The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The Banality of Liberalism

Posted on | November 21, 2018 | Comments Off on The Banality of Liberalism


This photo, showing SS men and female auxiliaries (Helferinnen, “helpers”) is from an album collected during World War II by Karl Hoecker, a top SS officer at the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. The photo was taken in 1944 at Solahütte, “a little-known resort for the Nazi German guards, administrators, and auxiliary personnel” who worked at Auschwitz and other nearby death camps. This photo was featured in a Nov. 2 Facebook post by Josh Ellis:

This picture always struck me, because unlike so many photos of the time, it’s so relaxed and unposed — just a bunch of coworkers, having fun. But this is a resort called Solahütte. It was built for these people, and it was 18 miles from where they worked, a place called Auschwitz. It was built to give them a break from their very important work.
These smiling, happy people were on their day off from putting Jews in ovens.
A lot of times people will say they look at the faces in photos like these and try to understand. But I don’t need to try. I understand these people thoroughly. . . .
[T]he nice people in this photo were f–king monsters, many of whom ended their war at the end of a rope or in front of a firing squad. And you know what? I bet they did it crying, begging, screaming that it wasn’t fair, that they had a job to do, that’s all, they were given a job and they were expected to do it, and what would you have done in their place?
That, right there, is the most important question you have to ask yourself. It’s one I’ve pondered my entire life. And I know my answer: I would never allow myself to be put in the position of finding out. I’d rather run or die. It’s why I could never have been a cop or a soldier. The lesson I learned from these people was to never put myself in a position where I was required to do evil in the name of following orders. And I have very little sympathy for those who choose otherwise.
There are not good people on both sides. There are party girls and weekend polka players everywhere, people who are kind to their children and bake extra cookies for their neighbors, but some people choose to be the instruments of horror and others do not, and history is rightfully merciless to the former.
So when you tell me that some of the people in America espousing the same madness that these people in this picture committed atrocities for are really not that bad if you get to know them, that there are good people on both sides, I don’t believe you.
Because I do know them. And I do not care.

That post has been shared more than 25,000 times on Facebook and, here’s the thing: It is disastrously and irretrievably wrong, not merely in its cheap conflation of Nazis with American conservatives, but also in the general lesson that Ellis attempts to draw from this bit of history.

Ask yourself this: Why did the Holocaust happen? Or to put it another way, how did Auschwitz come into existence? Why were these Nazi SS men running a concentration camp in Poland? Do you see my point?

Germany had invaded Poland in September 1939. No invasion, no Auschwitz. Tracing back the sequence of events that led up to the invasion of Poland, we go backwards to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (August 1939), then to the Munich agreement (September 1938), the Anschluss of Austria (March 1938), the remilitarization of the Rhineland (March 1936) and so on back to the political crisis in Germany (1931-33) that put Hitler in power. You could trace that timeline on backward to Germany’s defeat in World War I (1918), but the point I’m making is that Auschwitz, and the Holocaust in general, can only be understood in a particular historical context. Trying to make the Holocaust an analogy for any contemporary political situation is idiotic. The way Josh Ellis rips this out of context, by saying that Americans whose politics he doesn’t like are comparable to those SS personnel at Solahütte, is not merely an insult to those Americans, but a dangerous misunderstanding of what happened in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s.

Insofar as there actually are “people in America espousing the same madness” as those German SS men (i.e., serious neo-Nazis), such people are (a) quite few in number, (b) probably under surveillance by federal law enforcement, and (c) unlikely ever to obtain any actual power. You could name the most right-wing members of Congress — perhaps Rep. Steve King or Sen. Rand Paul, depending on what you mean by “right-wing” — and even their fiercest opponents would admit these men don’t contemplate anything remotely like Auschwitz. When you consider how long it takes between the time a court sentences a convicted murderer to death, and the time the death penalty is actually carried out, you see how difficult it would be for our country to become a place where a totalitarian government carries out mass murder in concentration camps.

The implausibility of any “Fourth Reich” scenario in America is one reason why only fools ever become neo-Nazis, and why such fools tend to end up in prison, or dying by suicide, after they’ve committed a desperate crime (e.g., the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter). Because there is zero chance of a neo-Nazi takeover in America, these fools are driven to “lone wolf” attacks by the utter hopelessness of their Nazi fantasies.

