Злі наслідки тоталітарних ідеологій

[This entry provides Ukrainian and Russian translations of a recent post on totalitarian evil offered as a gesture of support for potential Ukrainian readers. The translation is based on Google Translate. If you are in Ukraine or Russia, please comment if you can…]

Очевидно, що люди створюють зло; але людьми часто керують тоталітарні ідеології, які роблять можливим велике зло.

Однією з таких ідеологій минулого століття був сталінізм — погляд, що успіх радянського комунізму є найвищим благом; будь-яка жертва виправдана; тих, хто стоїть на заваді, треба знищити; і ті, чия жертва може допомогти досягненню комунізму, також будуть принесені в жертву. Це головне уявлення Кестлера «Тьма опівдні». Кестлер розкрив моральну «логіку» московських показових процесів через свою розповідь про допит і суд над лояльним революційним функціонером Рубашовом, а також викривлену логіку зізнання, провини, брехні та жертви, яку включав допит Рубашова.

Тепер ми знаємо, що Сталін був великим політичним злочинцем, зосередженим на поширенні й утриманні абсолютної влади та застосуванні насильства та терору для розширення своєї влади. Але як щодо його попередників, Леніна та Троцького? Суд історії висуває звинувачення обох лідерів. У своїй дуже хорошій книзі «Людство про походження зла» Джонатан Гловер стверджує, що погляди Сталіна сягають Леніна і Троцького, а також задовго до успіху більшовицької революції:

Була байдужість до окремих людей, які можуть бути знищені новою політикою. Таку думку виходив із Леніна, який писав у 1908 році, що Паризька Комуна зазнала невдачі через «надмірну щедрість» пролетаріату, який «повинен був знищити своїх ворогів», а не намагатися «вчинити на них моральний вплив». У 1917 році, коли Ленін виступав проти скасування смертної кари для дезертирів на фронті, Троцький процитував його слова: «Дурниці, як можна зробити революцію без страт?» … Це помилка, неприпустима слабкість, пацифістська ілюзія тощо» (255)

Головне розуміння Гловера полягає в тому, що пропаганда та віра в ідеологію призводять до звірства. Він стверджує, що значна частина пропаганди, мови та поведінки радянської держави була заснована на систематичній брехні, покликаній знищити моральні інстинкти простих радянських громадян. Він підкреслює використання радянськими пропагандистами принципово дегуманізуючих термінів, які використовуються для позначення «ворогів» соціалізму: «дармаїди», «брудні собаки», «гади», «куркулі». Це своєрідне моральне виховання — створення «нової радянської людини», виховання готовності миритися з приниженням і вбивством «ворога». Важливо зафіксувати точну паралель між цими словами та нацистською пропагандою та поведінкою.

Гловер чітко пояснює, що брехня є інструментом тоталітаризму, а відданість спробам побачити і висловити правду є одним із «моральних ресурсів», які формують і захищають нашу людяність.

Так що з брехнею? Ось важливий приклад. Журналіст New York Times Уолтер Дюранті був апологетом Сталіна протягом 1930-х років і впливовим лідером думок про Радянський Союз у Сполучених Штатах. І, на жаль, Дюранті приховав і виправдав масові злочини Сталіна перед широкою громадськістю в Сполучених Штатах через свою позицію в New York Times. У 1932 році Дюранті опублікував у New York Times вірш під назвою «Червона площа», який містив рядки:

Росіяни можуть бути голодними, їм не вистачає одягу та комфорту

Але ви не можете приготувати омлет, не розбивши яйця.

«Омлет не приготуєш, не розбивши яєць» …. Ця фраза принципово одіозна і дегуманізує. Вона в кількох словах виражає моральний переворот, представлений тоталітаризмом: замість суспільства, яке існує для свободи та добробуту громадян, громадяни існують як сировина для успіху держави. І справді, цю фразу мали часто вживати прихильники Сталіна і, зрештою, прихильники Великого мореплавця, голови Мао.

Василь Гроссман фіксує кожен аспект цих особливостей сталінського тоталітаризму у своєму останньому великому романі «Все тече» (1961), і цей роман більш відвертий і проклятий про ГУЛАГ та інші злочини Сталіна, ніж це можна було вважати можливими за життя Сталіна. У романі зображено становище простих радянських громадян, які стикаються з моральними дилемами і важким вибором між співучастю, ідеологічними переконаннями, особистими інтересами, чесним визнанням фактів і соромом. Ось роздуми комфортного вченого Миколи Андрійовича:

Він згадав, як у 1937 році на зборах, скликаних у зв’язку з московськими процесами, він голосував за смертну кару для Рикова і Бухаріна. Він не думав про ті зустрічі сімнадцять років…

Але тепер — тепер Микола Андрійович згадав, що був сумнів; його впевненість у винності Бухаріна була прикиданою. …

Зрештою, він вважав, що соціалістичне суспільство, суспільство без приватної власності, було побудовано вперше в історії, і що соціалізм вимагає диктатури держави. …

Чи може це бути справді соціалізм — з таборами Колими, з жахами колективізації, з канібалізмом і мільйонами смертей під час голоду? Так, були часи, коли зовсім інше розуміння проникало в межі його свідомості: що терор справді був дуже нелюдським, що страждання робітників і селян були справді дуже великими. (29-33)

Олександр Солженіцин так само описує психологію простих людей за сталінського тоталітаризму:

Найм’якшою і водночас найпоширенішою формою зради було не робити нічого поганого безпосередньо, а просто не помічати приреченого поруч, не допомагати йому, відвертати обличчя, відступати. Вони заарештували сусіда, вашого товариша по роботі чи навіть близького друга. Ти мовчав. Ви поводилися так, ніби не помічали. ГУЛАГ, 25

Тут є дві ключові думки. По-перше, «тоталізаційні» ідеології, які переконують звичайних людей у ​​вищій моральній важливості держави, є плідними каталізаторами великого зла. «Справжньо віруючі» готові чинити жахливі вчинки зі своїми побратимами, особливо коли від цього залежить їхня кар’єра та добробут. А по-друге, вирішальна важливість розкриття правди про звірства. У цьому світлі останній пост Тімоті Снайдера про документування України є важливим і своєчасним. Нинішні звірства Росії в Україні – навмисні, жорстокі та смертельні – не можна вибачити. І, як стверджує Снайдер, важливо задокументувати ці дії держави проти невинних цивільних. Історія має судити Володимира Путіна та його російських правителів за звірства, які вони замовили та вчинили.

RUSSIAN TRANSLATION

Злые последствия тоталитарных идеологий

[This entry provides a Russian translation of a recent post on totalitarian evil offered as testimony of the evil being committed by the Russian military in Ukraine today. The translation is based on Google Translate. If you are in Russia, please comment if you can…]

Очевидно, что люди творят зло; но люди часто руководствуются тоталитарными идеологиями, которые делают возможным великое зло.

Одной из таких идеологий прошлого века был сталинизм — представление о том, что успех советского коммунизма является высшим благом; любая жертва оправдана; те, кто стоит на пути, должны быть уничтожены; и те, чья жертва может помочь достижению коммунизма, также должны быть принесены в жертву. Это центральное понимание «Тьмы в полдень» Кестлера. Кестлер раскрыл моральную «логику» московских показательных процессов через свой отчет о допросе и суде над лояльным революционным функционером Рубашовым, а также извращенную логику признания, вины, лжи и жертвы, которые были включены в допрос Рубашова.

Теперь мы знаем, что Сталин был главным политическим преступником, сосредоточенным на расширении и сохранении абсолютной власти и использовании насилия и террора для расширения своей власти. А как же его предшественники Ленин и Троцкий? Суд истории обвиняет обоих лидеров. В своей очень хорошей книге «Человечество» о происхождении зла Джонатан Гловер утверждает, что взгляды Сталина восходят к Ленину и Троцкому и задолго до успеха большевистской революции:

Было равнодушие к отдельным людям, которые могли быть уничтожены новой политикой. Это мнение исходило от Ленина, который писал в 1908 году, что Парижская Коммуна потерпела поражение из-за «чрезмерной щедрости» пролетариата, который «должен был истребить своих врагов», вместо того, чтобы пытаться «оказывать на них нравственное влияние». В 1917 году, когда Ленин выступил против отмены смертной казни для дезертиров на фронте, Троцкий процитировал его слова: «Ерунда, как можно совершить революцию без расстрелов? … Это ошибка, недопустимая слабость, пацифистская иллюзия и т. д.» (255).

Главный вывод Гловера состоит в том, что пропаганда и вера в идеологию ведут к зверствам. Он утверждает, что большая часть пропаганды, языка и поведения советского государства была основана на систематической лжи, призванной разрушить моральные инстинкты простых советских граждан. Он обращает внимание на использование советскими пропагандистами принципиально дегуманизирующих терминов, используемых для обозначения «врагов» социализма: «тунеядцы», «грязные псы», «гады», «кулаки». Это своего рода нравственное воспитание — создание «нового советского человека», воспитание готовности мириться с унижением и убийством «врага». Важно отметить точную параллель между этими словами и нацистской пропагандой и поведением.

Гловер ясно дает понять, что ложь — это инструмент тоталитаризма, а стремление увидеть и выразить правду — один из «моральных ресурсов», составляющих и защищающих нашу человечность.

Так что насчет лжи? Вот важный пример. Журналист New York Times Уолтер Дюранти был апологетом Сталина в 1930-е годы, а также влиятельным мыслителем Советского Союза в Соединенных Штатах. И, к позору, Дюранти скрывал и оправдывал массовые преступления Сталина перед широкой общественностью в Соединенных Штатах через свою позицию в New York Times. В 1932 году Дюранти опубликовал в New York Times стихотворение «Красная площадь», в котором были строки:

Россиянам может быть голодно, им не хватает одежды и комфорта

Но нельзя приготовить омлет, не разбив яиц.

“Не разбив яиц, омлета не сделаешь”…. Эта фраза в корне одиозна и бесчеловечна. В нескольких словах он выражает моральный переворот, представленный тоталитаризмом: общество существует не для свободы и благополучия граждан, а граждане существуют как сырье для успеха государства. И действительно, эта фраза часто использовалась сторонниками Сталина и, в конечном счете, сторонниками Великого мореплавателя, председателя Мао.

