2.14.2011

Which cafe is to blame for Pol Pot?

I read a harrowing article in Slate (via Yglesias via Plain Blog) about Stalin and the enforced famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s. It is, among other things, an exploration of the question about which was "worse," Communism or Fascism, Hitler or Stalin, or whether one can ever meaningfully answer such a question. The article itself hinges on the gruesome facts about cannibalism during the famine, and what it says about the depths to which humanity can plunge itself.

Anyone who clicks through the link should be aware that the article contains very graphic and unsettling descriptions of cannibalism. These details are not central to my point. Ron Rosenbaum, the author, believes it important to state open-eyed at what people are capable of doing to each other in the extremes of suffering and deprivation. I disagree somewhat, in that I think most of us know that unspeakable circumstances produce unspeakable horrors. However, knowing the truth about human history allows us to view the present more honestly, and I think it is important for us not to fool ourselves that human beings are innately incapable of ghastly crimes. (It is also important to remember that the same extremes of suffering and cruelty can also bring out remarkable heroism and charity.)

Having made my way through the article, though, I found myself started by this rather baffling conclusion:
Finally, the only other conclusion one can draw is that "European civilization" is an oxymoron. These horrors, Nazi and Communist, all arose out of European ideas, political and philosophical, being put into practice. Even the Cambodian genocide had its genesis in the cafes of Paris where Pol Pot got his ideas. Hitler got his ideas in the cafes of Vienna.
I don't think that this holds up under even cursory scrutiny.

First of all, it is absurd on its face to say that the killing fields of Cambodia or the horrors of the Great Leap Forward were "European." Their beginnings may have been in the cafes of foreign capitals, out of "European ideas," but they actually occurred far away at the hands of different people. Power-mad, depraved leaders can make the worst of any idea from anywhere, and one civilization is not responsible for the corrosion of another. Pol Pot and Mao did what they did where they did, to and with their own people. You can't blame that one Europe.

Further, even if the most heinous crimes of the 2oth century had their origins in European thought, the Holocaust was a wholesale failure of European civilization, not a negation. European civilization was and is not uniquely resistant to failure (as any passing student of history could tell you), but that doesn't mean that it hasn't existed. The worst that a society can do doesn't cancel out the best. Josef Mengele doesn't void Louis Pasteur, and Joseph Stalin doesn't nullify Immanuel Kant.

Finally, if we're going to blame Europe for the worst foreign iterations of its ideas, then it's only reasonable to credit it for the best. Which means Europe gets credit for American civilization, with its system of laws and civic virtues that herald back to their European roots. Unless one recognizes only the ugly and repellent as true, there is plenty to show that European civilization has inspired beauty and excellent.

Rosenbaum's larger points about the futility of comparing epic evils and trying to determine a system of ranking them stand up much better. When a figure blots out the lives of millions of people, that person defies our ability to categorize and parse, and deserves only the grimmest judgments of history.

1 comment:

  1. > Further, even if the most heinous crimes
    > of the 2oth century had their origins in
    > European thought, the Holocaust was a
    > wholesale failure of European
    > civilization, not a negation.

    That's a good point; moreover, it's patently ridiculous to expect any civilization to pass through history without failure moments. They're complex systems. Complex systems fail.

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