Tuesday, May 10, 2011

In Human Suffering, Results Are All That Matter: A Strange Pseudo-Argument by Hitchens

You may have read a political piece Christopher Hitchens recently had in the Atlantic. The article is strange for two reasons. In it he recounts the history of a communist dissident. The first strange aspect is that early on he makes a troubling assertion about the malignancy of Soviet communism versus Naziism. To his credit, Hitchens doesn't make a moral argument, instead choosing to cite Robert Conquest, who when asked why he thought Naziism to be more evil, responded only "I simply feel it to be so". Reflecting on this curious choice of quotation, it bears mentioning that close readers notice that Hitchens never has been a builder of syllogisms or deductive reasoning in general, in politics or religious deconstruction - search his work for an argument against the existence of gods, and you will search in vain. Instead (where religion is concerned) he demolishes any pretense the audience might have that belief in the incarnations of the Abrahamic god is consistent with the moral sense of any twenty-first century human being that has cared to examine his or her own convictions. In this way Hitchens is a great analogizer, partition-render, and above all a destroyer of doublethink. However in his attempt to elicit tolerance for the Soviet Union's gross misdeeds relative to Nazi Germany's (however much he qualifies this request), he comes dangerously close to missing the point of beliefs, political or otherwise. However we come by beliefs, the actual results they produce - the relevant results measurable in human suffering - are all that matters. Evaluating them based on any other characteristic is to confuse the issue, and in a dangerous way.

Trying to argue the moral superiority of Stalin against Hitler is a precious endeavor to begin with. To be clear though, it's worth making explicit what he's saying - and the very indirectness of his assertion is the second strange aspect of the article. Again, close reading pays off: since when is Hitchens indirect? When he's trying to avoid the central issue of how we measure beliefs, and the direct evaluation that would follow, that's when. (The disadvantage to being a master rhetorician is that when readers notice an argument by implication happening below the surface, they know it can only be the result of deliberate subtlety.) And here's his claim, in so many words: ultimately, flawed and catastrophic though it was, the communism that produced Stalin was a product of an attempt at thinking ourselves to a better human condition as part of the Enlightenment project, something based on reason which could apply to and benefit humanity universally. In contrast, Naziism was nothing more than the re-emergence of paleolithic tribalism in the industrial age, all base hindbrain urges of the kind expressed in the Old Testament, cloaked in demands for obedience, ex post facto justifications and other rhetorical window dressing. Consequently, if we owe any reconsideration to either party, it's to Soviet Russia rather than Nazi Germany. ("Barnyard collectivism" is how Ayn Rand referred to the forms of racism, in a rare moment granting something an even greater disdain than she held for communism.)

While this is a dangerous insinuation for reasons which will shortly become clear, I must concede that I share this same reflex when I see the Chinese Communist Party commissioning studies to prove to the innate superiority of the Han, or even their distinctness as a species. Loathe them though I might, at least before, the CCP (forcibly) invited the Tibetans and Uighurs and many, many other members of this multiethnic super-state to take part in their rationally planned future, together; this new Han nationalism is a regression. So in the end, from the standpoint of the moral principles which produce a state, this kind of unapologetic racism (from Germany, China, or anywhere else) does seem to be a step back toward the caves. Even the Romans, at their most ruthless and violent, produced able emperors from far outside the patrician families of the Eternal City, yokels who hailed from the provinces, but nonetheless found their way to the throne by ambition and craft - yokels with names like Constantine (a Celt), Diocletian (a rural Greek), even Septimus Severus, a Pune who spoke Latin with a marked Semitic accent. Nasty and genocidal though they were, broken though their succession system was, whatever "principles" could be said to have governed Rome, a stone-age demand for ethnic purity was not one of them.

But the proof is in the pudding - or in the millions who die, or don't. I'm not so sure the starving millions under Stalin cared that their hunger pangs were motivated by an ideology intending the eventual betterment of someone's lives, if not their own; I'm not sure the dissenters in the gulag took solace that at least their imprisonment resulted from a consistent interpretation of Marx, and his exhortation that the state must maintain control of the instruments of the press. It's also not clear that people in Nazi camps rued their bad luck, to end up victims of a state which had no such pretenses, instead of content that they were slain merely by faulty but well-meaning reason. The darkness of Europe's being stuck between two such murderous ideologies, regardless of the rhetorical pretensions of their progenitors, is one of the things that Hitchens's fellow ex-Trotskyist Orwell was trying to reflect in 1984.

The existence of dissidents like Rosa Luxemburg who Hitchens eulogizes in the article is a fair acid-test for whether there is actual logic underlying the ideology, however monstrous its manifestations in the real world ever became; in the barks and howls of race- and personality-driven dictatorships it's not clear what "dissident" could mean, apart from diametrically opposed. To my knowledge there has never been a North Korean hetero-ideologue driven from the Kim family's inner circle, to live in exile with artists in Mexico, to scribble furiously about how his version of Juche was the pure one, and the Kims had perverted it to their own ends. The same is true of the Nazis: without a foundation of absolute allegiance Germany and the shouts of its late iron age tribal chief, there could have been no grounds for schism.

But what better measure of an ideology can there be than the results it produces, in terms of suffering and happiness? Could there be any other measure at all? (Notice that this requirement to consider results disposes pretty well of supernatural arguments from authority.) Grand intentions are no defense, especially when they've produced such nightmares with fair consistency. Nor is the tasteful consistency and cogency of an ideology any excuse. True, consistency and intent may correlate with an ideology that produces better results. But to misunderstand their role as proxy indicators is to risk the slippery slope, and to defend preserving them for their own sake is to espeically miss the point (though this isn't Hitchens's point, since he really limits his implications to intent and consistency.) Evaluating an ideology in any terms other than the effect it has on the human condition allows us to justify the involuntary suffering of others, not because it will eventually lead to greater happiness, but to preserve the ideology itself. This is exactly backwards. Not coincidentally, the point at which this reversal occurs is inevitably the point in the history of the ideology in which it turns into a racket, to benefit whoever happens to be steering. Whatever your -ism, ask yourself what you hope it to accomplish and how it will improve human lives. Be ready to jump ship at a moment's notice as soon as the -ism loses sight of that end, exactly as Hitchens broke with Trotskyism and eventually the left in general in 1989. Understanding this question means the difference between your being a clever primate using a learned behavior to improve its life, or a cell programmed by a virus. As soon as the people around you start saying that suffering in the end matters less than the preservation of their ideology, it's time to look for the nearest exit.

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