Thursday, 3 October 2019

POSTCARD FROM LYON: SAINT-EXUPERY AND THE LOST WORLD OF ENCHANTMENT



Founded at the confluence of two imposing rivers – the Rhone and the Saone – on a tiny peninsula curiously cut out by their fast running waters, Lyon was perfectly placed to exploit to the full the earliest historical form of capitalist enterprise – the commercial exchange of merchandise by means of rapid and inexpensive transport. At this stage, the capitalist entrepreneur accumulates capital not by directly employing living labour to produce goods but simply by facilitating the exchange of goods produced already by independent artisans and farmers. (Indeed, the very meaning of “entre-preneur” is “to take between”, in other words, to exchange. For Condillac, the entrepreneur was the agent who took goods to markets.) It is evident that in such circumstances the only source of profit for commercial capital is derived from the expansion of the ambit of exchange, by extending commerce to ever-increasing geographical areas. – Hence, the paramountcy of effortless means of transport.

The commercial nature of Lyonnais wealth is evident from the squares and monuments and edifices surrounding them that were erected by the city’s bourgeoisie from the early modern age.

Thus seen, the layout and aspect of the city is in perfect congruity with its mercantile origins. What is incongruous, instead, is the preponderant homage that Lyon and its bourgeois citizens pay to what has become the city’s favourite son – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the world-renowned author of Le Petit Prince. The incongruity lies in the fact that the very short masterpiece written by Lyon’s own benjamin represents one of the most powerful late-romantic narrative critiques of the ravages of capitalist enterprise, and by extension of the Lyonnais bourgeoisie itself. The tiny tale is possibly the saddest cri de coeur that I have ever read against the traumatic catastrophic effects that the development of capitalism across the globe has engendered and that now are finally bringing our entire ecosphere very close to destruction. It is also possible for me to say that my entire intellectual life has been devoted to exploring and clarifying the real “scientific” social roots of this apocalyptic denouement beyond the emotional devastation of its passive contemplation.


Because, let us be clear, beyond languorous contemplation and pathos-filled condemnation, there is no doubt that Saint-Exupery does not even remotely begin to pose himself the question of why and how the world has come so close to the tragic condition that his “little prince” so innocently yet powerfully indicts. But the French raconteur was no political economist, which is why we cannot blame him for his analytical shortcomings. The overall and overwhelming pathos of Le Petit Prince is the Daguerreotype of the world of Disney fables so perceptively psycho-analyzed by Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment. For whereas Disney initiates children, and by extension us adults, into the world of fabled enchantment, Saint-Exupery’s “little prince” does the opposite – he alerts us and even alarms us against the dis-enchantment operated by bourgeois-capitalist society – all the while pointing to “the world we have lost” that he piquantly exhorts us to regain.


Remember that this, seen through the eyes of a candid child, is the self-same “dis-enchantment” – the Ent-zauberung – decried by Max Weber as a result of that Rationalisierung of the world – the bureaucratic massification and political alienation of humans - framed by capitalist enterprise in its relentless and end-less pursuit of profit (end-less because without rational limit and without ultimate purpose or goal). (The “framing” of the world, in the sense of fixing and rigging, of taming and sullying, of orchestrating, regimenting and manipulating social life, permeates all late-romantic critiques of capitalism, from Marx himself in social science to Lukacs, Heidegger and Sartre in philosophy, and just about every modern novelist from Dickens to Hesse and beyond.) Saint-Exupery confronts this alienation, its irrationality and aim-lessness, at the very beginning of his short tale, in a chapter entitled significantly – “The Businessman”. 

When the little prince observes a businessman counting money, he asks innocently what he does once he has finished counting. And the businessman famously replies that after he finishes counting his money…. Why, he counts some more! The irrationality of this is that, first, counting is self-evidently end-less; nut second, and as important, is the fact that due to its end-lessness, counting must also be meaningless if it becomes the overriding purpose of human activity. We work to live, we do not live to work is a realization humans have to indicate that work must have a meaning beyond the mere formal operari – beyond the infinite and meaningless mechanical repetition of monotonous activity.

