South Africa has an economy based upon cheap black labor. In fact, the industry of South Africa is highly automated and is becoming more so at a rapid pace. If black South Africans went on a general strike, the economy could and would carry on: The wound would not be fatal. A mortal wound to the economic vitality of South Africa would be the loss of the white hightech workers because of fear-induced flight from the country.

One unpleasant domestic factor must be recognized even though Neuhaus’ interlocutors seldom speak of it: Most black South Africans do not have the skills or habits to make highly productive contributions to the economy. I have yet to meet an Afrikaner who did not take it for granted that a black would one day be the chief of state of the Republic of South Africa. The issues in the minds of the whites are whether this will occur before or after blacks have the educational level which will qualify them for that status, and how to finance the astronomical bills for education.

The Botha government seems to understand that economies should not be viewed as a zero-sum game but as a process whereby high technology increases the quality of life for everyone. They seem to understand, if bishops and other divines do not, that the primary function of a government is to provide the freedom and the logistical support necessary for the creation, rather than the distribution, of wealth. South Africa is increasing opportunities for its black citizens by leaps and bounds, in comparison with other countries in Africa and elsewhere. If the Marxists and their surrogates do not work quickly, blacks in South Africa will soon have progressed economically to a level where internal revolution will be improbable.

This brings us to a problem which is central to the South African crisis and which seems to be a nonproblem to most of those to whom Richard Neuhaus has spoken. It is the fact that South Africa occupies a strategic geographic position and that it has the only large supplies of many strategic metals outside the Marxist world. These two factors make it essential that those who wish the West ill see to it that all possible pressure be brought to bear on the Republic of South Africa to insure its overthrow while there is still a chance for a Marxist takeover there. Agitprop is doing an effective job of setting the stage for the overthrow. America is now essentially convinced that the problems of the Afrikaners are of their own making, that one man/one vote would bring about democracy and peace. Few people in America ask the question, “How is it that I have the wisdom to see the solution to a problem which those, who otherwise think very much like me and who have had a lifetime of experience with the problem, cannot comprehend?” This question is so obvious that the fact we do not ask it shows that we have, in Hegelian fashion, “risen above our common sense and grasped a higher reality.” It is the ability of the Soviets, their friends and dupes, to make us suspend our reason and adopt their terms of discourse which bids so ill for South Africa and for us all. In 1971 Leonid Brezhnev said with uncharacteristic candor that two areas are critical to the victory of Moscow-style socialism in the world: the Middle East and Southern Africa. With a few exceptions, the intellectuals whom Neuhaus has interviewed live in a world without wolves roaming in the night.


[The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt, by Pascal Bruckner, translated with an introduction by William R. Beer; New York and London: The Free Press]

[Dispensations: The Future of South Africa as South Africans See It, by Richard John Neuhaus; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans]