The notion that all the world's peoples constitute a "brotherhood of man" is not a given among all human beings-it is rather the product of history. So suggests acclaimed philosopher Alain Finkielkraut in In the Name of Humanity, an unsettling reflection on the twentieth century in its twilight hours in which he asks us to rethink our assumptions about universalism and humanism. While many people look to humanist ideals as a deterrent to nationalist chauvinism, Finkielkraut challenges the abstract idea of universalism by describing the terrible crimes "civilized" Europe has committed in its name. At the same time as it challenges the inhumanity of our century's great universalistic solutions, In the Name of Humanity also confronts the more onerous elements of unreflective nationalism-clearly condemning the dangerous use of claims for ethnic purity. However, the book does not put forth a standard-issue polemic against the multitude of nationalistic currents that continue to plague the international arena. Indeed, even as he deplores the violence that seems to go hand in hand with nationalism, Finkielkraut defends its underlying cause-the need to belong.
Eloquently quoting the experiences of refugees from Hitler's Germany, he shows the reader why we must heed the call of this irreducible need. Finkielkraut reminds us that the concept of cultural relativism-indeed, the very idea of tolerating other cultures-is a relatively recent development in Western history. As he looks for answers he interrogates the differences between historical racism and the racism embedded in the philosophies of this century's genocidal movements, showing how modern racist ideologies like National Socialism look not to sin within the self as the stumbling block of human advancement but to a clandestine conspiracy by a particular, identifiable element of human society. What this form of radical racist thought eliminates is the notion of personal responsibility-instead of finding the answers to misfortune within the self, modern racism suggests that evil can be identified in others and summarily eliminated. Lucidly connected to the ideas of past thinkers, from Plato to Levinas to Hannah Arendt, Finkielkraut's latest work is a troubling indictment of our century that refuses to back away from the "messiness" of human life and culture.
In his willingness to abjure simple solutions, he offers a glimmer of hope.