We were saying that Saint-Exupery does not ask about the social content, the social reality “behind” or responsible for, if you like, this pervasive “dis-enchantment” or, as it is more commonly known since Hegel and Marx, “alienation” (Ent-fremdung). Max Weber does pose the question, and he finds it in that “exakte Kalkulation” that is behind capitalist enterprise and that is measured in money and that consists in “profits”. It is that auri sacra fames fatidically indicted and obliquely condemned by John Maynard Keynes in the inter-bellum period, just after Weber’s death. 

Yet, neither Weber (the greatest sociologist) nor Keynes (arguably the greatest economist) proceeded to elucidate the nature and content of this “exact calculation”, of this “profit”, of this “sacred hunger for gold”. What is “profit”? What social reality lies behind it? It is not a “thing” – this much we know, however much facile economists would have us equate it with “utility”. But if not a “thing”, if profit represents the monetary expression or summation of a socio-political reality, how then can this social reality – by definition unquantifiable – come to be “quantified” in monetary terms? This is also the question that Benjamin Constant failed to answer when he opined that “War is impetuousness, commerce is calculation” – meaning that commerce is to be preferred to war because, as “calculation”, it is intrinsically “rational”. But this Rationalisierung (Weber) contains the seeds of its own dissolution – first because, as Weber realized by explicit reference to “the work ethic and the spirit of capitalism” - it is exquisitely “anti-eudaemonistic”, it is un-hedonistic in sharp contradiction with its ostensible aim “to accumulate riches or wealth”. Secondly, because it engenders the homogenization and massification of the world (the famous Ent-ausserung denounced by Marx and all manner of sociologists after him, from Simmel to Mannheim to the Frankfurt School). And third because these two things combined lead inexorably to our “estrangement” (hence, alienation, Ent-fremdung) from the world.

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Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) is a heart-cry against the alienation of mass society. Yet, as we saw in part one of this Postcard, the phrase “mass society” is only a superficial description of what in reality is advanced industrial capitalist society which – again, we saw earlier – is really an indissoluble combination of two essential defining features of capitalism – overpopulation and consumerism. Saint-Exupery masterfully and imaginatively denounces the ravages of the capitalist mode of production by highlighting its “dis-enchantment” through the “enchanted” eyes of the little prince. 


To be sure, every fable – from Alice in Wonderland to (going from the classic to the jejune) Harry Potter – delights and lights our fantasy in stark contrast with the miserable petrified forest in which late capitalism has left humanity and the tarnished, polluted ecosphere with which we are left. But Saint-Exupery has the merit to conjure his “enchantment” as a direct vitriolic critique of the morass and mephitis that globalized capital has swindled upon us. – Unlike the obscenely mawkish Harry Potter tales which, if anything, are the direct adjunct of the most execrable and pernicious aspects of social life in late capitalism and again, if anything, only serve to reinforce its most deleterious consumerist ferocity. 


The candid innocence of the little prince stands in stark contrast to the seemingly inescapable nightmare that life under late capitalism has become for most humans – environmental pollution, social dislocation, cultural desecration, scarcity of the most basic vital resources from clean water to clean air, persistent and pervasive social conflict and wars within and without national boundaries, penury, insecurity, planned obsolescence, precarious social life, degraded social services, mental disorder and harmful addictions. The list goes on and on. That is why The Little Prince will endure through the ages as a denunciation of the potential for human brutality and debasement, whereas Rowland’s Harry Potter is destined to go the way of the dodo.


Seemingly, there is no way out of this horror. Sensing perhaps that the “bent wood” of humanity could never be straightened, Kant formulated his third transcendental question as “What can I hope?” (in the Critique of Practical Reason) – because remember, hope was the only thing left in Pandora’s Box once all the world’s evils had escaped from it. Saint-Exupery proposes and resolves that the answer lies in our effort and ability to “apprivoiser” the world to rediscover its enchantment. The verb apprivoiser, which unfortunately has no noun form, has been variously translated as “to domesticate” or “to privatise”. Both translations, however literal, are wildly inappropriate and indeed represent an affront to the author’s meaning and intent. The meaning of apprivoiser is much closer to the English infinitives “to empathise” and to “to confide” – to share feelings (Greek, em-pathos) and emotions with the life-world so as to be able to have faith in it, to con-fide in it (Latin, con-fides). This “empathy” is a trope that runs deep in Western philosophy – from the pre-Socratics (the a-perion, un-bounded, in-finite of Parmenides and Heraclitus) to Schopenhauer (Mit-leid, leaning on Oriental religions) to recent literary variants ranging from, say, Herman Hesse to Arthur Koestler’s “oceanic feeling” in Darkness At Noon. Like religion, the oceanic feeling – the mental effort to envisage oneself at one with the world, to identify with it and to abolish all differences (cf. Heidegger’s Identity and Difference) – is a constant trope in the human contemplation of the world, especially the religious dimension.


