Friday, March 23, 2012
New English Weekly, 21 March 1940
It is a sign of the speed at which events are moving that Hurst and Blackett’s unexpurgated edition of Mein Kampf, published only a year ago, is edited from a pro-Hitler angle. The obvious intention of the translator’s preface and notes is to tone down the book’s ferocity and present Hitler in as kindly a light as possible. For at that date Hitler was still respectable. He had crushed the German labour movement, and for that the property-owning classes were willing to forgive him almost anything. Both Left and Right concurred in the very shallow notion that National Socialism was merely a version of Conservatism.
Then suddenly it turned out that Hitler was not respectable after all. As one result of this, Hurst and Blackett’s edition was reissued in a new jacket explaining that all profits would be devoted to the Red Cross. Nevertheless, simply on the internal evidence of Mein Kampf, it is difficult to believe that any real change has taken place in Hitler’s aims and opinions. When one compares his utterances of a year or so ago with those made fifteen years earlier, a thing that strikes one is the rigidity of his mind, the way in which his world-view doesn’t develop. It is the fixed vision of a monomaniac and not likely to be much affected by the temporary manoeuvres of power politics.
Probably, in Hitler’s own mind, the Russo-German Pact represents no more than an alteration of time-table. The plan laid down in Mein Kampf was to smash Russia first, with the implied intention of smashing England afterwards. Now, as it has turned out, England has got to be dealt with first, because Russia was the more easily bribed of the two. But Russia’s turn will come when England is out of the picture — that, no doubt, is how Hitler sees it. Whether it will turn out that way is of course a different question.
Suppose that Hitler’s programme could be put into effect.
What he envisages, a hundred years hence, is a continuous state of 250 million Germans with plenty of “living room” (i.e. stretching to Afghanistan or thereabouts), a horrible brainless empire in which, essentially, nothing ever happens except the training of young men for war and the endless breeding of fresh cannon-fodder. How was it that he was able to put this monstrous decision across? It is easy to say that at one stage of his career he was financed by the heavy industrialists, who saw in him the man who would smash the Socialists and Communists.
They would not have backed him, however, if he had not talked a great movement into existence already. Again, the situation in Germany, with its seven million unemployed, was obviously favourable for demagogues. But Hitler could not have succeeded against his many rivals if it had not been for the attraction of his own personality, which one can feel even in the clumsy writing of Mein Kampf, and which is no doubt overwhelming when one hears his speeches. I should like to put it on record that I have never been able to dislike Hitler. Ever since he came to power — till then, like nearly everyone, I had been deceived into thinking that he did not matter — I have reflected that I would certainly kill him if I could get within reach of him, but that I could feel no personal animosity.
The fact is that there is something deeply appealing about him. One feels it again when one sees his photographs — and I recommend especially the photograph at the beginning of Hurst and Blackett’s edition, which shows Hitler in his early Brownshirt days. It is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself. The initial personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is there.
He is the martyr, the victim. Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon. One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that he somehow deserves to. The attraction of such a pose is of course enormous; half the films that one sees turn upon some such theme.
Also he has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues.
The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.
However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarized version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.
Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a good slogan, but at this moment “Better an end with horror than a horror without end” is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
In this morning's New York Times, my Daily Beast colleague Peter Beinart urges a global economic boycott of Israel. Peter draws a distinction between a boycott of "Israel" and "the occupied territories," but as his new associates in the anti-Israel boycott movement understand better than he does, such a distinction is unworkable in fact and unsustainable psychologically.
The good news is that a global boycott of Israel is in no way imminent. Neither the United States nor the European Union will stand for it. Those governments recognize what most people of discernment recognize: that the anti-Israel boycott movement is only the latest iteration of the decades-old clamor for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Peter himself does not join that clamor. He says that he offers his recommendation with a heavy heart and with nothing but good wishes for the Israeli state. I believe him when he says this. I know and like Peter, and I respect his sincere feeling for the state of Israel. His acumen, however, leaves something to be desired.
Peter opens his article with the mournful statement, "To believe in a democratic Jewish state today is to be caught between the jaws of a pincer." The jaws, he says, are these: While some (few) in Israel demand all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, (many) others in the Palestinian and pro-Palestinian world wish to "dismantle Israel as a Jewish state."
The solution Peter offers to this dilemma: punish Israelis in order to change the Palestinians. It's not a very good plan.
If the Israeli-Palestinian dispute were a dispute over borders, it would have been settled long ago. The dispute never has been about borders, and it is not about borders now. The spread of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is not a cause of Palestinian rejectionism. It is a consequence of Palestinian rejectionism. It's tiresome to repeat the history. Peter knows it as well as I do. Has there been a moment since 1936 when a majority of Jewish opinion would have rejected a peace based on partition and mutual recognition by a Jewish and Arab state? Has there has been a moment since 1936 when the Palestinian political community would have accepted such a peace?
The true pincer squeezing those who think in the way Beinart describes is the pincer that always pinches liberals who join movements led by illiberal radicals: it is the pinch of exploitation by people with clearer-eyed purposes. It's the old familiar trap of the popular front—a trap whose plot and outcome you'd expect by now to have become ominously familiar to everyone who calls himself or herself a liberal.