Василий Гроссман запечатлел каждый аспект этих черт сталинского тоталитаризма в своем последнем крупном романе «Все течет» (1961), и этот роман более откровенен и изобличает ГУЛАГ и другие преступления Сталина, чем можно было бы предположить при жизни Сталина. В романе отражено положение простых советских граждан, столкнувшихся с моральными дилеммами и трудным выбором между соучастием, идеологическими убеждениями, личным интересом, честным признанием фактов и стыдом. Вот размышления удобного ученого Николая Андреевича:

Он вспомнил, как в 1937 году на собрании, созванном по поводу Московского процесса, голосовал за смертную казнь Рыкова и Бухарина. Он не думал об этих встречах семнадцать лет…

Но теперь — теперь Николай Андреевич вспомнил, что было сомнение; его уверенность в виновности Бухарина была притворством. …

Он ведь считал, что впервые в истории построено социалистическое общество, общество без частной собственности, что социализм требует диктатуры государства. …

Неужели это и есть социализм — с колымскими лагерями, с ужасами коллективизации, с каннибализмом и миллионами смертей от голода? Да, были времена, когда на окраинах его сознания пробиралось совсем другое понимание: что Террор действительно был очень бесчеловечен, что страдания рабочих и крестьян были действительно очень велики. (29-33)

Аналогичным образом Александр Солженицын описывает психологию простых людей в условиях сталинского тоталитаризма:

Самая мягкая и в то же время самая распространенная форма предательства заключалась в том, чтобы не делать ничего дурного прямо, а просто не замечать обреченного рядом с собой, не помогать ему, отворачивать лицо, отшатываться. Они арестовали соседа, вашего товарища по работе или даже вашего близкого друга. Ты промолчал. Ты вел себя так, будто не заметил. ГУЛАГ, 25

Здесь есть два ключевых вывода. Во-первых, «тотальные» идеологии, убеждающие обычных людей в высшей моральной важности государства, являются плодотворными катализаторами великого зла. «Истинно верующие» готовы делать ужасные вещи по отношению к своим ближним, особенно когда от этого зависит их собственная карьера и благополучие. А во-вторых, решающее значение имеет раскрытие правды о злодеяниях. В этом свете недавний пост Тимоти Снайдера в «Документировании Украины» важен и своевременен. Нынешние зверства России в Украине — преднамеренные, жестокие и смертоносные — непростительны. И, как утверждает Снайдер, крайне важно задокументировать эти действия государства против невинных гражданских лиц. История должна судить Владимира Путина и его коллег-российских правителей за совершенные ими зверства.

Atrocious and evil — Russian aggressive war in Ukraine

The moment has come, after months of insistent, indignant jabber from Vladimir Putin that he has no intention of invading Ukraine: Russian forces have invaded Ukraine across a broad front.

This act by Vladimir Putin and his military is atrocious in precisely the way that Adolph Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 was atrocious. In fact, Putin’s playbook is very similar to Hitler’s playbook: spurious claims about ancestral rights to territory, phony claims about provocative attacks by Poland (1939) and Ukraine (2022), defiant histrionics to the world about Russia’s right to the territory of Ukraine. This is an atrocity for a fundamental reason: it involves attack against a non-aggressor nation, it is unprovoked, it will undoubtedly lead to massive suffering, dislocation, and death of innocent Ukrainian citizens. Putin demonstrates that he — and now the country for which he is unopposed dictator — have complete disregard for international law, the rights and dignity of non-combatants, and the legal and moral importance of sovereignty. 

The point deserves to be underlined: Putin is a dictator, and contemporary Russia is a dictatorship. Independent critics are imprisoned, persecuted, and assassinated; political organizations that dissent from Putin’s rule are suppressed; and ordinary citizens are intimidated. Even oligarchs are treated harshly if they fail to support Putin’s regime.

And what about Ukraine? Ukraine’s history since 1920 is a story of vast suffering, much of it at the hands of Russians and the Soviet regime. The mass and deliberate starvation campaign conducted by Stalin in 1931-33, the Holodomor (link), led to the deaths of perhaps four million Ukrainian villagers during the famine years. Stalin’s campaign of terror against his own people took a major toll on Ukrainians before and after World War II. The dictatorship of Soviet rule was harsh and unforgotten in Ukraine today. The devastation and death toll of fighting and Holocaust in 1941-43 in Ukraine against invading Nazi armies and Einsatzgruppen led to over a million deaths of Ukraine’s Jewish population, and vast military and prisoner-of-war casualties. Kiev itself was the site of the largest single site of mass killings of the Ukrainian Jewish population, Babi Yar. To be aware that once again, artillery fire, air strikes, and missiles are in the skies of Ukraine is unbearably sad for the Ukrainian people and for everyone who cares about peace and human wellbeing.

The great Ukrainian writer Vasily Grossman, citizen of Berdichev, had greater wisdom, even as he witnessed the atrocities of Nazi extermination of the Jews of eastern Europe, the defense of Stalingrad, and the eventual defeat of the Nazi regime. In Life and Fate he wrote:

I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never by conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. (Life and Fate, Part II, chapter 15)

Grossman never surrendered his belief in freedom, peace, and the dignity of the individual human being — even as he witnessed the atrocities of the Gulag, the anti-Semitic campaigns of the 1950s, and the reckless and despotic behavior of the Soviet dictatorship. 

Putin’s decision is the act of an international outlaw and cannot be forgiven. Massive, enduring, and punishing sanctions must be the response of the rest of the world. And perhaps Ukrainians can take some hope from the anthem of their countryman: “evil will never conquer”.

Jedwabne as memory and history

In July 1941 a terrible massacre of Jews took place in Jedwabne, a town in eastern Poland. The town consisted of some 3,000 residents, about half of whom were Jewish. On July 10, 1941, weeks after the German army took control of the town from the Soviet Red Army (according to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact), a largescale action of mob violence against the Jews of Jedwabne took place, leading in the end to the murder of almost all of the Jewish population of the town. (Jan Gross estimates the death count to be about 1,600 men, women, and children.) Most horrifically, the largest number of these victims were herded into a barn which was set afire; everyone inside the barn was burned to death. Similar massacres occurred in nearby villages in the same week, in Wąsosz (July 5; link) and Radziłów (July 7; link).

Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2000) attempted to gather together the historical evidence available about the massacre and to provide a fact-based narrative of what happened on that awful day. His account, and the issues about Polish Catholic complicity in anti-Semitism and murder that it raises, have created a great deal of debate in Poland.

Several major questions have dominated the historical debate over what happened at Jedwabne:

  • Was the massacre ordered or instigated by the Germans?
  • Was ambient hatred of Jews among inter-war Poles responsible for this willingness to murder fellow human beings?
  • Was resentment against Jews for “collaboration with the Soviets” during the short period of Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland a primary factor in hostility to the Jews of Jedwabne by their neighbors?
  • Was Jedwabne typical of a common experience in rural Poland in 1941?

Journalist Anna Bikont undertook in 2000 to provide a fresh review of the events of Jedwabne, and the results are provided in The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne (2004). Her book is a remarkable work of investigative journalism, involving careful review of existing archives and interviews with a surprising number of persons who were present in Jedwabne on that terrible day. In almost every large detail Bikont confirms Gross’s key factual claims.

Bikont provides substantial documentation of the high level of anti-Semitism in eastern Poland (and the Łomża region in particular), promulgated by the extremist National Party and the Catholic Church. (The publication Catholic Cause was a frequent source of anti-Semitic exhortations.) These conclusions are based on her interviews, publications of the Church and the party, and investigative reports by the Interior Ministry. “In an Interior Ministry report of February 3, 1939, we read, ‘Anti-Semitism is spreading uncontrollably.’ In a climate where windows being smashed in Jewish homes, stalls being overturned, and Jews being beaten were daily occurrences, one case from Jedwabne that came to trial in 1939 concerned an accusation made against a Jewish woman” (51).

Bikont documents rampant anti-Semitism in the historical record. Here is a statement from her interview with Jan Skrodzki, who witnessed the brutality and murder in Jedwabne as a six-year-old child:

I often hear there’s no anti-Semitism in Poland now. I always say, ‘There are a lot of anti-Semites in my family, and of the people I know, every other one, or maybe every third, is anti-Semitic, and I could easily have been, too.’ And where did we get our anti-Semitism? The priest preached it from the pulpit, that fat Father Dołęgowski. And Poles in Radziłów lapped it up because they were uneducated or completely illiterate. Envious of Jews because they were better off. While Jews were working harder, organizing their work better, supporting each other. (235)

Bikont shares a few lines from her interview with Prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew in the Bialystok Institute of National Remembrance:

AB: You say, “The perpetrators of the crime, strictly speaking, were the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and its surroundings—a group of at least forty men … They actively participated in committing the crime, armed with sticks, crow bars, and other tools.” Let us try to trace how you came to the description you gave of the atrocity in your final findings. You read Gross’s book … (589)

Here is Prosecutor Ignatiew’s summary conclusion:

I can state that the perpetrators of the atrocity were Polish residents of Jedwabne and its surroundings, at least forty men. There is no proof that the townspeople in general were the perpetrators. To claim that there was a company of Germans in Jedwabne is as implausible as maintaining the whole town went crazy. Most people behaved passively. I can’t judge where that passivity came from. Maybe some people felt compassion for the victims but were terrified by the brutality of the killers. Others, though they may have had anti-Semitic views, were not people quick to take an active part in actions of this kind. (600)

Prosecutor Ignatiew disagrees with Gross’s account on two details. First, he believes the total number of murdered individuals was significantly fewer than the 1,600 reported in Neighbors. And second, based on his investigation he believes that the killings were instigated and encouraged by the Germans, though not commanded or organized by them. The evidence available to him supports the conclusion that the number of uniformed Germans was very small on the day of the killings. 

Antony Polonsky notes that Gross’s book created great discord about Poland’s history on its publication. Polonsky reviewed the debate about Jedwabne as it has unfolded in Poland in his important 2004 article, “Poles, Jews and the Problems of a Divided Memory” (link). Polonsky is a well-respected scholar of Jewish history, and especially of the history of the Jews in Poland, and his treatment of the facts and the historiography of Jedwabne is judicious and credible. The question of Polish culpability and collaboration is important; but in his view, the genocide was chiefly the work of Germany. “The primary responsibility for these crimes clearly lies with the Nazis” (128). But this conclusion is about the genocide of Poland’s Jews throughout the period — not specifically at Jedwabne.

Polonsky addresses the question of whether the murderous violence in Jedwabne occurred because Christian Poles believed that Jewish Poles had been disloyal under Soviet occupation. Polonsky takes a nuanced position on this question. He believes that this suspicion and resentment played a role in elevating anti-Semitism in 1940, and he notes that it was natural for the Jewish community to suspect that Soviet rule would be less harmful to them than Nazi rule. But he does not appear to believe that this was a primary cause of the murderous actions of ordinary Polish people in July 1940.

In addition, Jewish collaboration with the new Soviet authorities aroused widespread Polish resentment. It is undeniable that a fair number of Jews (like the overwhelming majority of Belarusians, a considerable number of Ukrainians, and even some Poles) welcomed the establishment of Soviet rule. In the Jewish case, this welcome was natural: it is explained by a desire to see an end to the insecurity caused by the collapse of Polish rule in these areas and the belief that the Soviets were less hostile than the Nazis and the resentment of Polish anti-Jewish policies in the interwar period. There was, in addition, some support for the communist system, although this was very much a minority position within the Jewish community. While the Soviets did offer new opportunities to individual Jews, they acted to suppress organized Jewish life, both religious and political, dissolving kehillot, banning virtually all Jewish parties and arresting their leaders. Jews made up nearly a third of the over half a million people deported by the Soviets from these areas (which inadvertently saved many of them from annihilation at the hands of the Nazis). Under these conditions, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population here very quickly lost whatever illusions they might have had about the Soviet system. (140)

Further, Polonsky and Michlic in their introduction to The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (2009) suggest that the Łomża region was exceptional for the degree of right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism it exhibited in the years before Germany’s invasion:

Such evidence as we have, both Polish and Jewish, suggests that the Łomża region in northeastern Poland where Jedwabne is located, an area that had long been a stronghold of the extreme right, was the only area in which collective massacres of Jews by civilian Poles took place in the summer of 1941—when the region, previously occupied by the Soviet Union, was reoccupied by Nazi Germany. (The Neighbors Respond, 45)

Polonsky and Michlic suggest that pogroms like these in the northeast were uncommon elsewhere in Poland, and that similar pogroms occurred in western Ukraine on a much broader scale. They quote research by Marco Carynnyk documenting largescale pogroms in 1941 in more than thirty places in western Ukraine, resulting in deaths estimated between 12,000 and 35,000. By that account, then, Łomża region atrocities (including Jedwabne, Wąsosz, and Radziłów) were not typical of the experience of Polish-Jewish communities in most of Poland, and were more similar to the localities of western Ukraine.

Another important resource on the active involvement of non-Jewish Poles in the murder of Poland’s Jews is Jan Grabowski’s “The Polish Police: Collaboration in the Holocaust” (link). Grabowski documents the substantial role that the “Blue Police” (Polish nationals in a reconstituted police force under Nazi command) played in implementation of Nazi Jewish regulations, including confinement in ghettos in Poland’s major cities. This role included carrying out mass executions of Jews. Here is an example of Blue Police involvement in an aktion in Węgrówa small Polish city:

On the day of the Aktion in Węgrów, the German-Ukrainian Liquidierungskommando, with the assistance of the Blue Police, local firefighters, and so-called “bystanders,” murdered more than 1,000 Jews in the streets of the city. Another 8,000 Jews were marched to the Sokołów railway station, eight miles distant, and delivered to Treblinka. The Liquidierungskommando left Węgrów the following day. Their job, however, was far from complete: more than a thousand Jews remained hidden inside the ghetto. In the subsequent days and weeks the Polish Blue Police and the local firefighters conducted intense searches and found most of them. They either killed these Jews themselves, or delivered them to the German gendarmes for execution. (11)

Grabowski and Barbara Engelking were sued under Poland’s recent libel and defamation laws, created by the Law and Justice Party government, for publication of their book Night without End on the basis of statements about Polish individuals who were responsible for crimes against Jews. Engelking and Grabowski were first found responsible for libel against a descendent of Edward Malinowski and ordered to publicly apologize. This verdict was profoundly chilling to historians conducting historical research on the Holocaust in Poland. An appellate court took note of the negative effect the lower court ruling had on academic freedom and reversed that finding in August 2021 (link).

Polonsky makes a key point in both “Poles, Jews and the Problems of a Divided Memory” and the introduction to The Neighbors Respond, that parallels Tony Judt’s arguments in “The Past is Another Country” (link) — that confronting the ugly truths about the past is essential to moving forward to a democratic and peaceful future. Polish society has had difficulty in confronting the involvement of ordinary Polish people in the atrocities of the Holocaust and the political realities of Communist rule in Poland, and the current government is emphatic in its efforts to “sanitize” the telling of this history. In Judt’s phrase, the current government prefers myth to truth. Gross, Grabowski, Engelking, Michlic, Polonsky, and a whole cohort of historians of Poland, both inside Poland and abroad, are working hard to discover the truth.

Fourteen years of Understanding Society

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Greetings, readers… This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of Understanding Society. With this post there are 1,412 entries in the blog — about 1.4 million words. The blog began on November 2, 2007, with a post on the topic of the plasticity of the social — a theme that has persisted to the present. Here is a paragraph from that initial post:

This ontology emphasizes a deep plasticity and heterogeneity in social entities. Organizations and institutions change over time and place. Agents within these organizations change their characteristics through their own behavior, through their intentional efforts to modify them, and through the cumulative effect of agents and behavior over time and place. Social constructs are caused and implemented within a substrate of purposive and active agents whose behavior and mentality at a given time determine the features of the social entity.

Several of the themes of the philosophy of social science I have advocated over several decades are encapsulated here: the heterogeneity and plasticity of the social world, the importance of understanding social phenomena in terms of the actors who constitute them, and the deep connection between explanation and causal mechanisms.

The idea I had for the blog from the start was that it could serve as a form of “open source philosophy”, an open laboratory notebook through which this single and particular individual philosopher could work through many interesting problems, without feeling the need to create an architecture or research design for the whole. In an inchoate way I had the idea that a series of themes and cross-connections would begin to emerge, and that perhaps in the future there would be tools permitting the discovery and mapping of these interconnections more explicitly. I tried to incorporate category labels and keywords that would permit the reader to pursue a topic through many separate posts, over multiple years. Now, years later, I’ve been very struck by the fantastic efforts by Joseph DiCastro to provide a graphical interface to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link)Here is a link to an interactive screen that provides a map of the SEP with respect to topics in social and political philosophy. If only my digital assistant Alexa would develop some genuine AI skills and construct such a map for Understanding Society!

There has been a good deal of continuity through these fourteen years — philosophy of social science, philosophy of history, moral philosophy. But every year new themes and preoccupations have emerged as well. Here are a few recent examples. I’ve had an interest in the philosophy of history for many years. In the past year or so, I’ve focused that interest on the question of “confronting evil in history”, and have asked how philosophers and historians can best confront the evils of the twentieth century. There have been numerous posts in the past year on the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag, and other atrocities of the twentieth century (CAT_evil). I’ve been led to understand the Shoah in very different terms as a result.

My longstanding interest in topics in social contract philosophy gained much greater urgency for me in face of the rise of radical right-wing populism and the threat that these movements present to liberal democracy, throughout the world and in the United States. The past year has involved numerous posts on various issues raised by the theory of liberal democracy and the rising threat of authoritarian populism (CAT_progress). Is liberal democracy viable? A very recent post asks a gloomy question: what would a post-democracy United States look like (link)?

Another rising interest for me that finds expression in the blog is the topic of “organizational causes of large technology failures”. I’ve come to see accidents like Fukushima, Texas City, the Ford Pinto, and Grenfell Tower as being inherent in the fabric of modern life. Accidents and disasters like these almost always involve a dense set of connections and dysfunctions involving companies, regulatory agencies, engineering firms, and management systems — as well as the intricacies of technology design for wildly complex machines. The Boeing 737 Max disaster illustrates every aspect of this picture (link). We cannot ignore the dysfunctions to which the social infrastructure of technology systems are vulnerable, or look at them as second-order problems, if we are to have any hope of managing complex and interconnected technologies in the future. Here too there are numerous posts in Understanding Society that explore various aspects of the social and organizational causes of failure (link). 

Beyond these large themes, I’ve always found myself writing about topics that come up through unexpected paths. For example, the reading I’ve been doing about the cultures of pre-war Poland and Ukraine led me to learn about the career of Ludwik Fleck (link), a Polish medical scientist in the 1930s who anticipated many of Thomas Kuhn’s thoughts about scientific change. If I hadn’t been stimulated to think about the development of the careers of Zygmunt Bauman (link) and Leszek Kołakowski (link), I wouldn’t have been drawn to Fleck. Another fortuitous example — I have a general interest in the history of science and technology, but a chance news story about the Antikythera mechanism led me to learn more about this surprisingly complex and sophisticated technology from the second century BCE (link). And this led into more reflective thinking on my part about the history and philosophy of technology. A final example — Vasily Grossman went from being for me a dimly recognized name in Russian literature, to being a writer and human being whose journalism and fiction about the Holocaust and Stalinism are a beacon of insight for me (linklink). 

The blog is a tool of discovery and exploration for me.

Understanding Society was very fortunate to develop a fairly wide readership in the first several years of publication. I owe this good fortune to Mark Thoma, who frequently linked and sometimes reposted entries from Understanding Society in his outstanding blog, Economist’s View. Thank you, Mark! This seems to have set off a virtuous circle in the world of social media: more readers led to higher page ranks in Google and Bing, leading to more pageviews, which sustained the page ranks of the website. 

Here are two graphs of pageviews as recorded by Blogspot, the blog platform. The first graph records pageviews since 2010. The pageview count reached a peak in the middle of 2017, declined quite a bit in the next two years, and seems to have stabilized over the past two years. The second graph shows pageviews over the past twelve months, and this data is now fairly stable at about 68K pageviews per month. The total page views recorded by Blogspot since 2010 is 12.7 million.

All time:

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Last 12 months:

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The second pair of tables below record the top 10 posts in 2010-2021 and for the past twelve months. There is a good deal of consistency between the two time periods. Posts on Lukes, Bauman, Marx, and Sassen are in the top-ten posts of both time periods. 

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I’m grateful to everyone who reads the blog from time to time. This has been an important part of my intellectual growth over the past fourteen years. I invite you to think of the blog as an eclectic bookstall on the Seine that can be a source of stimulation in philosophy and social thought. Thanks for visiting — and I am confident there is more to come! 

Telling the truth about genocide and totalitarian terror

A central question in the past year or so in Understanding Society is how historians and philosophers should confront the evils of the twentieth century. It seems clear that studying these processes fully and honestly is a key part of the answer, both for scholars and for ordinary citizens. We need to confront the truth about ugly facts about our history. In his documentary article “Treblinka as Hell” Vasily Grossman tries to express why it is important to speak honestly about the facts of mass murder and genocide.

It is the duty of a writer to tell the truth however gruelling, and the duty of the reader to learn the truth. To turn aside, or to close one’s eyes to the truth is to insult the memory of the dead. The person who does not learn the whole truth will never understand what kind of enemy, what sort of monster, our great Red Army is waging battle against to the death. (399)

But telling the truth about acts of genocide, atrocities, and state crimes is not easy. This is partly true for reasons of psychology and identity — as LaCapra has argued, the horrors of the Holocaust are locations of trauma, and trauma is difficult to confront (link). But there is a more material barrier to truth-telling when it comes to genocide and state repression: the states and groups that commit or collaborate in these atrocities are very interested in preventing knowledge of their crimes to become public. And they are generally very willing to use coercion, violence, and massive deception against those who attempt to learn the truth and make it public. Truth-telling, therefore, can be career-ending or life-ending.

This situation was especially acute during the years of Soviet dictatorship in the USSR and its dependent states in Eastern Europe, and most pointedly for writers. Anyone who lived in these countries in the 1930s through the 1980s knew a great deal about the facts of dictatorship, arbitrary arrest, state lies, and the prison camps in the Gulag. But writing openly and honestly about these facts — or even whispering about them to trusted friends — could lead to arrest and imprisonment or death. So how could gifted and principled authors deal with this contradiction during Soviet times? 

A substantial number of writers during the Soviet era became willing accomplices in the ideology, propaganda, and crimes of Stalinism (and the Leninist regime that preceded). But some did not. And many who did not, did not survive the purges of 1938 and later years. 

There were a few noteworthy exceptions — writers who maintained a degree of independence and honesty, but whom good fortune permitted to survive. Consider for example Mikhail Sholokhov, a highly prominent writer from the Cossack region of the Ukraine whose Don novels became among the most popular fiction throughout the period; who became a close confidant of Stalin; and yet who persisted in expressing the suffering of the peasants of the Ukraine (his neighbors) during the 1930s collectivization and the war of starvation that Stalin waged against them. Sholokhov maintained a degree of independence and integrity, even as he navigated censorship and the NKVD. (Brian Boeck’s biography of Sholokhov, Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov, is an excellent source on Sholokhov’s life and writing. Sholokhov won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965.) Sholokhov was not entirely admirable — he is accused of sharing the anti-Semitism of the Stalinist period more generally (including sometimes his comments about Vasily Grossman). And he never wrote or spoke publicly against the genocide of the Jews during World War II, the mass exterminations that occurred across the Ukraine, or the resurgence of Soviet anti-Semitism following the end of the war. For example, his 1943 short story about Nazis at war, “The Science of Hatred,” does not mention atrocities against the Jews and other innocent people; link. But he was willing to speak some of the truth of the failures and criminality of Soviet persecution of the peasants of the Ukraine — and that was a considerable political risk. 

But consider another singular and important case in point: the life and writings of Vasily Grossman (link). (Alexandra Popoff’s biography of Grossman, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, is an excellent treatment of his life and work.) Grossman was born as a Jew in the Ukraine in 1905 (the same year as Sholokhov), and in early adulthood he became a writer. He gained a degree in chemistry and worked for several years in a coal mine and a factory. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 he attempted to volunteer for military service, but was rejected for health reasons. He was accepted as a war journalist, and he traveled with the Red Army through its most desperate fighting, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad. His journalism from the front was among the most highly respected in the Soviet Union. It was honest, penetrating, and very sensitive to the conditions of life for the average Soviet soldier in combat. 

Grossman was personally aware of the program of extermination that the invading German army was waging in the western territories of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries through his active combat experience with the Red Army. Grossman’s mother had remained in their home city, Berdichev, and in 1941 the Jews of Berdichev were rounded up and massacred. Here is Grossman’s account from about 1944 about the massacre of Berdichev (link), included in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. In a period of only two days over 20,000 Jewish children, women, and men were killed by gunfire, rifle butt, and brutal beatings — including Grossman’s mother. (Estimates range from 20,000 to 38,536 Jewish victims during the summer of 1941.) The Communist Party and the Stalinist government of the USSR were unwilling to provide an honest account of the campaign of murder and extermination against the Jews of Eastern Europe during 1941 and subsequent years, and Grossman’s directness and honesty in his journalism and in Life and Fate are exceptional. As noted in the earlier post, Grossman was the first journalist to provide extensive details about the workings of any Nazi death camp, as a result of his arrival at the site of Treblinka with the Soviet 62nd Army in 1944. His essay, “Ukraine without Jews,” is an enormously important contribution to the effort to understand the true significance of the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Grossman’s experience in the Ukraine before the war and with the Red Army gave him a dramatic view of the crimes committed by the Soviet state. He witnessed the forced collectivization of agriculture and campaign of starvation in the Ukraine in the early 1930s, the crushing terror of the late 1930s, and the creation of the Gulag in the 1940s. He thus witnessed the massive totalitarian atrocities committed by Stalin’s apparatus in the name of communism and the total power of the Communist Party, resulting in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens and hundreds of thousands of writers, engineers, functionaries, and other “enemies of the people”.

During his years as a war correspondent Grossman continued to have great respect and admiration for ordinary Red Army soldiers, but the command staff and political officers soon became contemptible to him.

Grossman wrote two important novels based on his experience at Stalingrad. Both were massively long — well over 1,000 pages. The first, Stalingrad, was published in the USSR under the title For a Just Cause in 1943 but was quickly withdrawn from the public by Soviet censors. The second, a masterpiece of world literature, was Life and Fate, and had a much more grim view of the Soviet state and of Stalinism. In 1961 the manuscript was seized (“arrested”) and Grossman was told that it could not be published for 250 years. He was expelled from the Writers Union — his primary source of income — and his health began to decline. He wrote several other novels, but died of stomach cancer in 1964 at the age of 59.

There were several themes which drew Grossman into conflict with the Stalinist censors, and with Stalin himself. First was the fact that Grossman understood very well that Hitler’s genocidal plans of extermination were directed primarily against the Jews of Europe — not random victims of war. But the Soviet party line was to refrain completely from “separating” Jewish victims from other “Soviet citizens” who died at the hands of the Nazis. This was an ideological principle, but it also derived from resurgent anti-Semitism in the USSR as well. This accounts for the Soviet, and later Ukrainian, refusal to place a memorial at Babi Yar in honor of the tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children killed there in 1941.

Second, Grossman wrote honestly about ordinary workers and soldiers, including their shortcomings. He was not primarily interested in making heroes of coal miners or infantrymen, and was very explicit about alcohol and other forms of “anti-socialist behavior” among workers. The censors, in contrast, wanted to see novels and stories in which workers were portrayed heroically.

The third line of conflict had to do with the totalitarian and murderous grip of Soviet rule itself. Grossman was especially aware of the massive harms created by Stalin’s decimation of the Red Army officer corps through purges before the war and his pig-headed interference with military strategy in the conduct of the war, leading to several million unnecessary casualties and prisoners of war. Grossman was revolted at the behavior and abuses of the state and its functionaries during the conduct of World War II, and he found ways of expressing these views in his writings — most clearly in Life and Fate. Grossman was a critic of Stalinism before it was either fashionable or safe to do so. Here is a passage from Life and Fate on the Gulag and the political prisons:

In other times, before the war, Krimov often walked past the Lubyanka at night and wondered what was happening behind the windows of that sleepless building. Those arrested were locked up in prison for eight months, a year, a year and a half, while the investigation was ongoing. Then his relatives received letters from the fields, they discovered new names: Komi, Salekhard. Norilsk, Kotlas, Magadan, Vorkutá, Kolymá, Kuznetsk, Krasnoyarsk, Karaganda, Nagayevo Bay … But thousands of people who were imprisoned in the inner Lubyanka prison disappeared forever. The prosecution informed the relatives that they had been sentenced to “ten years without the right to correspondence”, but there were no such sentences in the camps. Ten years without the right to correspond almost certainly meant that they had been shot. (853)

Consider finally the case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago exposed in great detail the horrendous crimes and scope of suffering created by Stalin’s reign of terror through secret police and prison camps. Born in 1918 near Stavropol in the North Caucasus, Solzhenitsyn’s experience of the Soviet Union came a decade or more later than that of Grossman and Sholokhov. He served in the Red Army as an artillery captain, and was arrested by Stalin’s NKVD in 1945 for critical comments about Stalin that he had included in a private letter to a friend. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years of labor in the Gulag. He was cleared of charges in 1956. 

Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag is a massive documentation of the experience of life in a labor camp in the extreme north, the tundra and the forest, of the USSR. It begins with the arrest and progresses through the many hardships and deprivations created for the prisoners by the state. The aftermath of the arrest:

For those left behind after the arrest there is the long tail end of a wrecked and devastated life. And the attempts to go and deliver food parcels. But from all the windows the answer comes in barking voices: “Nobody here by that name!” “Never heard of him!” Yes, and in the worst days in Leningrad it took five days of standing in crowded lines just to get to that window. And it may be only after half a year or a year that the arrested person responds at all. Or else the answer is tossed out: “Deprived of the right to correspond.” And that means once and for all. “No right to correspondence”—and that almost for certain means: “Has been shot.”

And the helpless desire that it might have been possible to resist:

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward. (Gulag Archipelago)

Telling the truth — as Grossman and Solzhenitsyn did remarkably well throughout their careers, and Sholokhov did in a partial way — is enormously hard in a totalitarian society. When the state is willing to send its critics to deadly labor camps, or to shoot them out of hand, it is virtually impossible to imagine many writers striving to tell the truths that they know. And in any case, since the state controls the means of publication, the critical writer cannot publish his or her work in any case. During the Soviet period, many writers wrote “for the desk drawer” — manuscripts that could only be published in the distant future. And, knowing the likelihood of hidden manuscripts, the NKVD was very careful in its searches of the apartments of suspected critics and its other victims; correspondence, files, and unpublished manuscripts were routinely burned. In the somewhat less repressive period of post-Stalinist USSR there was a period of Samizdat (self-publishing) — writings that were distributed as typescripts, hand-written documents, mimeographed documents, and eventually photocopies. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was published as Samizdat to a limited readership. But truthful description, diagnosis, and criticism — these forms of expression were almost entirely impossible within the Stalinist regime. And yet it is impossible for a society to repair its most dehumanizing features if it is impossible to speak openly about those crimes.

