Slouching towards altruism

Something good has come from Will Smith's ill-thought-out Hitler remarks.

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.

Maybe the best way out of this mess is to remember the rule that in the future, everyone will be Hitler for 15 minutes.

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....)

UPDATE: This post by Dr. Helen makes me feel less guilty about my Godwin's Law violations (and Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism looks very interesting.)

posted by Eric on 12.26.07 at 10:02 AM


Are they forgetting that this had been tried and had failed by Chamberlain in Munich?

I had just said nearly the same thing as Will Smith just the other day and I don't think that forgiveness or acting like Chamberlain flows from that.

What I said was that nobody thinks of themselves as a bad guy. Even Hitler thought he was doing good. As did Stalin.
But..... just because somebody thinks they're doing good doesn't mean they are or that you have to act as if they are. I'm more into results than intentions usually.

Have you read much Heinlein? I can't find it, but he had a quote about that, how you should realize that nobody thinks of themselves as the bad guy. It was an eyes wide open quote (typical of Heinlein), he said you don't have to agree with the guy or allow him to do what he wanted to do, but you could kill him without hate.

I read Heinlein when I was too young to understand people, but I've learned that, while he usually didn't get technology right, he always got people right.
And, while I've never killed my enemies (as much as I've had enemies), I have mostly been able to keep from hating them.
Except Arafat. There's one man I could really hate.

Veeshir   ·  December 26, 2007 2:32 PM

Excellent post, Eric. I especially like the subtle simile to Robert Bork's excreta.
Are you sure you're not a closet Objectivist?

Frank   ·  December 27, 2007 12:41 AM

Godwin's Law is bunk. It only serves to allow the promoters of tyranny to believe they aren't really tyrannical.

Brett   ·  December 27, 2007 7:51 AM

There is a crossing between the 'great man theory of history' and the more socialist 'great masses theory of history': neither is wholly right nor wholly wrong and history, itself, is not predetermined but contingent on modern circumstances which become history as that modern moment passes.

To get to Hitler you needed more than him - and the societal decay of post-WWI Germany offered a fertile ground as the old Socialist movement ran out of steam by 1919 and limped along into the 1920's. It would not align with the Communists and couldn't handle the NSDAP and other parties on the right. Before Hitler is the entire decay of political culture in Germany as the extremists waged a war of low-level assassination and intimidation against each other. The Communists would blame WWI and its bad ending on the Capitalists and their democratic socialist partners, while the National Socialists would do the same and inject various forms of conspiracies into it as well. Without that societal and political decay, Hitler would have been a mere crank in Munich. The Allies, by seeking punitive damages against Germany, removed the heavy industrial capability from Germany and left a Nation that felt restricted by outside forces.

What is disheartening is that democracy failed in Germany, and badly. Those feeling left out by representative democracy, even when they had representatives, put that political system on the brink of collapse as minorities fought it out against each other not only in the ballot boxes, but on the streets. The NSDAP in 1932 and then 1933 enjoyed far more in the way of pure votes as an overall percentage of the entire population than either of the current governing parties in the US. Democracy when run by minoritarian elites is very brittle and tends to suddenly shift and collapse. For all of the post-WWI treaty problems, Germany was industrialized, modern and still considered on the cutting edge of the arts and sciences. Democracies do, indeed, go to war with each other when they *fail*. We have had two world wars with that as a main driving point and the failures point out the problems with representative democracy.

Those brining in the Bush=Hitler concept miss the extreme point that the governing of minoritarian parties, of which there are two in the US, leads to large-scale disenfranchisement and a search for a simple way out. Hitler didn't win power by offering goodies, he won it by promising order and greatness: not that people would get goods from government, but that they would be combined with the State. That is Fascism: collectivization and depersonalization so that the State is the guiding light of personal actions.

That was seen as a *solution* to chaotic minoritarian parties each with extreme ideologies...

"Some writers have so confounded society with government,
as to leave little or no distinction between them;
whereas they are not only different, but have different origins.
Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness;
the former promotes our POSITIVELY by uniting our affections,
the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one
encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions.
The first a patron, the last a punisher."


"Our present condition, is, Legislation without law;
wisdom without a plan;
a constitution without a name;
and, what is strangely astonishing,
perfect Independance contending for dependance.

The instance is without a precedent;
the case never existed before;
and who can tell what may be the event?

The property of no man is secure in the present unbraced system of things.

The mind of the multitude is left at random, and seeing no fixed object before them, they pursue such as fancy or opinion starts.

Nothing is criminal;
there is no such thing as treason;
wherefore, every one thinks himself at liberty to act as he pleases."

-Thomas Paine, Common Sense.

When you see people confounding government and society, when laws lose meaning and become unenforceable, when there is no such thing as treason and everyone may do exactly what they please and feel no need to be held accountable to society... you do not have an orderly State and you are in the precursors to a revolution.

And those views are just as pertinent today as they were in 1776 or Germany in 1932.

ajacksonian   ·  December 27, 2007 9:36 AM

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