Relearning the Obvious
|Intellectuals like to notice
and savor subtleties that other people miss. But the really valuable
intellectuals are those who notice the things that are too obvious for most
of us to see, a category I like to call the superobvious.
As G.K. Chesterton put it, Men can always be blind to a thing, so long as it is big enough. Once somebody does point out the superobvious, you wonder how you failed to notice it yourself, and you arent likely to forget it again.
Reviewing a book on comparative genocide in the Times Literary Supplement, Michael Andre Bernstein remarks that there is something disheartening in the very existence of a rubric like comparative genocide.
Well, now that you mention it, yes. The practice of destroying whole peoples, as a matter of official policy, has become so frequent in this century that whole books are written weighing the relative horrors of various exterminations.
Mr. Bernstein also cites Robert Conquests alternative phrase (coined to describe Stalins great terror): nation-killing. That phrase eerily echoes the optimistic phrase nation-building. They go together.
In the past, most governments saw it as their duty to preserve the social fabric and keep peace among their subjects. Government was so inherently conservative that nobody used the word conservative, because there was hardly any other kind of regime. Even the most brutal rulers were blessedly free of the modern utopian idea of building a new society. The Roman Empire conquered many countries, but it didnt try to remake them on some abstract model. The American Revolution was largely an attempt to preserve the traditional liberties of Englishmen against an encroaching monarch.
It was only in the age of the modern nation-state that rulers began defining some of their own subjects as aliens, not because those subjects came from abroad, but because they were, according to official ideologies, racial or class enemies. A Jew who had lived in Germany all his life was no longer a true German. A Russian whose ancestry was purely Russian found himself redefined as a counterrevolutionary element. Japanese Americans suddenly found themselves deprived of constitutional rights for racial reasons.
Building a new society has generally meant the preliminary destruction of an old one to make way for a utopian perfection that never seems to arrive. The revolutionary leader often excites intellectuals with his dynamism and genius; various members of the brainy set have fawned on Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and others whose chief achievements, in retrospect, have been the purge and the systematic massacres weve come to call genocide. Most of these have been peacetime policies, not wartime measures except in the sense that the new society is at war with the traditional society.
Until recently, the intellectuals, sneering at religion and bourgeois morality, have accepted the ambition to remake society as self-evidently laudable. Theyre a little more subdued these days. As we look back on the 20th century, the big question isnt which utopia has turned out best, but which has inflicted the most horror on its subjects. This question has now yielded a new academic field: the aforementioned comparative genocide.
If this blighted century yields one clear lesson, its that concentrated political power is the most deadly danger the human race faces. Well, it will be said, we already knew that. Yes, we did. But somehow we forgot it, and kept forgetting it. It was too obvious to be repeated, so we stopped saying it, and finally we stopped knowing it.
At some point the benign possibilities of the centralized state seemed to outweigh the perils. But the benign possibilities never materialized, and all the perils took their revenge in terrible wars, and in peace that was more terrible than most wars of the past.
Utopianism is out of fashion now, but the progressive-minded intellectuals we have always with us. After a century of mass murder, they still feel menaced by the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools and courthouses. It bears reflection that the Ten Commandments, those superbly obvious injunctions, are among the few things they dont want children exposed to.
|Copyright © 2006 by the
Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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