Striving for consensus in Nazi Germany?

Nathan Stoltzfus’s Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany has a remarkable and startling thesis: though the Nazi regime used absolutely unconstrained violence and coercion in its conquest, domination, and annihilation of its enemies (Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, the USSR), its approach to ruling Germany was strikingly different. Stoltzfus maintains that Hitler and the Nazi regime sought to cultivate broad support among Germans for its war and extermination aims, while building a strong consensus around ideology and values in the German homeland.

Except for a tiny fraction of the population, consisting of Jews, political dissidents, social outsiders, and the congenitally “incurable,” National Socialism strove to bring all Germans into line with the thinking that they should be the master of others. The effort to extract the maximal effort of the people in conquering the continent and killing millions outright was conducted with concern for the “German-blooded” people. Nazi propaganda directed German women to become the mothers of the nation through appeals to love of Nazi leaders and heroes, as well as for their own children. The National Socialist People’s Welfare (NSV) was an enormous agency dedicated to benefiting productive, racially valuable Germans. kl 54

In fact, Stoltzfus suggests that post-war Germany has fallen for a myth of its own wartime history: the myth of a violent, coercive dictatorship that compelled the German people to carry out his evil purposes.

The Germans have earned high praise for facing the crimes of their past, showing more reluctant countries how to do it. Still today there are signs of a retrenchment among some historians, as well as in the official commemorations in Germany, in the comforting belief that Hitler ruled his own “race” of people by intimidation and terror more than by incentives and rewards, that the Gestapo crushed all opposition, and that the dictatorship set its course according to its ideology and proceeded in a straight path toward it, steamrolling any obstacles with brute force. kl 102

But according to Stoltzfus, this is a myth. On the homefront, Stoltzfus appears to argue, Hitler was a calculating politician, aiming at creating a supportive and contented public, rather than a ranting dictator using murder, torture, and imprisonment to coerce his nation to his goals. And the German public was largely willing to support his policies.

Robert Gellately makes a similar case in Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.

Hitler wanted to create a dictatorship, but he also wanted the support of the people. The most important thing he could do to win them over was to solve the massive unemployment problem. Although it is clear that his regime beat the Great Depression faster than any of the Western democracies, it still took time.

The new regime made no bones about using coercion in many forms against its declared enemies, but it also sought the consent and support of the people at every turn. As I try to show in the book, consent and coercion were inextricably entwined throughout the history of the Third Reich, partly because most of the coercion and terror was used against specific individuals, minorities, and social groups for whom the people had little sympathy. (kl 195)

Thus, the Nazis did not act out of delusional or blind fanaticism in the beginning, but with their eyes wide open to the social and political realities around them. They developed their racist and repressive campaigns, by looking at German society, history, and traditions. The identification and treatment of political opponents and the persecution of social and racial outsiders illustrated the kind of populist dictatorship that developed under Hitler. (kl 264)

And Gellately argues that the German public was aware of many of the details of the violence of the secret police and the use of concentration camps and rejects the view that these facts were withheld from the German public:

This book challenges these views. It shows that a vast array of material on the police and the camps and various discriminatory campaigns was published in the media of the day. In the 1930s the regime made sure the concentration camps were reported in the press, held them up for praise, and proudly let it be known that the men and women in the camps were confined without trial on the orders of the police. kl 299

The most compelling evidence of this interpretation of Hitler’s populist dictatorship, for Stoltzfus, is the fact that there were occasional signs of public disapproval of Nazi actions, including resistance by Germany’s churches to euthanasia, protests against imprisonment of Jewish husbands of non-Jewish wives, and public protests over other issues; and the Nazi regime sought to change its behavior to conform better to the expectations of the public. These are the compromises in the title of Stoltzfus’s book.

During 1943 as well, Hitler preferred to appease rather than repress two spectacular street protests by women, even as the People’s Court increased sentences for treason. By mid-1943, complaints and jokes about the regime leaders were so prevalent that prosecutors thought that singling one person out for punishment on such an offense was untenable, and the SD was concerned about an inner collapse on the home front. kl 512

Taken separately, each instance of regime compromise might be explained as an exception that it made for specific sectors of Germans: workers, the churches, women. Taken together, the various cases of the dictatorship’s willingness to compromise in ruling the people illuminate a pattern of response to social dissent, regardless of which group was dissenting. The regime’s willingness to make concessions to the working class in order to assuage its dissatisfactions is well documented.51 But it also preempted or ameliorated signs of sustained opposition in public by other social groups as well, an approach that is hardly surprising considering its earnest manipulation of demonstrations and rallies in an effort to influence opinion and “nationalize the people.” kl 566

In this respect, if Stoltzfus and Gellately are correct, the domestic dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin were radically different. Stalin treated the population of his nation as the enemies of socialism and of the regime, and his tools of control were entirely drawn from the war chest of arrest, terror, imprisonment, and murder. Soviet citizens were terrified into submission — with the partial exception of support for the “Great Patriotic War” and Comrade Stalin’s brilliant generalship. If there is such a thing as a “scale” of totalitarianism, this suggests that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a vastly more fully totalitarian state than the domestic Nazi state in Germany.

The reason this argument by Stoltzfus is especially important today is that it is not just about history — about Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Rather, it seems to suggest a playbook for contemporary “wannabe” autocrats and dictators, including a recent president of the United States. The strategy that Hitler pursued, according to Stoltzfus, was to put forward a compelling nationalist ideology affirming the German nation, a powerful and vitriolic racism against Jews and Slavs, and an assurance that “the leader” can achieve the national interest by leading the nation and waging merciless war against its racial enemies. This is the stuff of radical right-wing populism today. Stoltzfus appears to recognize this continuity:

While his dictatorship murdered millions in the name of ideology, Hitler managed the relationship with the Germans of the Reich in ways that place him among those whom scholars now identify as “soft” dictators, who prefer the tactics of persuasion, enticement, cooptation, and compromise to work their will. These scholars associate “soft” tactics with dictatorships of the twenty-first century by contrasting them in one fell swoop with caricatures so gross they characterize both Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes. kl 204

Had he not been aiming to reshape the Germans into a Nazi national community, with a new Nazi superego, Hitler could have relied more fully on terror. But he was convinced that the existing German mythos could only be replaced by edging it out with another ideology the people found acceptable. In Nazi practice, as Hitler foresaw it, force could be deployed to secure the people’s worldview once a majority was behind it, as he continued toward winning all but the fringe. kl 230

“Soft dictatorship” at home, with a willingness to compromise when public opinion appears to demand it, along with consistent planning and action in support of the underlying racist ideology — that is a very different understanding from the traditional view of Nazi dictatorship. And yet it is a worrisome illustration of the power that charismatic, malevolent leaders can exercise over a mass society.

A Socratic morality of war?

An earlier post raised the question of whether Socrates had participated, directly or indirectly, in atrocities in war during his celebrated service as hoplite in numerous campaigns in the Peloponnesian War. And, further, it seems that Socrates never explicitly criticized the practice of massacring and enslaving the defeated foe (as was practiced by Cleon). Several readers offered useful suggestions about other places in the Platonic corpus where moral ideas about the conduct of war are discussed by Socrates. There are a few passages in the Republic, Book 5, that are relevant to the moral limits on the conduct of war, and the first Alcibiades dialogue has some relevance as well. Here I want to consider those passages to see if these passages provide principles that are relevant to violence against the innocent — massacres, slaughter of prisoners, enslavement of women and children, devastation of cities. Here the question is not “what circumstances justify a state’s decision to go to war against an antagonist”, but rather the moral limits that govern acts and targets of violence in war — the difference between legitimate acts of war and atrocities.

Here are a few relevant lines of dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon from Republic, Book 5 (link):

“But again, how will our soldiers conduct themselves toward enemies?” “In what respect?” “First, in the matter of making slaves of the defeated, do you think it right for Greeks to reduce Greek cities to slavery, or rather that so far as they are able, they should not suffer any other city to do so, but should accustom Greeks [469c] to spare Greeks, foreseeing the danger of enslavement by the barbarians?” “Sparing them is wholly and altogether the better,” said he. “They are not, then, themselves to own Greek slaves, either, and they should advise the other Greeks not to?” “By all means,” he said; “at any rate in that way they would be more likely to turn against the barbarians and keep their hands from one another.” “And how about stripping the dead after victory of anything except their weapons: is that well? Does it not furnish a pretext to cowards [469d] not to advance on the living foe, as if they were doing something needful when poking about the dead? Has not this snatching at the spoils ere new destroyed many an army?” “Yes, indeed.” “And don’t you think it illiberal and greedy to plunder a corpse, and is it not the mark of a womanish and petty spirit to deem the body of the dead an enemy when the real foeman has flown away and left behind only the instrument with which he fought? [469e] Do you see any difference between such conduct and that of the dogs who snarl at the stones that hit them but don’t touch the thrower?” “Not the slightest.” “We must abandon, then, the plundering of corpses and the refusal to permit their burial.” “By heaven, we certainly must,” he said.

And a few lines later:

“And in the matter of devastating the land of Greeks and burning their houses, how will your soldiers deal with their enemies.” “I would gladly hear your opinion of that.” “In my view,” [470b] said I, “they ought to do neither, but confine themselves to taking away the annual harvest. Shall I tell you why?” “Do.” “In my opinion, just as we have the two terms, war and faction, so there are also two things, distinguished by two differentiae. The two things I mean are the friendly and kindred on the one hand and the alien and foreign on the other. Now the term employed for the hostility of the friendly is faction, and for that of the alien is war.” “What you say is in nothing beside the mark,” he replied. “Consider, then, [470c] if this goes to the mark. I affirm that the Hellenic race is friendly to itself and akin, and foreign and alien to the barbarian.” “Rightly,” he said. “We shall then say that Greeks fight and wage war with barbarians, and barbarians with Greeks, and are enemies by nature, and that war is the fit name for this enmity and hatred. Greeks, however, we shall say, are still by nature the friends of Greeks when they act in this way, but that Greece is sick in that case and divided by faction, [470d] and faction is the name we must give to that enmity.” “I will allow you that habit of speech,” he said. “Then observe,” said I, “that when anything of this sort occurs in faction, as the word is now used, and a state is divided against itself, if either party devastates the land and burns the houses of the other such factional strife is thought to be an accursed thing and neither party to be true patriots. Otherwise, they would never have endured thus to outrage their nurse and mother. But the moderate and reasonable thing is thought to be that the victors [470e] shall take away the crops of the vanquished, but that their temper shall be that of men who expect to be reconciled and not always to wage war.” “That way of feeling,” he said, “is far less savage than the other.” “Well, then,” said I, “is not the city that you are founding to be a Greek city?” “It must be,” he said. “Will they then not be good and gentle?” “Indeed they will.” “And won’t they be philhellenes, lovers of Greeks, and will they not regard all Greece as their own and not renounce their part in the holy places common to all Greeks ?” “Most certainly.” “Will they not then regard any difference with Greeks [471a] who are their own people as a form of faction and refuse even to speak of it as war?” “Most certainly.” “And they will conduct their quarrels always looking forward to a reconciliation?” “By all means.” “They will correct them, then, for their own good, not chastising them with a view to their enslavement or their destruction, but acting as correctors, not as enemies.” “They will,” he said. “They will not, being Greeks, ravage Greek territory nor burn habitations, and they will not admit that in any city all the population are their enemies, men, women and children, but will say that only a few at any time are their foes, [471b] those, namely, who are to blame for the quarrel. And on all these considerations they will not be willing to lay waste the soil, since the majority are their friends, nor to destroy the houses, but will carry the conflict only to the point of compelling the guilty to do justice by the pressure of the suffering of the innocent.” “I,” he said, “agree that our citizens ought to deal with their Greek opponents on this wise, while treating barbarians as Greeks now treat Greeks.” “Shall we lay down this law also, then, [471c] for our guardians that they are not to lay waste the land or burn the houses?” “Let us so decree,” he said, “and assume that this and our preceding prescriptions are right.”

