On the Holocaust, Genocide, and Evil

December 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

I’m reading Terry Eagleton’s brilliant pamphlet, On Evil. (This came out in 2010, the ever-prolific Eagleton has churned out 4 books since then).  It is, as you’d expect, a meditation on evil, what evil is, what it looks like, how it functions.  And as you’d expect from a literary theorist, Eagleton looks at various examples from literature and the real world.  This includes 20th century fascism.

I’ve always been disappointed with explanations of the Holocaust (or any other genocide) that reduces the motivation of the génocidaires down to “evil,” as in Hitler (or Pol Pot, the Young Turks, the Serb military leadership, etc.) were simply evil and that’s all there is to it.  This is a cop out explanation.  It’s reductionist and absurd.  Genocides, and other horrible acts, are perpetrated by human beings.  Indeed, this was Hannah Arendt’s point about Adolf Eichmann in her monumental Eichmann in Jerusalem: that Eichmann wasn’t a raving anti-Semite, evil excuse for a man. Rather, he was “just doing his job.”  She went on to argue against this idea that evil is responsible for the horrid acts humanity has visited upon itself, that, rather, these horrid acts arise out of rationality.

And certainly, the Holocaust is one of those events.  Eagleton notes that the Holocaust was exceptional, though not due to the body count.  As he notes, both Stalin and Mao killed more people than did Hitler.  Rather,

[t]he Holocaust was unusual because the rationality of modern political states is in general an instrumental one, geared to the achievement of specific ends.  It is astonishing, then, to find a kind of monstrous acte gratuite, a genocide for the sake of genocide, an orgy of extermination apparently for the hell of it, in the midst of the modern era. Such evil is almost always confined to the private sphere.

Eagleton is both right and wrong here.  What makes the Holocaust perhaps more horrifying than other genocides is the sheer rational organisation of it.  What happened in Rwanda in 1994 was arguably more vile and disgusting, as 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were hacked to death in a 100-day spree.  But Rwanda was largely wanton violence and indiscriminate killing.  In many ways, it was the more evil event.  But the Holocaust was organised by the state, it was rational, and it was far-reaching.  In short, it was the Enlightenment taken to a horrifying extreme. By the state; the modern state, of course, is based upon these same Enlightenment ideals.

But the Holocaust was not an acte gratuite, as Eagleton argues, it wasn’t a genocide for the hell of it.

But he is right that such organised, rational terror is usually smaller scale, and in the private sphere, simply because it is easier for a serial killer to organise himself than it is to organise an entire state machine dedicated to the eradication of a group of people from the face of the earth.

On Libertarianism

May 1, 2013 § 4 Comments

Libertarianism is a very appealing political/moral position.  To believe and accept that we are each on our own and we are each able to take care of our own business, without state interference is a nice idea.  To believe that we are each responsible for our own fates and destinies is something I could sign up for.  And, I have to say, the true libertarians I know are amongst the kindest people I know, in terms of giving their time, their money, their care to their neighbours and community, and even macro-communities.

But there are several fundamental problems with libertarianism.  The first problem is what I’d term ‘selfish libertarianism.’  I think this is what drives major facets of the right in the Anglo-Atlantic world, a belief in the protection of the individual’s rights and property and freedom of behaviour, but coupled with attempts to deny others’ rights, property, and freedom.  This, of course, is not real libertarianism. But this is pretty common in political discourse these days in Canada, the US, and the UK.  People demand their rights to live their lives unfettered, but wish to deny others that freedom, especially women, gays/lesbians, and other minority groups (of course, women are NOT a minority, they make up something like 53% of the population in Canada, the US, and UK).  So, ultimately, we can dismiss these selfish libertarians as not being libertarians at all.

My basic problem with true libertarianism is its basic premise.  If we are to presume that we are responsible for our own fates and destinies, then we subscribe to something like the American Dream and that belief we can all get ahead if we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and work hard.  I find that very appealing, because I have worked hard to get to where I am, and I feel the need to keep working hard to fulfill my own dreams.

But therein lies the problem. Behind the libertarian principle is the idea that we’re all on the same level playing field.  We are not.  Racism, classism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny: these all exist on a daily basis in our society.  I see them every day.  I have experienced discrimination myself.  And no, not because I’m Caucasian.  But because I come from the working-classes.  I was told by my high school counsellor that my type of people was not suited for university studies.  I had a hard time getting scholarships in undergrad because I didn’t have all kinds of extra-curricular activities beyond football.  I didn’t volunteer with old people, I didn’t spend my time helping people in hospitals.  I couldn’t.  I had to work.  And I had to work all through undergrad.  And throughout my MA and PhD.  In fact, at this point in my life at the age of 40, I have been unemployed for a grand total of 5 months since I landed my first job when I was 16.  And having to work throughout my education simply meant I didn’t qualify for most scholarships.  So I had to work twice as hard as many of my colleagues all throughout my education.  And that, quite simply, hurt me.  And sometimes my grades suffered.  And within the academy, that is still problematic today, even four years after I finished my PhD.  But that’s just the way it is. I can accept that, I’m not bitter, I don’t dwell on it.  But it happened, and it happened because of class.  Others have to fight through racism or sexism or homophobia.

So, quite simply, we do not all begin from the same starting line.  We don’t all play on a level playing field.  Mine was tilted by class.  And, for that reason, libertarianism, in its true sense, does not work.  If we wish to have a fair and just society, we require ways and means of levelling that playing field, to give the African-American or working class or lesbian or son of immigrant children the chance to get ahead.  Me? I worked hard, but I also relied on student loans, bursaries, and what scholarships I could win based on grades alone.  My parents didn’t pay for a single cent of my education, not because they didn’t care or want to, but because they simply couldn’t afford it.  I got some support from my grandparents each year, to go with the student loans/bursaries/small scholarships.  And thank god I did.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do it.  I’d be flipping burgers at a White Spot in Vancouver at the age of 40.

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