True: all human activity is objectification and therefore separation, diversity, difference, and thence inequality – all life is exploitation, Nietzsche would charge. Yet, the aim of human activity is reconciliation, re-union, communion and finally universality as the goal or end or com-pletion (full-ending, Voll-endung, con-clusion) of human labour or living activity. The philosopher of this supreme agon is Hegel. The agon, the strife and toil of humanity is an “activity” (Latin, agere, actus) that implies a “wishing”, an auguration (the Roman augurs divined the future in hope – cf. our “inauguration”, to begin an activity with good omens and wishes), to auspicate (cf. the Latin phrase, augusto auspicio, with best wishes).


In direct contrast to the oceanic feeling comes the notion of identity. Id-entity (Latin, id, same, plus ens, being, hence “same being”). The oceanics among us wish to identify with the rest of the world. We do not indulge in identifying ourselves from the rest. Yet this is the sole aim of Identity Politics! The sole purpose of identity politics is to divide humans into separate beings, to provoke a schism in human being, a division, a separation, a chasm, not a union or a communion. This is antithetical and anathema to our Western Judaeo-Christian religion and civilization which is founded upon the fundamental equality of human beings or souls before God. The Fall occasioned by the Original Sin – on which our crucial distinctive notion of Guilt and therefore of “conscience” is based – is the separation from divine grace or banishment from the Garden of Eden. The Original Sin is the origin of difference, and thereafter of inequality and injustice. A self-estrangement that constitutes a loss of freedom – freedom intended as the ultimate identification of the Real with the Ideal in the Absolute Spirit (Hegel). It is the “reconciliation” (Versohnung, Hegel again) of fallen secular humanity with the eternally divine. Time – mundanity, secularity – is corruption. Eternity is perfect, divine.


Identity Politics goes in the opposite direction: its aim is to affirm the equal right of all different cultures to remain different, to assert their “right” to remain different – to be treated “equally” in this “right”. But this is a banal contradiction of repulsive enormity! The existence or recognition of a “right” presupposes a system of values that allows or enables such recognition. A “right” presupposes the existence of an egalitarian framework whereby different sets of values can be homologated. Yet that is precisely what Identity Politics steadfastly and violently denies! By privileging difference, identity politics destroys the very idea of id-entity (same being) – because if the aim of identity politics is to locate and elevate differences between humans and even (schizophrenically) within humans, then the end-result will be, not a universal justice, but a universal Eris, an apocalyptic cosmic conflict – a Hobbesian war of all against all!


Identity Politics can exist only on – its sole raison d’etre is – the premise that differences (separate id-entities) can be resolved - reconciled and superseded - in a higher system of “legal rights” that makes possible their egalitarian recognition and preservation. Yet, once again, this is precisely what identity politics makes impossible! – Because its supporters and promoters – we call them identitarians - are fixated on the uncritical and uncompromising individuation of differences among and within humans, on what separates humans, rather than on what unites them. Their universalism is the universality difference and separation – and therefore inevitably of conflict. Consequently, no number of declarations of “human rights” – however “universal” or “natural” – will ever be able to find a common ground, a common foundation, a system of laws and political criteria that can do “justice” to the various identities claimed and propagated by Identity Politics! 


The most astonishingly paradoxical aspect of Identity Politics is this: - that in their zeal to etch the “rights” of each identity grouping into stone, identitarian fanatics throw fuel on the fire of difference, division and conflict – by backing in every imaginable manner and unreservedly the influx of ever-more “different” groupings that lay claim to their own ethnic, religious, sexual, ideological or sectarian “differences” or “identities” in ever-growing and evermore arcane  distinctions that resemble a nuclear chain reaction. To the point where we are fast reaching a dizzying vortex of potential social conflict where every man, woman, bi-gender, transgender – whatever! – becomes an island unto itself in an endless downward schizophrenic spiral of conflictual differentiation and resentment and hatred leading finally to civil internecine fratricidal, sororicidal, hermaphroditical, and God knows what other Wars!