Several moral ideas about limits on the use of violence in warfare are evident here. First, there is the distinction between waging war against other Greeks and against barbarians (non-Greeks). And second, there is a principle of moderation applied, first to acts within war against Greeks, and then partially extended to non-Greeks.

The first passage is concerned with the case of war between Greeks. Socrates is explicit in saying that vanquished Greeks should not be enslaved; vanquished Greek cities should not be burned and annihilated; and (by implication) surrendered Greek soldiers should not be massacred. Despoiling the dead is also considered and rejected. These claims are limited to the case of war between Greek parties. They seem to express an idea of “Hellenic patriotism” over and above loyalty and obligation to one’s own polity (city). The primary rationale that Socrates provides in the first passage for these limits on the conduct of war is prudential: Greek enemies will fight differently if they are confident they will not be massacred or enslaved, and will be more likely to fight the barbarians than the Athenians. But the second passage raises a different consideration: war between Greeks should not be considered to be total or irresolvable, but should be conducted in such a way that a peaceful future can be imagined on both sides — “… their temper shall be that of men who expect to be reconciled …”. It should be seen as a matter of faction rather than war, of measured disagreement rather than unlimited efforts at annihilation of the antagonist. Eventual reconciliation should be the goal. This is the “pan-hellenism” that Socrates and Glaucon both seem to endorse.

An even more important distinction is introduced in the second passage, though not by name: the distinction between combatant and non-combatant. And the principle that is articulated is, essentially, that violence should be restricted to combatants and not aimed at non-combatants. “They will not admit that in any city all the population are their enemies, men, women and children, but will say that only a few at any time are their foes, those, namely, who are to blame for the quarrel.” Or in more modern terms, the violence of war should be used only against those who provoked and conducted war, not those who simply inhabit the city that is at war. This is a significant limit on the conduct of war as practiced by Cleon. As we saw in the previous posts, Cleon’s proposed treatment of Mytilene was an instance of annihilation rather than eventual reconciliation.

The only statement about war against non-Greeks in these passages is this: “our citizens ought to deal with their Greek opponents on this wise, while treating barbarians as Greeks now treat Greeks.” But since Greek warfare against Greeks during the Peloponnesian War involved massacre of adult men, destruction of cities, and enslavement of women and children, this passage appears to permit these practices against “barbarians”. Moreover, the sharp distinction that Socrates draws between “fellow Greek” and “alien barbarian” is ominous, suggesting that in war against barbarians there are essentially no moral limitations. “I affirm that the Hellenic race is friendly to itself and akin, and foreign and alien to the barbarian.” “Rightly,” he said. “We shall then say that Greeks fight and wage war with barbarians, and barbarians with Greeks, and are enemies by nature, and that war is the fit name for this enmity and hatred.” Enemies by nature … enmity and hatred. These are phrases that lead to the legitimacy of wars of annihilation.

We might say that Socrates’ moral universe was fundamentally constrained by a “philosophical anthropology” that we would today describe as xenophobic, racist, or imperialist. It was a worldview that systematically regarded other groups as sub-human and less worthy of moral consideration than one’s own group. But once “barbarians” are recognized as fully and equally human, the arguments given above for moderation in war between Greek adversaries apply with equal force to war between Greek and non-Greek adversaries. The distinction between combatants and non-combatants is just as compelling to the case of warfare against Persians or Phoenicians. And the case for moderation and reconciliation in war is just as valid as well. It is shared humanity rather than shared “Hellenic race” that is a legitimate basis for moderation and reconciliation. But the virulence of the Greek concept of “barbarian” and its fundamental contrast with “Hellenic” presents a huge barrier to the creation of a universalist human morality — a morality based on the traits of the human being rather than the Persian, the Greek, or the Egyptian. 

There is a basis, then, for thinking that the seeds of a more universal theory of moral limitations on the conduct of war exist in these Socratic ideas. What is missing is a recognition of the shared humanity of all social groups and civilizations — and their equal worthiness to being treated with compassion, equality, and consideration. But clearly, Plato and Socrates have not come to that insight.

The relevance of the Alcibiades dialogue (link) is more limited, because it concerns almost exclusively the question of what considerations of prudence and virtue should underlie a decision for a city to go to war against an adversary. This dialogue has relevance for the question of “just causes for war”, but almost nothing specific to say about “moral limitations on actions and strategies within war”.

Therefore neither the passages from the Republic nor the Alcibiades dialogue shed a great deal of light on the question of “Socrates and atrocity”. There is no strong statement about the fundamental moral unacceptability of the massacre of the men of a city or the enslavement of the children and women of the conquered city as human beings. Rather, there is a much weaker argument about the harmful consequences of harsh treatment towards fellow Greeks (permanent enmity and resistance) and the beneficial consequences of limits on violence (eventual reconciliation). But this is far from a clear and principled rejection of the use of massacre and enslavement as a tool of coercion in war — let alone a rejection of these uses of violence against “alien enemies”. To the charge of “participant in atrocity” we might then add the charge of “xenophobe!” to our critique of the historic Socrates. If only Glaucon had had the moral sense to press Socrates along these lines:

Glaucon: “But Socrates, when a Greek general orders the massacre of a Persian city, does he not in that act do great injustice by condemning innocent human beings to death?” Socrates: “But these are barbarians; they do not have the moral standing of Greek citizens.” Glaucon: “Do these Persian men and women not feel pain, love their children, and flourish in their freedoms?” Socrates: “What you say is true, dear Glaucon. But they are not Greek.” Glaucon: “But, dear Socrates, have you not taught that sentience, reason, language, and social feeling are the features that distinguish the Greek adult from the animal?” Socrates: “Yes, of course.” Glaucon: “And have you not agreed that Persian men and women, like the Greeks, feel, think, speak, and love one another?” Socrates: “Yes, that is obviously true, why do you repeat it?” Glaucon: “Are you not forced to agree, then, that the Persian is just as worthy of our moral consideration as the Athenian?” Socrates: “Now that you express yourself so clearly, Glaucon, I see your meaning. I am forced to agree.” Glaucon: “And so we agree, Socrates, my teacher, that all human beings must be treated virtuously, not just Greeks.” Socrates: “It is so.” Glaucon: “So, then, Socrates, we are in agreement that armies must never massacre the innocent or enslave the women and children.” Socrates: “That is the requirement of virtue.”

(Norwegian philosopher Henrik Syse has written several very interesting articles on Plato’s contributions to the theory of the morality of war herehere, and here.)

Probing atrocity in Miropol

photo: execution site at Babi Yar, Kiev, Ukraine, September 1941

It is challenging to form a mental picture of the significance and reality of the events and enormity of the Holocaust. Many of the summary facts that we “know” about the Nazi plan for extermination of the Jewish people are both inadequate to capture the human meaning of this period, and misleading or inaccurate, as Tim Snyder argues (Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning). How can we gain a better and more personal understanding of these horrible events from the 1940s?

First-person accounts and oral histories represent one form of access to the realities of the mass killings that occurred across Europe, and especially in Eastern Europe. But an especially powerful recent book takes a somewhat different approach. This is Wendy Lower’s The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, a book that proceeds from a single photograph of a single instant of brutality and murder, and helps the reader develop an extensive understanding of the human realities that led to this moment. The photograph is taken in the midst of a mass killing outside the town of Miropol in the Ukraine in October, 1941. The Jews of Miropol were forced to walk into the forest, were gathered at a previously prepared shooting pit, and were murdered by rifle fire. The photograph is unusual in that it is at close range and captures identifiable faces of both the murderers (two German soldiers and two Ukrainian militiamen) and the victim, a mother holding a child by the hand as she is shot. Lower wants to understand the photograph in detail, and to learn the identities of the individuals involved.

Lower combines the skills of an experienced historian, a resourceful crime investigator, and a compassionate observer of family tragedy in a time of mass killing. Her goal is ambitious: she would like to uncover the identity of the victims in the photograph, the killers, the photographer, and the possibility of holding the responsible persons to account in the present. And she accomplishes much of this set of goals. She gains a great deal of detailed knowledge about the Ukrainian and German personnel who were present. She forms an educated guess about the family identity of the victims in the photograph. And she learns a great deal about the photographer. Along the way she provides enough detail about the context of German military and Final Solution activity in 1941 to give the reader a fairly good idea about how this event relates to the larger orchestrated Aktions against the Jews of Eastern Europe from 1941 to 1944 — the bulk of the killing during the Holocaust.

Miropol was a small town in occupied Ukraine in the fall of 1941. It is some 220 kilometers west of Kiev, the site of the massacre at Babi Yar in September 1941. In Miropol in October several hundred Jewish men, women, and children were exterminated by gunfire. This is the Aktion recorded in the photograph at the center of The Ravine. In Kiev only a few weeks earlier, the largest massacre of Jews in the Holocaust in the occupied Ukraine and Soviet territories occurred, involving the murder over a few days of over 34,000 human beings. In 1943 the Nazis made an effort to conceal the evidence of the massacre, and the Soviets concealed the fact that the victims were Jewish, preferring instead to refer to “Soviet civilians”. No memorial was created for the Jewish dead at Babi Yar until 1991, fifty years after the massacre. There appears to be no memorial for the Jewish dead at Miropol; the handful of photographs by Škrovina alone serve as memorial. But The Ravine represents a different kind of memorial. The reader comes away with a sober and human recognition of these many hundreds of innocent victims of murder, and the lives that were stolen from them.

