Newly returned from a week in Paris and well sated with delicious cheeses, magnificent art, and glorious (inexpensive!) wines, one is disinclined to reflect upon the decline of Europe. But the demographic reality so scathingly limned in Mark Steyn's "America Alone" cannot be long avoided. Those adorable French babies are not quite as scarce as, say, Lithuanian ones (a 2.1 total fertility rate is required for a society to maintain itself -- Lithuania's rate is 1.2), but the French tots are not quite adequate (1.9 percent). As for Europe as a whole, it's disappearing -- the average fertility rate is 1.53.
Many explanations for this civilizational decline have been proffered -- socialism, prosperity, selfishness, secularism. But an essay by Pascal Bruckner in City Journal, though addressing a different topic, is probably closest to the truth.
Bruckner, a Paris-born intellectual with a gift for aphorism, takes deadly aim at Europe's self-hatred -- the spirit that pervades the continent.
"Europe sees its history as a series of murders and depredations that culminated in two global conflicts." Europe, Pascal writes, has since World War II been "tormented by a need to repent. ... Those born after World War II are endowed with the certainty of belonging to the dregs of humanity, an execrable civilization that has dominated and pillaged most of the world for centuries in the name of the superiority of the white man."
Do Europeans have reason to be remorseful? While denying that guilt can be transmitted from generation to generation ("As there is no hereditary transmission of victim status, so there is no transmission of oppressor status"), Bruckner acknowledges that European history is pockmarked with crimes: slavery, feudal oppression, colonialism, fascism, and communism.
But then, which continent's civilization is not? Even colonialism, the marquee European crime, is hardly a European monopoly, far less a European innovation. The Romans, Persians, Mongols, Egyptians, Turks, Inca, Japanese, Arabs, Sosso, Chinese, Sioux, and countless others have conquered and dominated other peoples. Conquest and exploitation are the rules of human history rather than the exceptions.
Bruckner suggests that Europeans have lost sight of that perspective and wallow in their own self-disgust. "We now live on self-denunciation, as if permanently indebted to the poor, the destitute, to immigrants -- as if our only duty were expiation, endless expiation, restoring without limit what we had taken from humanity from the beginning."
But of course, attempting neatly to divide whole swaths of humanity into "innocent victim" and "cruel oppressor" categories leads to mental and moral confusion.