Now consider a point Glenn Reynolds has made: “The thing is, you don’t get Hitler because of Hitler — there are always potential Hitlers out there. You get Hitler because of Weimar, and you get Weimar because the liberals are too corrupt and incompetent to maintain a liberal polity.”

In other words, the totalitarian danger — insofar as such a danger is more than deluded fantasy, or a rhetorical bogeyman used to frighten ignorant people — resides in the kind of corruption, incompetence and decadence that preceded Hitler’s rise to power. A prosperous and peaceful society does not suddenly give birth to a Hitler; rather, it is societies bankrupted by bad policy and devastated by bad wars that are at risk. The most recent genocides in world history occurred in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, neither of which enjoyed the combination of economic prosperity and a robust democratic tradition that prevails in the United States. Even after the economic crisis of 2008, Americans never lost faith in the basic constitutional framework of representative government. As fiercely as conservatives opposed President Obama, we still adhered to the path of democracy in expressing that opposition, and expect opponents of Donald Trump to do the same. If we don’t like the results of an election (and obviously the recent midterm results were not to my liking), we can only redouble our efforts to persuade others to come over to our side. Who is advocating a putsch? Certainly not me.

By the way, who is this Josh Ellis, looking at a photo of Nazis and seeing a resemblance to “some of the people in America”? He is a website designer, an editor at a blog for divorced men, a former columnist for a now-defunct “alternative” weekly, Las Vegas CityLife. He’s a musician and is “currently working on a book about surviving climate collapse.” On his personal website, he has a list of “Stuff I Dislike” that includes “Nationalism, Religion . . . George W. Bush” and “Fox News.” Your basic liberal, in other words. But what could he possibly mean by this weird passage from his Facebook post?

I could never have been a cop or a soldier. The lesson I learned from [the Auschwitz camp guards] was to never put myself in a position where I was required to do evil in the name of following orders. And I have very little sympathy for those who choose otherwise.

Really? Police officers and the military are “required to do evil in the name of following orders”? So you are morally superior to them?

Look, I’ve got a pretty strong libertarian streak and am deeply suspicious of power, but it takes a special kind of paranoia to look at a picture of Nazi death-camp guards and interpret it as a condemnation of all organized authority. Because that’s what Josh Ellis is saying, that all policemen and soldiers — every last one of them — are immoral agents of evil, insofar as their callings involve “following orders.” It’s as if Josh Ellis is not even aware that American soldiers fought against the Nazis, and that police officers risk their own lives to protect the innocent.

Do U.S. troops “choose to be the instruments of horror,” as Josh Ellis asserts? The Navy SEALs who took out Osama bin Laden, were they “instruments of horror”? The four cops wounded while trying to take out the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, were they “instruments of horror”?

Perhaps these implications were not intended by Josh Ellis. Maybe he’s just a clumsy writer who unintentionally insulted decent people with a sloppy analogy. And it doesn’t matter, except that his Facebook post was shared 25,000 times, meaning that there are many thousands of people who don’t understand what’s wrong with what he wrote. Also, perhaps, they don’t recognize he’s peddling secondhand ideas.

Ellis has borrowed the theme of “The Banality of Evil” from Hannah Arendt, whose 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem is one of the most widely praised books ever written about the Holocaust. Arendt had been sent to cover Adolf Eichmann’s trial for The New Yorker and was struck by the fact that the infamous Nazi was so ordinary, so bland, so banal. Eichmann wasn’t a fanatical monster, but an unremarkable bureaucrat who just happened to be assigned the job of annihilating Jews. At the time it was published, Arendt’s work was universally acclaimed for its insight into the nature of human evil, and has since become a classic.

So, is Ellis so ignorant that he’s never heard of Hannah Arendt? Or was he just too lazy to name-check her? The third possibility — deliberate dishonesty, depriving Arendt of the credit she deserves — is one I’d rather not contemplate. Laziness is the most likely explanation, I suspect. Liberalism is so pervasive in our culture that it doesn’t require much intellectual effort to espouse it, and this liberal particular theme — making the Holocaust an analogy for whatever the contemporary Right is doing — has been done so often, for so long that Josh Ellis probably didn’t even pause to think that he was just recycling Hannah Arendt.