Lower begins with this particular photograph — a photograph of several German soldiers and Ukrainian militia men in the act of shooting a Jewish mother holding a child at the edge of a burial pit. It is a haunting photograph. But Lower goes much beyond this particular photo, including archival evidence, more photographs, interviews with witnesses and participants, and records from both Nazi and Soviet sources. She is a resourceful, talented, and determined researcher, and her ability to unearth many of the details of this atrocity is continually surprising. She brings the skills and concentration of a forensic investigator to her work.

Especially interesting is Lower’s treatment of the role of photographs in this kind of investigation. She is very clear that photography is purposive and intentional. It is not generally a “flat representation of what occurred”; instead, the photographer has a story he or she in interested in discovering and telling. So photography is creative and “subjective”. And this proves to be true of the photographer of this particular image, a Slovak named Lubomir Škrovina, who had a narrative he was recording through a series of exposures. But at the same time, photographs prove to be a source of remarkable insight into the human realities of the moment captured in the negative — details that were invisible to the photographer. And Škrovina himself turns out to be different from how he first appears. Initially Lower takes him to be an accomplice or collaborator, but eventually discovers that he was a dissident and a supporter of the Slovak resistance movement, and was interested in recording the atrocities he witnesses under German occupation for the outside world. Lower writes of Škrovina as a moral human being and his subsequent actions during and after the war:

But being there certainly shaped his subsequent choices and the risks he undertook, which affected him and his family. He refused to stay on the front, feigned illness, spent months in a nerve clinic, then resumed contact with Jews in his town, including sheltering some in the attic of his family home. He helped Dr. Gotthilf secure a place in the forest with his comrades in the Slovak National Resistance, although Škrovina ultimately could not save him or his wife and child. Škrovina was antifascist and anti-Soviet. He had felt no pride wearing any government-issued uniform. He hated the war. (91)

Several specific and important insights emerge from Lower’s narrative. First is the importance of doing what we can to recognize and remember the individuals and families who were extinguished there. Lower’s point about the killing of families is especially poignant: fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, sons, and daughters, all destroyed. Second is the important reminder that Nazi violence was carried out by its allies in occupied countries — Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine — and that these armed groups and police units were merciless and remorseless towards their Jewish neighbors. What Lower uncovers at Miropol is a microcosm of Babi Yar.

Theodor Adorno once said that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But here is a good reason not to agree with Adorno. Consider the beautiful, sorrowful, and indicting poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961, Babi Yar. Yevtushenko helps us to mourn and recognize these children, women, and men who were murdered at Babi Yar. And he points a finger of accusation against the continuing anti-Semitism rampant in the Soviet Union in which he lived. Wendy Lower’s book is not poetry, but it is just as eloquent in its evocation of the human realities of this tragic moment in Miropol, and in the great expanse of the bloodlands of Eastern Europe.

BABI YAR

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
        Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
                a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
                    Dreyfus.
The Philistine
                    is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
                    Beset on every side.
Hounded,
            spat on,
                    slandered.

Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
                        a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
                            ‘Beat the Yids. Save Russia!’
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.

O my Russian people!
                        I know
                                    you
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
                                        without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
                    Anne Frank
transparent
                   as a branch in April.
And I love.
                  And have no need of phrases.
My need
                  is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
                               or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
                               we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
                                tenderly
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They’re coming here?
                                Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
                                spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
                                Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
                                No, it’s the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
                        like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
                            and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
                            turning grey.
And I myself
                    am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
                each old man
                        here shot dead.
I am
                every child
                    here shot dead.
Nothing in me
                    shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’ let it
                                thunder
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
                        I am a true Russian!

Social behavior and the covid pandemic

Anyone who thinks that the social world is orderly and predictable needs to reflect carefully on the way the covid pandemic has played out in the United States and many other countries. For political scientists who are partial to rational-choice explanations of individual behavior — you’ll need to think again. No theory of rationality or rational self-interest I can think of would explain massive anti-vaccination activism. It is plain from the statistics of infection rates, hospital rates, and death rates, that a population that is slow to accept a high percentage of vaccination is a population that is likely to wind up in covid catastrophe. A family that rejects vaccination is likely to suffer serious illness and runs a risky likelihood of hospitalization and death. And an individual who rejects vaccination and goes off on his Harley to Sturgis, South Dakota is flirting with illness and the possibility of hospitalization and death as well. So why would a rational or sensible person make that decision? This isn’t quantum mechanics and high-flying scientific theory; epidemiology is an observational science, and its premises and reasoning can be followed by anyone with a high school education. And the germ theory of infectious disease is one of the most important achievements of medical science — and has been for a century and a half. Would the same anti-vax activist walk into a Chernobyl reactor on April 26, 1986, because he doesn’t believe in radiation, or doesn’t believe that exposure to radiation causes illness and death? So — irrational behavior on a massive scale. Are we in a Salem moment, a period of mass hysteria? Why are so many people behaving in ways that are objectively contrary to their most important interests?

The too-obvious answer is that “some people have been indoctrinated by anti-science propaganda and lies, and have come to believe that covid is a hoax and the vaccines are dangerous and useless”. And in fact, we know that very extensive social media and right-wing media outlets have promulgated exactly those messages — including pervasive Facebook and Youtube channels. But why would perhaps 35-40% of American adults fall for such obvious baloney?

The second too-obvious answer is that Trump and the extreme right — i.e., most of the GOP — found it to their political advantage to encourage belief in these lies. To support Trumpism in the past year is to be a vaccine skeptic and a covid skeptic. The core of Trump’s supporters fall in line in accepting conspiracies and lies — about covid, about the 2020 election, and about Democrats, and GOP leaders have been willing to work to energize and extend this group. This is “extremist populism” and opportunism at its purest — promote the lies even if it means illness and death for school children, neighbors, and family members. This puts the current realities of social behavior around covid into a different light, and one that is a bit more amenable to rational-choice treatment: the strategy is a rational one for the demagogues who are pushing it, but completely irrational for the followers. The political emotions and ideologies of the followers, shaped by social media, lead them to make life choices that put them and their communities at terrible risk.

But here’s the thing: what 2010-era sociologist or political scientist would have predicted that a major global pandemic would occur in the next several decades, that an almost miraculous search for an effective vaccine would be successful in an amazingly short period — and that the pandemic and vaccine would become a political issue leading to mass refusal to vaccinate? All global epidemiologists believed the first proposition — that pandemic would occur sometime; some biological researchers thought that vaccine creation could advance quickly; but I can’t think of any respected political scientist or sociologist who would have predicted the massive movement that has emerged against vaccination and the politicization of the spread of the virus. 

This seems to be a good example of “path-dependence” in history. This public health catastrophe we now face could have unfolded differently in the United States. There were GOP leaders in 2019 and 2020 when the virus was first perceived as a major threat to US public health who pursued a science-driven set of policies. But the extremism of Donald Trump and his followers made a science-based approach to public policy and public health untenable for most GOP governors and legislators. (Even today we hear of death threats against public health professionals who argue for a mask mandate in public schools as they re-open this fall.) 

If our current situation was path-dependent, then what events led us here? We could probably identify two or three key factors in 2019 and 2020 that pushed the US population off the path of “sane public health thinking” and onto the QAnon path of lies, doubt, and conspiracy theories — the persistent efforts by the Trump administration to minimize and trivialize the virus (and to attribute it to China); the onslaught of organized social media campaigns to the same effect; and an existing baseline of mistrust and disdain for the Federal government (e.g. Ammon Bundy’s takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2018).

Above I asked whether a vaccine skeptic might have walked into Chernobyl reactor in 1986 because she didn’t believe in radiation sickness. In a way, the example might be more illuminating than was first evident. A viral epidemic — even a highly deadly one — is not like an open reactor core. Everyone who is exposed to radiation levels found in the exploded Chernobyl reactor core will die, and will die in visibly horrible conditions. But even a highly contagious virus like the Delta variant of the covid virus is less visible than the glowing remnants of the Chernobyl fuel rods. Today the state of Florida has an extremely high incidence of new covid infections — 100.9 per 100,000 population. (Mississippi is even higher, at 114.1 per hundred thousand; whereas Michigan and Massachusetts are at about 19-20 per hundred thousand.) So Florida is a catastrophe. And yet the vast majority of Floridians do not often see the results of the pandemic on a daily basis. Only .1% of the population are infected each day; a tiny risk, one might say. Floridians see news reports about rising rates of infection and hospitals approaching full capacity, but these are just words in a torrent of media that they have come to mistrust. Further, they can also go to a bar or restaurant and not see anyone getting sick, and they may avoid infection themselves for months or years (through good luck or simple precautions). What is a catastrophe at the community level is invisible to the majority of Floridians — until their own parent, spouse, or child is infected. And then it is just “bad luck”. So most Floridians, most of the time, have a daily experience that seems to support the “no big deal” framework rather than the “rapidly spreading horrific disease” framework. But a viral epidemic is different from car crashes: more infected people leads to an even greater number of infected people in the next cycle. It is an exponential process. So it is urgent to take measures to reduce contagion at an early stage of the pandemic — which is precisely what many Red states have refused to do. 

Public health during pandemic is not an individual choice. A policy depending on “responsible choices” by individuals (concerning social distancing or masking, for example) is wholly inadequate to the problem. The slogan used by anti-maskers during current raging debates over mask requirements in public schools — “My child, my choice” — is absurd on its face. The unmasked child is a risk to others; so it is not simply a matter of personal choice — any more than would the choice of bringing bottles of gasoline to school be a matter of personal choice. And, further, one’s own child is dramatically less likely to become infected if other people’s children are masked. Public health requires rational standards of behavior and a high level of compliance. But in many GOP-ruled states, officials have refused to set such regulations. 

It seems, then, that American mass behavior during the past 12 months shows a very large dose of irrationality, and this level of irrationality is dangerous in the setting of a viral pandemic. And it did not have to be this way. If the vast majority of Americans were behaving intelligently with respect to their own health, they would be accepting the advice of scientific and health experts about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, and they would be supporting the call for masking until the viral surge of infections falls to an acceptably low level. Each individual would be better off if he or she got vaccinated and wore a mask. And the same is true collectively: the whole community — whether Columbus, Ohio or Miami, Florida — is better off if the infection rate (R) is brought down below 1.0 and the hospital utilization rate is at a sustainable level. 

