Clarity of moral vision is essential to the survival of humane societies—and academic trend is the last place where one should go seeking it. We must remember that history is not “dialectical”, but cyclical.
It sometimes seems to me that postmodern man, with his very sketchy sense of history and his very keen sense of historians’ propensity to tell lies, supposes genocide an invention of modern times. This just isn’t so. Julius Caesar, by his own boastful account, must have slaughtered about a million Gauls and Germans (more if you count displaced non-combatants) in preemptive wars—conflicts designed to “make the world safe for Rome”, if you will. Ethnic cleansing, by another name. The events broadly surrounding the Seven Years’ War claimed another million lives or so in the Old and New Worlds (with virtually no accurate tally being possible, again, of how many thousands of natives in North America starved during their rapid displacement). As many as two million may have died during the Irish Potato Famines if those who perished of cholera, for example, after their cramped transport to New York and Quebec are figured in. The number 28,000 seems downright paltry beside these whopping totals: that’s the sum of women and children who died in internment camps during the Boer War. It is said that Lord Kitchener’s slaughterhouse strategy to subdue bothersome Dutch partisans became the inspiration for the Nazi internment of the Jews. The Germans claimed that they had done nothing not already pioneered by the British. Hitler could have proposed the same defense for his firebombing of civilian populations, and he would have been correct: Churchill did it first,
For the historical figures who presided over these dismal moments also do not describe a precipitous and exclusive descent into the Satanic: that is, no tight nucleus of “bad-guy Europeans” has superintended our world’s deterioration, as postmodern-trending academics preach. Hitler was not the most evil man in human history, or even within his own generation. It seems to me, at any rate, that Stalin and Mao run neck and neck with him, and the millions of people butchered on their orders vastly exceed the Austrian corporal’s total. Where would Genghis Khan rank on this ignominious list, or Caligula… or Oliver Cromwell? Machine-guns create corpses in greater number and at greater velocity than Mongol scimitars or Puritan pikes; yet the more labor-intensive methods of piling up carnage also call for more determination and a keener taste for the game. The victims are closer, the blood splatter more soiling, the screams more protracted, and the calories-expended-per-murder far higher. God knows, then, where the blue ribbon belongs… but likely not to Hitler.
Not that Europeans are off the hook—even legendary European “good guys”. We must award honorable mention to Winston Churchill and the whole British diplomatic establishment for making Stalin and Mao possible as scourges of humanity, and for elevating a charismatic lunatic to a major protagonist in a world war. British-backed landlords were also instrumental in allowing the potato blight to starve a million Irish tenants off their land at a time of relative plenty. The nation we Americans have most admired culturally throughout our centuries of existence has many an incident on the pages of its past that recalls the Hutus and the Tutsies.
My point isn’t that morality is relative—that “none doth offend”, in King Lear’s words. This is indeed a central tenet of postmodernism: that all values are cultural categories and hence that none of us can judge another. My point, rather, is precisely that the postmodernist comes up empty in his moral condemnation of Western history as uniquely tainted by imperialist arrogance. All human societies are so tainted. The West is not alone in behaving badly, and its leaders haven’t gotten worse and worse. The specific conditions change: the rot within the human heart remains the same.
Postmodern man, as I see him up close in academe (i.e., “postmodernist man”, with all the affectation implied therein), seems to understand that life in the old days wasn’t so golden, even if he can’t give you much specific evidence that’s not Ivory Tower mythology. Yet he believes implicitly that the Holocaust and the Bomb justify a permanent turning away from previous systems of thought and faith—that nothing quite as bad as Auschwitz and Hiroshima has ever happened to humanity. I doubt that an Irish farmer who had watched his wife and children starve to death and himself hadn’t enough energy left to bury them would consider a gas chamber the worst of all possible ends. I also seriously wonder if the Italian who found the first black welts of the Plague on his torso as the Thirty Years Wars roiled Europe with epidemic illness, famine, murder, and rapine would view radiation sickness as a more dreadful alternative. I’m certain he would happily have accepted instant vaporization at Ground Zero in preference to rotting among corpses that even dogs wouldn’t touch.
