December 26, 2007
Slouching towards altruism
Or can I say that? I sometimes worry that Godwin's Law may be swallowing most Hitler discussions, especially for a yakker like me, because nearly everything I might say about Hitler or Nazis contains something that might be considered an analogy or a comparison. Or (shudder!) even a moral equivalency argument. It's a shame, really. Because I've read many, many books on Hitler and the Third Reich, and I've read even more about Stalin. Yet, I don't feel my internal censor tugging and tsking at me to remove Stalin or Communist references the way I do with Hitler references.
So I have a dark but true confession: usually I edit out most of the hastily written Hitler and Nazi references, comparisons, and analogies that might initially find their way into these posts. I have to. Because not only is there Godwin's Law, but I regularly invoke Godwin's Law for implicit moral support whenever I attack other people's Nazi or Hitler comparisons. A perfect example was my ridicule of the comparison between RU-486 and Zyklon B. In general, I don't like overwrought political diatribes of any sort -- even when I agree with the conclusions, and the Hitler analogies are usually a sign of desperation. Still, to inject Hitler and the Nazis into any debate is to invite scorn and moral disapproval from anyone who might feel that his "side" is being unjustly compared. So it's best avoided -- even though in my case this means not talking about Nazis.
I've often felt that the "Hitler=Bush" stuff, while intended as an attack on Bush, actually trivializes Hitler. Trivialization of evil in this manner is a lot more harmful than attacking a hated politician, and I've often wondered whether the people making this comparison realize that to compare Bush to Hitler necessarily compares Hitler to Bush. Thus, they're really acting as Hitler apologists, because they are diminishing the evil role of Hitler in history. (If Bush=Hitler and Guantanamo=Auschwitz, then Hitler=Bush and Auschwitz=Guantanamo. But I don't feel free to say things like that, because people will accuse me of trvialization of trivialization....)
Bringing up Hitler is a rhetorical mess. Naively or not, Will Smith stepped into it when he was caught saying that Hitler tried to be (or meant to be) good.
While I think Smith was wrong, I'm glad he spoke his mind, because the remark did present an educational opportunity. When the dust settles, though, I'm afraid that the only thing learned will be along the lines of "Don't Mention Hitler Ever!"
In a very refreshing essay, Roger Kimball takes a fearless look at Smith's remarks, which he sees as symptomatic of a mindset which tends to sympathize with benevolence-based fanaticism, and what Kimball calls "the imperatives of political correctness and tyranny--between what Robespierre candidly described as 'virtue and its emanation, terror.'":
That is the conjunction that should give us pause, especially when we contemplate the good intentions of the politically correct bureaucrats who preside over more and more of life in Western societies today. They mean well. They seek to boost all mankind up to their own plane of enlightenment. Inequality outrages their sense of justice. They regard conventional habits of behavior as so many obstacles to be overcome on the path to perfection. They see tradition as the enemy of innovation, which they embrace as a lifeline to moral progress. They cannot encounter a wrong without seeking to right it. The idea that some evils may be ineradicable is anathema to them. Likewise the traditional notion that the best is the enemy of the good, that many choices we face are to some extent choices among evils--such proverbial wisdom outrages their sense of moral perfectibility.To Hitler, the Jews had to be eradicated because they stood squarely in the way of human perfectibility. To Stalin it was first the Kulaks, and ultimately, anyone who might possibly pose a threat to Stalin.
I think it's debatable whether either Hitler or Stalin saw themselves as good. They certainly wanted to be seen that way, because it helped maintain their power. I think the primary difference between them was that Stalin was more of an opportunist, whereas Hitler was a fanatic -- a true believer in his own nonsense. Hitler was possessed of an artistic temperament, and he didn't just want to win; he wanted to be perfect. Or else. Stalin, on the other hand, would in my opinion have been willing to don the swastika and become Hitler's under fuehrer of the East rather than lose all power and his life (something which Hitler perceived quite accurately). The clash between Hitler and Stalin can be seen as a clash between rational, purely opportunistic evil, and irrational, fanatical evil. Stalin's primary mistake (the biggest one he made) was in misjudging Hitler as a rationally evil man like himself. Thus, it was unimaginable that Hitler would act against his own interest and invade Russia. (There were many things Hitler did that were against his interest and driven by sheer fanaticism -- another was to put Jew killing ahead of Germany's military necessity.)
The idea that either man wanted to truly be "good" evinces not only an ignorance of history, but a John Lennon-like "Imagine" mindset. Are they forgetting that this had been tried and had failed by Chamberlain in Munich? Or don't they even know about Chamberlain and Munich?
The notion that man is good and humans are perfectible is contradicted by the endless killings of the bad ones by those determined to build a better world. Stalin was smart enough to know better than to believe in his bullshit. Hitler was in the end a true-believing fool. Both attracted hordes of mindless dupes who believed in "goodness," in benevolence, in altruism, so much that they were willing to become executioners in order to achieve a better world.
The problem with these observations is that by having discussed Hitler in the context of "them" -- that tough-to-define group of people who want to build a better world and will shove their damned better world down our collective throats -- I have run seriously afoul of Godwin's Law.
Should I take it all back? Maybe go back and substitute Pol Pot and Torquemada?
Godwin forbid that I might offend.
Nah, can't do that either. I'm already running the risk of trivializing the dark side. Guess I should have thought about that before attempting to grapple with the complexities of good and evil in a blog post.
(Hey, at least I tried to be good....)
posted by Eric on 12.26.07 at 10:02 AM
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