Further, the pandemic threatens public health in more ways than the possibility of acute respiratory illness for one individual. When hospital intensive care units fill up, they lose the capacity to treat acutely ill patients of every variety. By remaining unvaccinated, becoming ill, and winding up on a ventilator in an ICU, the individual has harmed her own health; but she has also made it more difficult for other members of the community to gain access to the intensive care that they need as well. Each Floridian is more likely to survive a serious auto accident or a heart attack if there is an ICU bed available to treat her — and this is a community-level fact. So whether we care primarily about our own health and the health of our families, or we care also about the wellbeing of our neighbors and fellow members of the community, sensible decision-making leads to sensible health behavior: vaccination, social distancing, and masking. The fact that 39% of the population in the US are still entirely unvaccinated (August 27) seems to document irrational personal choices on a massive scale. 

This seems to pose a very important and difficult problem for the social sciences. Is prudence such a weak influence on the typical person’s choices as it appears? Is there a kind of “crowd” behavior at work that makes individual prudence and rationality irrelevant — an echo chamber that makes independent thinking impossible? Is there some special difficulty in reasoning about an invisible diffuse risk like covid that is part of the problem? Are the avenues of social media messaging so powerful that large portions of the public lose their capacity for intelligent, sensible thought? What can we learn, in short, by studying the patterns of behavior that have emerged in the US over the past eighteen months? Are we living through a “natural experiment” in mass behavior when a population is faced with a novel and widespread threat?

Do norms and moral attitudes change over generations?

Moral philosophers have often written of ethical obligations, principles, and theories as if they were timeless and unchanging. Kant, for example, argued that moral obligations follow from the structure of rationality itself. The utilitarians — Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick — held that moral obligations are defined by the principle of maximizing happiness — whether in the time of Socrates or Neo (the protagonist in the Matrix).

But really — it is entirely unbelievable to imagine that philosophy and pure reason can discover an apriori, timeless system of moral truths. Values and norms are created by human beings living in concrete social circumstances. Rather, moral philosophy should be understood as a dialogue with the moral culture of a time and place, rather than an attempt to discover moral certainties valid beyond human experience. Seen in this way, the “reflective equilibrium” approach to moral epistemology advocated by John Rawls is the most plausible way of understanding the epistemic status of moral principles. This is a coherentist rather than a foundationalist epistemology, involving a back-and-forth adjustment of specific judgments and more general principles until a reasonable level of consistency is achieved. (Here is an earlier discussion of these ideas about moral reasoning; link.) And if human beings’ considered judgments change over time — if tormenting animals for entertainment is accepted in 1600 but largely rejected in 1900 — then the moral theory that corresponds to this system of judgments and principles will be different as well. 

Organized religions have advocated for fairly specific “codes of conduct” for practitioners (followers, or even all human beings). Religious codes of conduct are usually based on authority rather than philosophical argument — authority of the Koran or the Bible, authority of the founders, or authority of specialists who speak for the divine beings. But assuming a naturalistic view of the world, it is clear that the religious codes of a time are somehow an expression of the ambient moral attitudes of the time, perhaps with innovations introduced by charismatic teachers and leaders. Religious moral prescriptions rest upon the practical sets of social and interpersonal norms that exist in the communities in which these groups and bodies of doctrine emerged.

There is also an evolutionary question to be posed. What is it about the evolutionary history of primates and human beings that has led to the evolution of a central nervous system that is capable of normative behavior? Is there an evolutionary dimension to the moral emotions (or the underlying cognitive capacities that permit the embodiment of moral emotions)? Is an inclination to fairness or kindness “in our genes” in some way? This is a question that philosophers and psychologists have undertaken to investigate. Allan Gibbard’s analysis in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings is especially nuanced, and serves well as a rebuttal to crude forms of sociobiology (the idea that human behavioral characteristics are hard-wired as a result of our evolutionary history). (I discuss these issues in a 2010 post on the moral sentiments (link).) Significantly, Gibbard’s view leaves a great deal of room for “plasticity” in the moral emotions and the normative systems that are embodied in concrete social traditions and groups. So biology does not entail a particular moral system.

All of this means that we need to consider the question of “moral thinking and choice” in a historically and empirically specific way. We need to investigate the moral psychology or culture of moral attitudes that exist at a time and place. Plainly human beings do in fact have a capacity to act normatively — to make choices based on their moral emotions, moral perceptions, and moral reasons with regard to a situation. What are the particulars of this embodied set of psychologically real perceptions, motivations, and actions? What are the specifics of the normative “grammar” of a particular time and place? How do individual human beings acquire the moral competence that guides the moral perceptions and choices he or she is inclined to make in particular human circumstances? And how do these embodied complexes of moral competence change over time?

Two questions are evident when we reach this point. First, how is the moral psychology of a particular epoch created? What features of history, circumstance, and culture led to “village mentality” of medieval France? For example, what are the important influences that lead individuals in a time and place to pity animals, favor telling the truth, and want to take care of their children? And how much variation is there within a given cultural community, at a given time, in both the content and intensity of these features of moral psychology?

The second question is even more important. Are there processes through which the moral psychology of a time, the moral consensus, changes and — perhaps — improves? Is there a moment between generations when “sympathy for one’s kin” becomes more generalized and becomes “sympathy for one’s neighbors”, and eventually “sympathy for distant human beings”? Is it possible for a human population to “bootstrap” its way to a more benevolent and just way of living, through gradual change in the moral attitudes of individuals?

As a thought experiment, we might imagine a survey of practical moral questions that could be used to map the moral consciousness of human populations at various times and places — a survey of all of humanity, extending from Homeric peasants to men and women in India, China, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, over a 3,000-year period of time. (Think of it as an episode of The Good Place, but drawn from a long historical stretch of time. Lots of funding will be needed for the time-travel part of the research.) Here is a sample set of questions that might serve as a diagnostic tool for probing a moral worldview in a historical setting:

  1. Is it permissible to torment animals for entertainment?
  2. Is it permissible to enslave prisoners of war?
  3. Is it right to kill prisoners of war?
  4. Is it permissible to beat one’s children?
  5. Is it permissible to beat one’s spouse?
  6. Is it permissible to beat one’s neighbor when one is annoyed by his behavior?
  7. Do I have a reason to pay attention to the wellbeing of my neighbor’s children?
  8. Do I have a reason to pay attention to the wellbeing of distant and unknown children?
  9. Is it permissible to send one’s parents away to deprivation when they become old?
  10. Is it permissible to lie to one’s siblings about their inheritance?
  11. Is it permissible to lie to an unknown customer about the defects in a used car (or old horse)?
  12. Is it permissible to steal one’s neighbors’ sheep?
  13. Is it permissible to steal the sheep of people from a distant village?
  14. Is it permissible to tell lies about the practices of people from other groups?
  15. Do I have a duty to intervene when another person is behaving violently and immorally?
  16. Is it permissible and respectable to behave entirely self-interestedly?
  17. Do the powerful have a right of sexual coercion over less powerful individuals in their domain?
  18. Should one be generous to the poor?
  19. Should one be kind to strangers?
  20. Should one tolerate the non-conformity of one’s fellow villagers?
  21. Is it important to act rightly, even when no one is in a position to observe?
  22. Is it permissible to make fun of the gods in the privacy of one’s home?
  23. Is it permissible for an official to accept remunerations in order to provide a service?
  24. Is it permissible for landlords to collect rents from tenants during a time of severe consumption crisis?
  25. Is it permissible for the priests to live in luxury while ordinary people struggle for existence?

Of course this is just a thought experiment, though historians and anthropologists may be able to make some provisional guesses about how different social groups would have answered these questions. And even in the narrow cross-section of cultures that are alive and well in different places in the world today, it would seem likely that there are important differences across communities in the answers that are given to these questions.

Another way of probing the moral worlds of people in other cultures and times is through literature. Literature almost always revolves around the actions and motives of individuals in social groups — friendships, families, villages, armies, social classes, or nations. And often the drama of a novel or play derives from the author’s efforts at probing the reasoning and motivations of the various protagonists. So we might speculate that it is possible to triangulate to a “Shakespearean” ethical code, a “Tolstoyan” ethical code, or a “Flaubertian” ethical code — working backwards from the bad behavior of some of the actors and the admired behavior of others. Martha Nussbaum often emphasizes the moral insights made possible through literature (e.g., Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature). This too would be a very interesting exercise: what is the ordinary, day-to-day code of moral behavior that is presupposed in War and Peace?

All of this suggests a fairly high degree of plasticity in the moral frameworks and mentalities of people in different traditions and cultures.

But now, the crucial question: what kinds of effort and what kinds of lived experience might have the effect of improving the moral culture of a civilization in the making? Is it possible for humanity to become morally better over time? Can human communities learn from their mistakes? 

There seem to be at least two levers that might allow for moral learning. The first is an extension of empathy and compassion beyond its current borders. The moral intuitions of a community may change when individuals are brought to recognize in greater fullness the lived experience and capacities for happiness and suffering in other human beings; individuals may broaden their compassion for more distant strangers. And the second is the moral experience of fairness and cooperation as a crucial element of social life. No one wants to be treated unfairly; everyone wants a level of reciprocity from others. And social relations work best when there is a reasonably high level of confidence in the fairness of the institutions and behavior that prevails. Is slavery morally unacceptable? We might hope that a culture comes to see the misery and pain of the enslaved, and the fundamental unfairness of the master-slave relationship. “If our positions were reversed, I would fundamentally reject being enslaved; this gives me a reason to reject this system even when it advantages me.” This is the perspective of reciprocity (link).

This is the conclusion I wanted to reach in connection with the atrocities of the twentieth century: the possibility that a deepening of our culture’s understanding of the wrongs that occurred, the human suffering that was created, and the steps of social and political change that led to these outcomes, can lead as well to a meaningful change in our moral culture and behavior. By recognizing more fully the horror of the shooting pits, perhaps our political morality will change for the better, and we will have a heightened practical and moral resistance to the politicians and movements that led to murderous totalitarian dictatorships.

(Moral Psychology, The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness, Vol. 1, edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, provides extensive and stimulating discussions of naturalism as a setting for understanding human moral reasoning and action. Richmond Campbell’s article on Moral Epistemology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an excellent review of the question of the status of moral beliefs; link.)

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