Monday, April 9, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot murdered their millions in Repression, Holocaust, Holodomir, Great Terror, Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution or Ethnic Cleansing. Second-tier dictators murdered people in their hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands. Pinochet, Franco, Castro, Mbutu, Saddam Hussein, Mugabe et alia and ad nauseam.

If we’re not numbed by the scale of it all, why should we (who are not in the firing line) object, protest or give a stuff?

I hope the answer is because we have a basic concept of human rights. There are some things that should never be done to human beings. They include torture, summary execution and genocide.

These are crimes against humanity.

To accept this principle is, as ethicists and moral philosophers would say, to accept a universalist morality. Cultural relativists, including many postmodernists, would have us believe that there is no universal morality and that all morality is merely an emanation of particular cultures. The Geneva Convention and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights would suggest otherwise. So would the Nuremberg Trials. (Very well. They were flawed inasmuch as they included on the prosecution bench one state – the Soviet Union – which was as genocidal as the Nazi state in the dock. But at least they confirmed the principle of human rights. They were not mere “victor’s justice”, as some surly German critics were to suggest.)

But when I survey historical and polemical writing, I find something very disturbing. Atrocities and massive violations of human rights are often deplored only as a means of making respectable other atrocities and massive violations of human rights. The idea of human rights being violated may be cited, but the sub-text is that this principle should not be applied to groups of whom the historian or polemicist approves.

In other words, deploring atrocities becomes a form of propaganda.

The game of “Your Atrocities or Mine?” commences. Your atrocities bad. My atrocities good.

In general terms, it is often played between Left and Right.

One historian (Robert Service) has spoken of the “you too” argument by which old lefties justify Stalin’s terror on the grounds that, after all, imperial powers such as France and Britain were directly responsible for the deaths of millions of their colonial subjects. Therefore there are, presumably, no grounds to criticise Stalin.

I have encountered an even dodgier version of this argument among the many loony websites on the internet. Neo-Nazis love to dwell on violations of human rights by Allied forces in the Second World War. Yes, there was the bombing of Dresden. Yes, even ignoring Soviet behaviour, there were a few cases where British or American forces shot prisoners or otherwise ignored the Geneva Convention. Forgetting intent and proportionality, this apparently makes Hitler’s regime perfectly legitimate.

I find this type of thinking especially distressing when one particular atrocity is held up as the ultimate outrage.

To give an obvious example – the bombing of the undefended city of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War was (thanks in part to Picasso’s painting) for years publicised as the defining atrocity of the early twentieth century. In all, as the most recent studies have shown, it killed about three hundred people, and in that sense was far from the worst incident to occur even in that civil war. But it was publicised because it had great symbolic value – German bombers swooping down on unarmed Spanish civilians.

Yet (as I know from my own researches) some of the same publications which loudly denounced the bombing of Guernica, and continued to publicise it, spent years pretending that the Katyn Forest massacre (which killed about 22,000 people) never happened – or that if it did, and in spite of overwhelming evidence, it wasn’t carried out by the Soviet Union.

In retrospective historical judgement, Guernica does not justify Katyn Forest any more than Katyn Forest justifies Guernica. But then that is exactly my point. Judgements which differentiate atrocities on the grounds of the causes they serve, or on the ground of Left and Right, are judgements which ignore the basic concept of universal human rights.

I think I have good grounds for suspecting that much of the Left’s continuing concern to remember the Spanish Civil War has to do with a desire to draw attention away from the far more lethal Great Terror, which was going on at exactly the same time. But this does not make me think that Franco’s repression should be condoned or regarded as a trivial matter; or that books like Paul Preston’s The Spanish Holocaust should not be written.

If I thought that, I would be playing the game of Your Atrocities or Mine. 

1 comment:

  1. Because we know what correct behaviour is and support the principle of universal human rights, it is deeply distressing when circumstances allow our fellow human beings to torture, rape and murder others.
    I tend to agree with those theorists of the mass mind (or, Jung's collective unconscious) wherein the chaotic and malevolent thoughts of large numbers of people around the world have been mutually inherited and can be succumbed to or resisted by anyone.
    The only way out of these perils of interconnection is to evolve beyond the dark and destructive - personally, and ultimately as a whole race by more and more people taking the transformative action that is necessary.