©2011 The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC
Monday, March 5, 2012
A category error occurs when someone acts as though some object had properties which it does not or cannot have. The reason why it cannot have those properties is because the properties belong to objects in some other category or class. For example:
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
The above sentence commits at least two category errors. One is the attribution of the property of color (green) to something immaterial (ideas). This is an example of a property (color) which "ideas" cannot have. A second is the attribution of a property of speed/manner (furiously) to an action (sleep). This is an example of a specific property which sleep does not have, even though sleep can have other, similar properties - like soundly or quickly.
For Aristotle, a category error was just a form of equivocation, but it plays a much larger role in the philosophy of Ryle. Accordin to Ryle in his book The Concept of Mind, "Philosophy is the replacement of category-habits with category-disciplines..." Thus, good philosophical thinking is a matter of adopting a proper theory of categories. In this way, unwarranted beliefs are a result of improper thinking about categories.
Sunday, March 4, 2012
Here's a statement of Harris's argument in Lying:
...Harris argues that we can radically simplify our lives and improve society by merely telling the truth in situations where others often lie. He focuses on “white” lies—those lies we tell for the purpose of sparing people discomfort—for these are the lies that most often tempt us. And they tend to be the only lies that good people tell while imagining that they are being good in the process...
This statement is right and qualifies my earlier attempt at paraphrasing Harris's argument before I finished his essay, which now I have. I'd said his central argument is an absolute prohibition against lying. This is wrong. Harris rejects and argues against that position, which was Kant's. He offers the example of a murderer coming to your door and asking if you know where x is when x is hiding in your house. Kant would say you can't lie then. Harris says there is no reason not lie then to save x's life.
So a better statement of Harris's argument is, as the quote suggests, that in the run of ordinary situations one ought never lie and that includes well-intentioned white lies told, say, to spare another's feelings. So there is an absolutism to Harris's position: short of exigencies implicating life or grievous injury and short of situations when human relationship ceases, say in war, and perhaps, while unstated by Harris, in situations analogous to protecting life and limb, to war, and to the breakdown of human relationship, one ought never lie. One of the big reasons for this prohibition is precisely that lying itself implicates the destruction of the existing human relationship between the liar and those lied to.
One weakness in Harris's argument is that it has the quality of preaching to the choir. So while his exploration of the reasons for not lying is illuminating and therefore worthwhile, I wonder whether he finally improves on the easiness of conventional understanding on the issue of lying, which Harris argues is insufficient:
...After all, most people already believe that is generally wrong--and they also know that some situations seem to warrant it...
Harris in the brunt of his argument attacks that latter part of conventional understanding about it being all right to lie in "some situations," save for the exceptional instances noted. He says never to lie in all situations where the context is human relationship. That's where his absolutism of a kind emerges. And in that claim for absolutism, I'd argue, his reasoning founders.
I think I can demonstrate that foundering by turning his own example back on him. He posits a prosaic example-he is, after all, centering his argument in relational contexts-of your wife or girl friend or someone close to you asking whether she looks fat in the dress she is wearing when in fact she does. So the to-be-prohibited white lie consists in telling her she doesn't to spare her feelings. But saying this breaks down trust, starts a fissure in the relationship, separates her from reality, keeps information from her that might if told to her help her, raises the possibility of being caught out in the deceit and not being believed in the future, dishonours her request of honesty from you, and other such things. So don't lie to her.
But I can imagine circumstances where such a lie seems justifiable. Imagine for example that that person has been looking forward to this evening in this dress for a long time. Imagine that you have been meaning to suggest to her that she should lose some weight. Imagine that the evening is of great significance to her and add to that she needs to do something significant herself, and needs a clear, calm head, for, say, a speech or a performance. Don't these circumstances argue for a justifiable white lie that will get your partner or close friend through the night to be followed, let's say, by the next day's admission, lovingly told, that she did look heavy in that dress and that she should lose some weight and you didn't tell her last night because you knew how important the evening was to her?
Or another example , more humanly weighty: someone is on their death bed, within hours or a day or two of death. He never knew, say, his now deceased wife had cheated on him. He speaks to you reminiscing about her and asks, not just rhetorically, wasn't she a wonderful woman to be so devoted and faithful to him. Relationship informs the context here because until this dying man dies you have a relationship with him and all of Harris's reasons for not lying could be brought to bear here. But it seems an austere, inhumane and perhaps a monstrous counsel to preach here the imperative of absolute truthfulness in the context of relationship. I would let my dying friend die with his illusion about his wife's absolute commitment to him, let him die happier in at least that regard.
Now it may be objected that my examples are extreme instances of extreme circumstances, perhaps exceptions that prove the rule. But my answer to that is that it's precisely the exceptions, the white lies, the " some situations" that Harris addresses his argument to. So once a few examples break the back of his absolutist position about no lying in relational instances, hasn't his argument caved in on itself? And isn't the conclusion exactly what the dismissed conventional understanding sets forth: a "default position" of no lying with circumstance driven exceptions, which, in the infinite variety of their imagining, precisely disprove the rule, the rule that wants to admit of no exceptions?