Shortly after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama declared America’s need to “restore” good relations with Muslims, forging a new way forward “based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” Many critics, including the columnist Charles Krauthammer, read the president’s comments as an unwarranted apology for American actions in the struggle against Islamic radicalism. The United States was at least partly to blame for the Islamic world’s anger, Obama seemed to imply; the rage and threats of obliteration directed at Americans, the death-dealing terror—our actions must have provoked them. When President Obama later bowed before the Saudi King Abdullah (among other world leaders), it reinforced the impression: we needed to change our ways.

President Obama’s blame-us-not-them approach would come as no surprise to the French philosopher and novelist Pascal Bruckner: it is a mild form of the cultural masochism that the Left has often exhibited before modern democracy’s despisers. In a brilliant work from the mid-1980s, Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt, Bruckner exploded the myths of “Third Worldism,” showing how Western intellectuals romanticized underdeveloped nations, whatever barbarities they committed, while pouring scorn on the basic decencies of democratic societies. In The Tyranny of Guilt, first published in France in 2006 and updated for the fine English translation by Steven Rendall, Bruckner provides a vigorous, powerfully written sequel.

The indisputable failure of “regimes thought to incarnate the new revolutionary Eden,” Bruckner notes, has resulted in a nihilistic turning inward by many Western intellectuals. “We hate ourselves much more than we love others,” he observes. “The malaise, ceasing to be supported by a political project, gnaws away at Western consciousness from within.” This remorse, almost completely disconnected from historical reality, “has become a dogma, a spiritual commodity, almost a form of currency.” Bruckner anatomizes the malaise with precision, condemns it as a “moral decay” sickening the West (Europe especially), and proposes an intellectual remedy.

The tyranny of guilt tightened its hold after September 11, as the democratic world’s encounter with Islamist fanaticism became unavoidable. As illustrative of the guilty mind, Bruckner quotes the philosopher Jacques Derrida seeking to erase any moral distinction between America and its terrorist attackers. “We are wrong to suppose too easily,” Derrida pronounced, “that all terrorism is voluntary, conscious, organized, deliberate, intentionally calculated: there are historical and political situations in which terror operates, so to speak, by itself, through the simple effect of an apparatus, through established power relationships, without anyone, any conscious subject, any person, being consciously aware of it or taking responsibility for it”—and as Derrida went on to make clear (or as clear as he could, given his hermetic prose), those apparatuses and power relations were the democratic institutions surrounding us. In sum, for Derrida, we’re all terrorists. “To one degree or another,” Bruckner sarcastically responds, “we sow death the way Monsieur Jourdain spoke prose, without knowing it!”

Bruckner examines case after case of such self-hatred, with most of his examples drawn from European debates, though American readers will recognize the pattern. There’s the Italian social thinker Giorgio Agamben equating Europe’s waiting areas for asylum-seekers and foreigners without papers with Nazi concentration camps; “Red” Ken Livingston, the former mayor of London, claiming that terrorism is an understandable response to oil-driven Western intervention in Arab lands; the novelist Sven Lindqvist charging that extermination is “at the heart of European thought”; the postmodernist Jean Baudrillard thrilling about the “absolute event” of the destruction of the Twin Towers; various apologists for the Middle East’s Jew-haters—and many more “guilt peddlers.” The peddlers view their own Western capitalist democracies as paradigmatically horrible, a global pestilence. The critics form a kind of secular clergy, penitents of a political original sin. They undermine the will of Western societies to defend themselves against Islamic radicalism, just as, in an earlier period, their predecessors undermined the fight against Communism.

And make no mistake: Islamism is a grave threat to the free society. “There is no need to accuse Islamo-fascism of hypocrisy, to find an obscure Mein Kampf in some madrassa: everything is said openly,” Bruckner says. “If we don’t understand it, that is because we are deaf and blind!” Further, to criticize radical Islam, to fight it aggressively, is not to be “Islamophobic,” a term Bruckner dismisses for crudely conflating a specific system of belief and the individuals who embrace it. Islam is an inescapable part of European life in the twenty-first century, he observes, and it should enjoy the right of religious liberty, institutions of worship, and respect—but only as long as it does not claim an “extraterritorial status” to impose sharia law.

The Tyranny of Guilt is scathing about multiculturalism, a particularly corrosive form of Western self-hatred. Europe’s difficulties in assimilating Muslim and other immigrants from traditionalist backgrounds find a partial explanation in the contemptuous double standards of the multiculturalist mindset. “Let us shoulder the burden of freedom, of inventing ourselves, of the equality of men and women,” Bruckner says of the typical multiculti elitist. The immigrant, by contrast, can claim “the joys of custom, forced marriages, the veil, polygamy, and clitoridectomy.” The result is a kind of cultural apartheid, incompatible with democratic values, which locks the Other in his ethnic or racial identity. Immigration can only work based on a citizenship model, Bruckner believes, “with all that presupposes in the way of learning the language and being introduced to that community’s peculiar culture.”

It’s not that the West can claim historical saintliness, of course: from slavery to the totalitarian disasters of the twentieth century, it has much to answer for. Yet what nation has avoided committing wrongs, abuses, and even horrors? History is a “butcher’s bench,” as Hegel had it. What makes the West different has been its proven willingness to reflect on its injustices—its “dark areas,” as Bruckner calls them—and seek to overcome them, with considerable success. But we must distinguish this healthy critical spirit from its perversion, argues Bruckner: a suicidal “hypercriticism” that “eventuates in self-hatred, leaving behind it only ruins.” He is harsh with the United States for mishandling the Iraq war but thinks Americans can teach Europe a thing or two about democratic self-confidence. America can still act in the world in defense of its values and way of life; Europe has nearly surrendered its will to fight—in its worst moments, looking for peace at any price.

Bruckner concludes The Tyranny of Guilt with a call to restore Western confidence—not a blind confidence but a prudent, reasoned self-respect. Several steps would help in this regard, he says, aiming his suggestions primarily at Europeans. One would be for Western intellectuals to celebrate heroes instead of focusing only on the villains. We have a “duty to our glories,” as Bruckner beautifully puts it. He hopes, too, for a reestablishment of transatlantic ties, where Old and New Worlds can combine their respective virtues—reason and dynamism, prudence and audacity— in mutually beneficial ways. Rather than expanding the European Union in an open-ended, ill-defined process, Europe, Bruckner further believes, should work toward a “condensation” of its strengths, an “intensification” of its soul. To do this, it must recognize the value, but also the proper limits, of the “poisoned gift” of critical examination.

These are lessons American elites would benefit from as well. As the Obama administration and congressional Democrats work to make the United States a more European-style society, The Tyranny of Guilt arrives at the right time (and kudos to Princeton University Press for publishing such a bracing, politically incorrect book). Pascal Bruckner, who remains a man of the left in some sense, recognizes the true genius of the West—and the capacity of its brightest minds to forget that genius or, worse, condemn it.