Not only are identitarians rampantly insane in exasperating the existing differences between (and even within!) humans: what is most alarming is that they are just as belligerently eager to introduce fresh and inventive differences amongst and even within humans that no-one hitherto thought possible or even imaginable! Seen in this light, the right-wing reaction that this cataclysmically colossal insanity invites is only too - the word comes irresistibly to mind - natural!

Among the myriad examples of the unspeakable lunacy of left-wing identity politics and globalism is this absolute pearl from (what else?) that irrepressible font of identitarian nonsense - The New York Times:


That nativist rhetoric — that immigrants are invading the homeland — has gained ever-greater traction, and political acceptance, across the West amid dislocations wrought by vast waves of migration from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. In its most extreme form, it is echoed in the online manifesto of the man accused of gunning down 22 people last weekend in El Paso.

In the nationalists’ message-making, Sweden has become a prime cautionary tale, dripping with schadenfreude. What is even more striking is how many people in Sweden — progressive, egalitarian, welcoming Sweden — seem to be warming to the nationalists’ view: that immigration has brought crime, chaos and a fraying of the cherished social safety net, not to mention a withering away of national culture and tradition.

Fueled by an immigration backlash — Sweden has accepted more refugees per capita than any other European country — right-wing populism has taken hold, reflected most prominently in the steady ascent of a political party with neo-Nazi roots, the Sweden Democrats. In elections last year, they captured nearly 18 percent of the vote.

To dig beneath the surface of what is happening in Sweden, though, is to uncover the workings of an international disinformation machine, devoted to the cultivation, provocation and amplification of far-right, anti-immigrant passions and political forces. Indeed, that machine, most influentially rooted in Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia and the American far right, underscores a fundamental irony of this political moment: the globalization of nationalism.

The central target of these manipulations from abroad — and the chief instrument of the Swedish nationalists’ success — is the country’s increasingly popular, and virulently anti-immigrant, digital echo chamber.



Notice how here the writer – insanely blinded to the reality she is describing by the apocalyptic stupidity of her mind – on one hand concedes that there have been “dislocations wrought by vast waves of migration from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America”. And she also adjures that “Sweden has accepted more refugees per capita than any other European country”. But then, in her utterly mesmerizing imbecility, she goes on, first, to attribute this “natural” reaction of defence of Swedish values and heritage to some unspecified cosmic plot originating (where else?) in Putin’s Kremlin or Trump’s White House. And then, second, this blithering fool proceeds to regurgitate the identitarian and globalist mantra that the (obviously understandable) reaction by native Swedes to the insanity of the dislocation of their polity is the “ironic” by-product of “the globalization of nationalism”! Luckily it is nationalism that is going global and not the cosmic lunacy of perfect morons such as this reporter from the Times! The reporter is more interested in sound bites than in lucid reasoning: by definition, nationalism cannot be globalized because it is the antithesis of what is widely meant by “globalization”; nationalism can only “spread across the globe” if necessarily separate nationalist movements spread across individual nation-states. “Globalised nationalism” is a contradiction in terms because genuine nationalism is necessarily the antithesis of globalization as the words are currently universally understood! So, evidently, whilst “globalised nationalism” is an oxymoron, this Times reporter is just a plain moron.



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We suggested earlier that the central characteristic, the principium individuationis of Western Judaeo-Christian civilization is the sense – for what else could it be but a sense, a “sixth sense”? – of guilt. This sense that appears to be a consequence of our religion is in reality its essential pre-condition: it is guilt that constructs our religion, not vice versa. But guilt, the sense of guilt, depends on two necessary ingredients – memory and doubt. No, not “error”, because everything we do is at bottom an “error”. Rather, it is precisely the gnawing doubt that whatever we do might be in “error”, and the memory of what we have done – these are the preconditions of the sense of guilt. I say “the sense of guilt” because guilt itself, of course, like good and evil, does not exist – it is not a recorded fact, nor is it an object. Guilt is self-doubt upon the reminiscence of some past action – it is remorse, from the Latin re-mordere, to bite again, where what “bites” is the memory upon our self, upon our con-science, the knowledge or notion we have of our personal experience – the bite of remorse, to be pleonastic, or of compunction where the “punction” (Latin, pungere) is again the “pinch”, the pinprick of conscience.