For some reason, however, our intelligentsia—the very people who should be best positioned to know better—insist that we regard our own time as sui generis, a manifestation supreme, unique, and ultimate in nature. History has never seen the like of us. We are to accept that all faith in metaphysical reality has been definitively disproved because of our collective nightmare. In the strangest way, too, this aporia (a favorite French deconstructionist term for paralyzing, no-way-out pessimism) feeds into progressivism. By rights, the two should be mortal enemies. Progressive social crusaders and engineers in the nineteenth century, tipsy with fermented Darwinism, carried forward such cocksure projects as euthanasia, forced sterilization, and racial cleansing. Yet the postmodernist isn’t merely ignorant of history: he’s ignorant of the possibility of relieving that ignorance. He doesn’t believe history to be knowable, since all records are the propaganda of the dominant class. What he finds in progressivism, then, is not the very incinerant that destroyed Western civilization’s highest achievements, but rather the single viable escape from an otherwise sealed labyrinth. In progress may lie a final hope, he sighs with a wan smile. Perhaps people may have chips implanted in their brains to correct their homicidal behavior. Perhaps robots will entirely supplant people as we know them—and maybe then our somewhat artificial descendants will find happiness.
So much is wrong about this kind of non-thinking—of effusive, hyper-intellectualized pouting and brooding—that it’s difficult to begin a critique at any one point. In this brief ramble to which I’ve been moved by several books that lately crossed my path, let me simply highlight what I suspect to be the “sensitive relativist intellectual’s” fundamental error. History is not really linear (or dialectical, in Marxist terms). If it were so, we would have to assume that no such thing as human nature exists. As merely reactive material phenomena, we humans might be expected to perform more or less random acts throughout history, just as a glass bowl dropped on the kitchen floor would send fragments in a thousand different directions. Yet the truth is clearly—and often sadly—that we repeat ourselves. We drive other tribes away because they pilfer from us; and after some of them kill a few of us on a raid, we undertake the wiping out of their menfolk once and for all; then some us decide that an even brighter idea would be to enslave their women and slaughter their children (maybe we even invent the word “preemption”) because their boys will one day become men; and before you know it, we’re up to our species’ old tricks, committing gross atrocities. Once the human conscience is outraged by the human hand, nothing silences the inner voice like a second and a third course of outrage. That’s called custom, not morality. Far from the two being one, custom often exists to shut morality up.
Welcome to human nature! If anything does indeed make our era unique, it is, of course, the fearful efficiency of advanced technology in wartime circumstances. The postmodernist is quite right that we now have the power practically to end life on earth. Yet there are two critical points that this leftist intellectual is failing to register about a uniquely dangerous condition. One is precisely that human nature has not changed, and isn’t going to change. Now less than ever can we afford to heap all the world’s evil upon the head of a Hitler. Neither Bashar Assad nor Mahmud Ahmadinejad nor Kim Jong Un is the devil incarnate whose vaporization will make our troubles disappear. Neither is Barack Obama a savior, any more than was Churchill or Lincoln—both of whom were in fact atheist statists and white supremacists who ruined entire nations with an overweening confidence in their moral and intellectual superiority (read Herbert Hoover, Pat Buchanan, Thomas DiLorenzo, et alii). Now less than ever can we indulge in the childish linear thinking of supposing this or that figure to be Christ Returned or the Antichrist. I say this as much for self-styled prophets on the Right as bemused relativists on the Left. Never suppose that a good guy with a Doomsday weapon will always remain good: assume, rather, that such power must eventually corrupt.
The case of Churchill and Lincoln raises a second point of which the postmodernist should grow acutely aware. Those who are most likely to render our era unique by pushing the buttons in the Black Box are his adoptive friends, the progressives. Both Lincoln and Churchill were Machiavellian to the core. Their political allegiances were temporary, fluid, and predicated upon a private agenda that mesmerized them like an idée fixe. They lived and breathed to centralize power: to gain more and ever more control over human events that they might impose their will upon ever greater swathes of the earth. Loss of life in staggering volume meant nothing to them as long as “the better way” advanced. Though we might call them neo-cons today, that term is a mere synonym for “progressive”—and both words are mere glosses of the classical Greek “hubristic”.
Why, then, would a delicate liberal sensibility embrace progressivism? Who is less apt than a progressive to be held in check by something like common decency or a conventional regard for life? If the past is indeed irrelevant, then why pay any attention to that catch in the throat that finds repugnant the slaughter of innocent children? Repugnance is only cultural conditioning, to the progressive… and to the postmodern intellectual, as well, who so frets about Auschwitz? The latter had better learn very quickly that human nature exists, and that our better nature trumps the occasional cruel desensitization wrought by cultural habit always and only if we preserve our faith in a transcending moral reality. Jesuit inquisitors and capitalist robber barons, for all their faults, are not the most probable bloodline for the catalyst of the Awful Horror. The head of that household, rather, will prove to be a nihilist philosophy that holds all dutiful feelings of restraint or moderation to be mere social brainwashing.
We can be sure of this, because it has always been so in the past.