Have you stopped murdering your political opponents?

OK, when I started this weblog, I promised myself that the two things I would never do because they’re corny and cliched were:

  • I would never waste time on articles about Anne Coulter
  • I would never write articles that were just tiny incestuous retorts to other weblogs and which obviously belonged in the comments section of someone else’s weblog

Time for the other shoe to drop ….

Brad DeLong has a thing going on at the moment about the main trope of Martin Amis’ “Koba the Dread” (capsule review: don’t bother) and about Eric Hobsbawm. Basically, the question is:

Q: Why is it that there are so many people who are generally liked and respected who are ex-Stalinists, while we hate and revile people with a Fascist background?

The usual answers to this question tend to involve tendentious corpse-counting, or slightly less tendentious assertions about the utopian ambitions and/or historical conditions pertaining to various political parties active in Europe in the 20th century. I think the answer is much simpler:

A: Because there are lots of ex-Stalinists around who are likeable, intelligent people worthy of our respect despite their political history, whereas ex-Fascists are in general a horrible bunch of people

People who like Eric Hobsbawm despite his Stalinist past do so because “well, you can forgive Eric Hobsbawm”, not because “well, you can forgive Stalinism”. If he’d been the same intelligent, generous, personable bloke, but had been a Nazi, he’d still have been forgiven. In actual fact, Nazi geniuses like Heidegger and Furtwangler were given the most incredible free pass while they were alive. It just happens to be the case that there were a lot of decent and intelligent British and American people who supported left-wing totalitarianism in the 20th century, while there were almost no decent and intelligent British and American people who supported Nazism. Or rather, it doesn’t “just happen” to be the case; I’m personally of the opinion that a Nazi Hobsbawm would have been a psychological and sociological impossibility.

Look at it this way; the question is well-posed, but most of the attempts to answer it (including Niall Ferguson’s and Brad’s) are not. Eric Hobsbawm and all the other Stalinist comrades are, in general, forgiven. Old Nazis, in general, aren’t. That’s a sociological fact, and the question invites an explanation of why that sociological fact should be the case. My explanation is that it’s a particular example of a lawlike generalisation; that Communists are in general nicer people than Fascists, so they get given more leeway. What most of the attempts to answer it seem to boil down to, is an attempt to deny the fact that they ought to explain; to attempt to reopen a judgement which has clearly already been made by society in general. If you start fulminating at Eric Hobsbawm and trying to claim that he’s on the same level as David Irving, then all you’re doing is making a short polemic of your own; you’re not coming any closer to explaining the fact that Hobsbawm is a nice old man who likes jazz and Irving is a bitter and occasionally dangerous old bastard. Furthermore, you tend to come across as a bit of a loony, or worse, as Martin Amis, and the market for that sort of writing (basically, the Daily Telegraph) is already saturated.

That’s basically what attracted me personally to left wing politics in the first place; there isn’t so much downright nastiness to left wing political writing. You can usually forgive most lefty commentators the parts of their ideas which are insanely dangerous, illiberal or impractical, because you know that their heart’s in the right place; for the most part, they’re trying to help someone less fortunate than themself, albeit usually in a monumentally counter-productive way and without thought of the side-effects. With their equivalents on the right (and it gets worse, the further right you go), the subtext is always there “me me me”. Galbraith said it, and these few words are to my mind worth every word John Rawls ever wrote, that “the project of conversative political thought throughout the ages has been that of finding a higher moral justification for selfishness”. Since I’m strongly of the belief that it matters not just what we do, but what kind of people we are, that matters to me.

While we’re on the subject, here’s a question of the same kind that I regard as much more interesting (because more personal and less subject to political grandstanding) than the one about “who was worse?”:

Q: Why is it regarded as vastly more acceptable for an adult male to attack a small child with the intention of causing pain in certain circumstances, than is for him to attack an adult female (presumably vastly more capable of defending herself) in exactly the same circumstances?

We’ve got MPs and prominent politicians (I believe the USA has too) who think it’s OK to beat their children in order to punish them for insolence. How many of them would hang onto their jobs and status if they came out tomorrow and said that they hadn’t mentioned it before, but they also beat their wives in similar circumstances? Ought to get a few comments on this one ….


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