by Bruce S. Thornton
I hate to use a cliché, but “bleeding-heart liberal” is just too accurate not to use. I suspect the phrase derives from those depictions of Jesus Christ with his exposed heart wrapped in thorns and dripping blood. This image nails the egocentric, self-righteous exhibitionism of most self-styled “progressives.”
These right-thinking, tender-hearted folks think that they weep for all the suffering and misery in the world because they are sensitive, intelligent, and morally upright. Philosopher Alan Bloom, though, saw what really is going on: he called it “conspicuous compassion.” Like Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption,” conspicuous compassion is a status sign, a way of saying “I’m better than you.” For the modern God-less, such displays are the new piety, the assertion of one’s own salvation and possession of revealed truth.
These days Africa has cycled back into our public consciousness as the venue for such compassion-mongering. Africa has for centuries played this role in the West: the place where we find opportunities for showing how piously sensitive we are. Charles Dickens way back in 1853 created Mrs. Jellyby, a woman so consumed with saving the souls of savages in Africa that she completely neglects her own miserable, ruined family. Dickens called her activity “telescopic philanthropy,” which captures neatly the long-range, abstract quality of such compassion and attention, which would be much more useful closer to home.
These days, of course, jet-travel means that our Mrs. Jellybys — Oprah, Brad, Angelina, et. al. — can dash into Africa, throw some money around, take some photos, then get the hell out before they pick something up from the water. But the final result is pretty much the same. A few photogenic band-aids will be ostentatiously applied to gaping social, political, and economic wounds. Meanwhile some Mrs. Jellyby like the pop-fop Bono, whose sunglasses alone could feed an African village for a week, will keep scolding us about our selfish over-consumption that is causing all this misery.
This combination of sermonizing and self-loathing is the essence of Third-Worldism, that idealization of the non-Western “other” combined with self-flagellation over the sins of imperialism and colonialism. French philosopher Pascal Bruckner wrote a brilliant analysis of this cultural neurosis in Tears of the White Man. Bruckner describes how Third-World suffering has become a lucrative commodity for the modern media. We consume this product so that we can enjoy cost-free pathos and smug superiority about our righteousness. Television “news” specials, or movies like Blood Diamond or The Constant Gardner, revel in Africa’s misery, dishing up scenes that rend our hearts for an hour or so, at least until Desperate Housewives comes on. Usually some white Western do-gooder is the star of the show, our plucky stand-in who goes off to save all those little brown people suffering because of the greedy selfishness of the folks back home (Republicans, conservatives, multinational corporations, etc. etc.).
In addition to reducing the misery of the Third World to an emotional peep-show, these attitudes also conceal a weird ethnocentrism. All the problems of the Third-World “other” are caused by the West, but his salvation will come from the West as well. You have to be pretty powerful and superior to be both Satan and Jesus at the same time. Such arrogance leaves the African passive, without agency, with no freedom or responsibility: a perpetual victim, his humanity reduced to animal-like suffering, chronically in need of superior white folks to come and rescue him. As an old African proverb has it, the hand that gives is always above the hand that receives.
Anybody who studies seriously the problems of Africa knows money isn’t the issue, as William Easterly documents in his recent White Man’s Burden. For decades now the West has poured over a trillion dollars into Africa, most of it going for weapons or into the Swiss bank accounts of various thugs, dictators, and gangsters disguised as leaders, not to mention the huge foreign aid bureaucracies. The real problem is dysfunctional cultures that have combined the worst of pre-modern tribal customs with Western ideologies like socialism and nationalism. Not colonialism, then, but de-colonization, the swift abandonment of Africa by the Europeans after World War II, lies at the root of most of Africa’s misery. Just look at Singapore, Hong Kong, or India, where the long British presence created the economic, social, and political institutions that underwrite prosperity.
If culture is the problem, then making Africa more like the West is the solution. But the right-thinking liberal will not go down that road. His gospel of multiculturalism teaches him that all cultures are wonderful and valuable, especially those exotic non-Western ones; that none is better than another, and that if anything, the West is to blame for all the world’s ills. Hence the animus against globalization, the process of Westernizing the Third World that has proven it can raise standards of living. No, it is more gratifying and profitable to scold the fat, greedy Westerner for his over-consumption and extort more guilt money to throw down the rat-holes of corruption and political gangsterism. Meanwhile the suffering and misery will continue, and the righteous elect will display their bleeding hearts.
©2007 Bruce Thornton