What the photo of the SS men and women at Solahütte shows is how evil can be normalized, and it does not occur to Josh Ellis (nor to any of the thousands who shared his post) to think that liberalism may itself be implicated in the normalization of evil. Have these people ever heard of Dr. Bernard Nathanson? But let’s not start that argument now.

More important, I think, is how little most people actually know about how and why Hitler came to power in Germany. The specific historical context from which the Third Reich emerged is seldom explained clearly to students, and depictions of Nazi Germany in popular culture replicate this ahistoricism. Because of this, most Americans don’t realize that Hitler’s Germany was neither the first totalitarian regime in Europe nor the most deadly. By the time Hitler became chancellor of Germany, the Bolsheviks had already slaughtered millions. Indeed, during the same time-frame (1932-33) that the Nazis were rising to power in Germany, Stalin was killing some 4 million people through the terror-famine in the Ukraine (the Holomodor). What Hitler and the Nazis did in Germany was arguably more of an imitation of what Lenin and Stalin had done in Russia than what Mussolini had done in Italy. Hitler viewed his National Socialism as an ideological antidote to the international socialism of the Bolsheviks. Whereas Marxists viewed economic class struggle as the revolutionary force in history, Hitler viewed race as the decisive category. And this was ultimately the only real difference between Nazism and Communism except that (b) Communism killed more people, and (b) Communism is still an idea defended by many liberals in the West.

How many liberals have ever read Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror or The Harvest of Sorrow? For that matter, how many liberals have read anything by Lenin or Trotsky? There is a remarkable lack of curiosity among liberals about what Communism actually was (and is), and while liberals endlessly conjure up Hitler as a bogeyman — Trump is Hitler and all Republicans are Nazis — they seldom mention Lenin, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot. A liberal like Josh Ellis knows he can evoke an emotional reaction by showing Nazis having a good time at Solahütte, but when was the last time you heard a liberal mention Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov or Lavrentiy Beria, to name three of Stalin’s most murderous henchmen?

The death toll of Communism — estimated between 85 million and 100 million during the 20th century — has disappeared from view, erased by the liberals who control America’s education system, and seldom mentioned nowadays even by conservatives. There is a reason, after all, why Hayek warned against The Road to Serfdom, the slow-motion piecemeal drift toward totalitarianism that was discernible in the West even at the time our troops were fighting to destroy the Nazi menace. Yet if we are not conscious of this danger, if we permit liberals to convince us that all we have to fear is a “right-wing” menace, a latter-day Hitler, we can easily be persuaded to permit our society to continue drifting ever further toward the Left. And this is exactly what is happening:

Even before President Trump’s election, hatred had begun to emerge on the American left — counterintuitively, as an assertion of guilelessness and moral superiority. At the Women’s March in Washington the weekend after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, the pop star Madonna said, “I have thought an awful lot of blowing up the White House.” Here hatred was a vanity, a braggadocio meant to signal her innocence of the sort of evil that, in her mind, the White House represented. (She later said the comment was “taken wildly out of context.”)
For many on the left a hateful anti-Americanism has become a self-congratulatory lifestyle. “America was never that great,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently said. For radical groups like Black Lives Matter, hatred of America is a theme of identity, a display of racial pride.
For other leftists, hate is a license. Conservative speakers can be shouted down, even assaulted, on university campuses. Republican officials can be harassed in restaurants, in the street, in front of their homes. Certain leaders of the left — Rep. Maxine Waters comes to mind — are self-appointed practitioners of hate, urging their followers to think of hatred as power itself.
How did the American left — conceived to bring more compassion and justice to the world — become so given to hate? . . .

Read the rest of that by Shelby Steele. The emergence of hate as a unifying force on the Left is to a great extent the result of the kind of ahistorical belief system that Josh Ellis promotes. If every Republican is a Nazi, then the hatemongers on the Left can congratulate themselves on their own “moral superiority,” as Steele says, and this belief empowers them to tyrannize their enemies in the name of “social justice.”



Comments are closed.