Westerners are riddled with self-doubt and therefore with guilt – so much so that we often seek to put right actions that not only took place in the remote past, but actions that were not even carried out by us! Rather, they may have been actions attributed to, or documented to have been carried out by, our distant ancestors. If tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner – then surely to feel guilty about something is at bottom to think that we are responsible for everything that happens to us and by extension to others. Guilt is a negative emotion: by definition, it is backward-looking and so it does not and cannot lead to anything constructive. Even remedial action taken to atone for guilt does not originate from it. To the contrary, it is the need to do something about an existing state of affairs that we judge to be unjust that evokes in us the sense of guilt – almost as a justification of the remedial actions that we are about to undertake – precisely, to remedy our past “errors” or, more religiously put, “sins”.



We Westerners wallow in guilt. It is as if we could not bear to live unless we felt “responsible” (respondere, to answer for, to account) – indeed, accountable! (the German is Ver-antwortlich, answerable) – for some injustice or misdeed or even, yes, even a natural catastrophe. What Westerner has never felt “guilty” for surviving a “natural” disaster that had caused some victim? Can you imagine? A natural disaster causes a “victim” – as if nature itself could be held accountable or responsible for some kind of “sin”. For Westerners nature itself ought to feel guilty about things that occur, er, “naturally” of course! Nowadays, such are the advances of our “science”, and so refined has our sense of blame and fault become, so ethereal and detached from life, that no-one but no-one is allowed to die – “of natural causes”. Every event in the universe must have a “cause” – every accident has to justify itself before the tribunal of our sense of guilt. (Kant always likened our sense of self, our Reason, to a tribunal that acted pursuant to rules or “judgement” – and that therefore stood ready to judge be judged upon and be sentenced thereafter! The second transcendental question in the Critique of Practical Reason – after the first, “Who am I?” and before the third, “What can I hope?”, is “What can I do?” as if to say, “how can I right my wrongs?” It is the devastating realisation of the centrality of guilt to Western Judao-Christian civilization that characterizes all of Franz Kafka’s revelatory fiction.)



Identity Politics externalizes this sense of guilt. First, someone must be responsible for everything that happens in the world. Here, the tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner becomes its direct opposite – we must understand everything, not so that we may forgive everything but rather so that we may find someone to blame for it! We must understand everything so that we may identify a guilty perpetrator for every evil in the world. Everything must have a cause – and so every event must have an agent responsible for it, guilty of it! The problem is that guilt cannot be erased: it can be “atoned for”, it can be forgiven – it can be wrongfully forgotten, because sins and wrongs must never be rightfully forgotten –; but guilt, like sin, can never be, er, “washed away”. Only God can do that – but that is, you guessed it, for the day after “Judgement Day”.



Identity Politics consists essentially in finding somebody out there who is responsible for our present state – for our “condition”, for our “suffering” and our “victim-hood”. Indeed, for the proponents and agitators of Identity Politics, the “identity” that they identify and wish to champion and vindicate is always and everywhere a function of, a response and reaction to, the wrongs perpetrated by someone else or at the very least it is affront and indignation, revulsion even, at the inability or unwillingness of the guilty party or the accused to confess to his sins! The most vehement proponents of Identity Politics are not the alleged “victims” of injustice (blacks, homosexuals, Jews) – no, the most vociferous, ardent, indefatigable and unappeasable promoters of Identity are those self-same Westerners whose sense of guilt is so great….that they must find some other Westerner who is responsible for it or who refuses to atone for it. For the identitarians, what is most reprehensible and contemptible in these other evil perpetrators of sins present and past is that they steadfastly and guiltily refuse to avow their guilt and thenceforth to make amends for it!



Of course, the very first target of identitarian revulsion and loathing is – themselves! Deep down, identitarians have fully internalised the logic of guilt and self-loathing that is the central essential feature of Judaea-Christian civilisation. Yet identitarians are most keen in their rage when it is directed at – you guessed – Christianity and Judaism. Little does it matter that these religions as institutions hardly have any political weight at all in advanced capitalist societies! For this reason, they are always on the lookout for new targets for their disgust. I am “white” – so reason the identitarians - and therefore through my “culture” I am responsible and guilty for all the crucifixions of the past and the present. But more guilty than me are those other whites who refuse to confess their guilt and to atone for it: they are the “white supremacists”! They are the “white nativists” who blindly and reprehensibly insist on having a Somewhere that they can call their own, a home where they belong: Yes, - God banish the thought – an “Identity”! How dare these white supremacists and nativists – all fascists, of course! – to claim that they have the right to their own Identity when their entire history is about subjugating or suppressing the Identities of others? They insist perversely that their true identity is a superior, universal, ecumenical identity – that their culture and civilization is unique in this regard – “that all men are created equal”. Well, to hell with their equality – the only equality identitarians seek is the resolute preservation and affirmation of identity as a “human right”. Little does it matter, of course, that any legal definition of “right” requires the erection of laws and institutions that are able to homologate, and so “to equate”, disparate “rights”. There are no rights without laws; and there is no Law without “equality before the Law”. And therefore there can be no Law without “equal rights”. But equality of rights implies the supersession of separate “identities”, in direct contradiction with the insane tenets of Identity Politics.



So finally the Western sense of guilt that has given rise to the millenary search for human equality is reviled and another virulent remedy is sought in the exacerbation and indeed the exasperation of “identities” that will inevitably give rise to more inequality in a degenerating spiral that will end inevitably in violent and irresolvable conflict.



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We have argued that Guilt is the principium individuationis of Western Judaeo-Christian civilization: the Original Sin is at once the central myth of our religion and the most potent confirmation of how guilt is its quintessential notion. Guilt implies remorse. And remorse in turn implicates conscience or self-reflection and also self-doubt. To feel guilty one must have a notion of conscience as well as a doubt about the validity of one’s prior actions. Western civilization is the only human koine’ or cultural entity characterized by guilt. That is why our civilization has one other central element called “tolerance” that contains both an element of self-doubt and a component of cowardice.



Western civilization in its twin moments of guilt and tolerance suffers mortally from what is widely known as “the Stockholm Syndrome”. One of the most puzzling human phenomena that has come recently into focus is the manner in which Western people who are harmed by others especially in a manner that involves their “abduction” – their lengthy removal from their normal social environment – how these hostages come at some point of their imprisonment or confinement not just to sympathize with their abductors but indeed, much more, to share their beliefs and to espouse their cause – even to the point of turning into active militants for that cause against the interests of their own social values and institutions. The Stockholm Syndrome is indeed puzzling. For we must ask, how can people who have been abducted and removed from the protection of Western society and values and put in a situation of real potential and immediate harm by their abductors then over time come to embrace the revendications of their captors and – most puzzling of all – even turn into active fighters for what by all means should be their mortal enemies?



Evidently, there are two ingredients or elements at the heart of the Stockholm Syndrome: the first is guilt and the second is cowardice. Guilt does not only or merely make us doubt the “rightness” of our past actions; it also introduces the possibility of tolerating and even sympathizing with or sharing the values and interests of the entities against which we took our past actions that now induce our guilt and remorse. It is this “sympathy for the devil” that we must now understand and confront. We must avoid the Judaeo-Christian guilt trap whereby to understand everything is to forgive everything. Because if the purpose of understanding is to tolerate and forgive, then if we are truly confident in the superiority of our values – which include also legitimate tolerance for the tolerable – we cannot stretch those values to the point where we tolerate the intolerable and we forgive the unforgivable! There must be some inimical people and values that are so destructive of and antithetical to our own that we can neither forgive them nor tolerate – that we must simply crush and annihilate. There are some enemies in life that we must simply kill.



What characterizes Western Identity Politics could be interpreted as a specific expression of the Stockholm Syndrome. First, there is the guilt element. Then, there is the need to atone for these past sins, real or perceived. Finally, there is the “identification” with the so-called “victims”. But this identification with victims requires that the Westerner who feels guilty and wishes to atone for it must join the so-called victims in the assertion of their revendications or “rights” against “third parties” who continue to perpetrate the alleged sins or oppression. Who can these “third parties” be? Well, obviously these parties are other Western people who have not yet “repented” for their past evils.

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