Friday, December 03, 2004

A Thumbnail History of the Twentieth Century

[This was written a few years ago, not long before 9/11. Recent discussions, and the past election season, have brought it back to mind.]

Imagine if, some hundreds of years from now, a historian were asked to write a concise paragraph describing the Twentieth Century for some microscopic electronic Encyclopedia. Space permits him to mention only two persons by name, of all the billions that lived, labored, and died in this sliver of time. And the paragraph must have a "punchline"; a summary conclusion. In the future, as now, when dealing with remote subjects the human race has no time for unpackaged facts.

On the names he cheats a little. He chooses one man who lived in the Twentieth Century and one man who died before it began: Albert Einstein and Karl Marx. And here's the punchline: "The Twentieth Century was remarkable for the vivid contrast between its scientific brilliance on the one hand, and its social and political depravity on the other."

Our intellectuals will just have to eat that, being now long dead and no longer in attendance at cocktail parties and such. But if they were to have some latter-day champion (they won't, but just pretend) willing to break a lance or two on their behalf, the following explanation might be demanded and given.

Firstly, why these two men? Neither exactly epitomized the century in all its Bosch-like panorama, of course. They were merely salient features of two opposing trends, and their figures stand out prominently in the messy diptych. No undue praise or blame is intended.

The rise and fall of the Marxist ideal is rather neatly contained in the Twentieth Century, and comprises its central political phenomenon. Fascism and democratic defeatism are its sun-dogs. The common theme is politics as a theology of salvation, with a heroic transformation of the human condition (nothing less) promised to those who will agitate for it. Political activity becomes the highest human vocation. The various socialisms are only the most prominent manifestation of this delusion, which our future historian calls "politicism". In all its forms, it defines human beings as exclusively political animals, based on characteristics which are largely or entirely beyond human control: ethnicity, nationality, gender, and social class. It claims universal relevance, and so divides the entire human race into heroes and enemies. To be on the correct side of this equation is considered full moral justification in and of itself, while no courtesy or concession can be afforded to those on the other. Therefore, politicism has no conscience whatsoever, no charity, and no mercy.

In nations with weak traditions of liberalism, this turned to tyranny and bloody fanaticism. The result is almost beyond comprehension. Millennia of religious strife and princely quarrels, even when totaled up across the centuries, pale by comparison with the enormity of the Twentieth. No depredation of despot, barbarian, inquisitor, witch-finder, or brigand was ever committed in all of history that was not trumped a hundred times over. In Nazi Germany children were executed en masse. In Cambodia, children themselves were turned into executioners, in an ultimate mockery of everything human.

In countries institutionally resistant, politicism took forms less malevolent, if only because the strength of those societies kept it in check. And so the forces of politicism railed against those societies incessantly. It ought not to be confounded with mere social criticism, or even with outright social dissent. As Albert Camus wrote (near the middle of this mess of a century): "A patriot ought to prefer justice to his country." But the politicists precisely preferred injustice --- they endlessly excused it, and damned their own countries for repudiating the brutal regimes that practiced it. They abused democracy, not to improve it, but to reduce it to an object of scorn and ridicule.

If they were less dangerous than the butchers they idolized, they were often less honorable as well. Fascists and communists laid down their lives for their errors. The defeatists, secure in the comfortable domains of the liberal societies they despised, merely compromised their own dignity, like the unloved dogs who lapped up the blood under the guillotine.

Speaking of which, it's true that the overture to this grim symphony was played in the Eighteenth Century. But the Nineteenth Century that followed was one of considerable humanism and enlightenment, however much its manners and naive presuppositions were mocked in the Twentieth. Twentieth Century Man sneered at his forefathers, even as he readopted every form of savagery and invented new ones.

Marxism, then, did not hold the monopoly on politicism, but it loomed large at the core of it, and its unexpected implosion rocked all houses, even those which had long since renounced it. Doctrinal differences aside, the Soviet Union formed the foundation of the worldwide cult of political man. It demonstrated the possibility of a completely politicized society that was, if not progressive, at least self-sustaining. Its injustices were noted, but considered to be beside the point: it represented politicism's permanent glacial grip on the face of the earth, hopefully to be reformed but never to be surrendered. When it melted away, a whole host of ideologies were adrift in the flood.

That was not the end of politicism, of course. Politicism is a permanent temptation of modern man, who is alienated from religion, from liberal culture and tradition, from his own history, and above all from a sound sense of truth. But it was a resounding setback.

It was less keenly felt, perhaps, in the United States, where the current was already running away from traditional class-based politicism towards the all-consuming politicism of race and gender. American politicism, at any rate, had always been somewhat faddish and migratory, not to mention self-centered in the extreme. As the Soviet ideal drifted into dotage, the imagination of American intellectuals was obsessed by such spectacles as McCarthyism, which threatened what they seemed to hold most dear: careers and reputations. The awful specter of such middle-class martyrdom blotted out any broader sensibility, and was used to justify a thorough-going moral and intellectual cowardice in the face of evil. Lost in self-pity, they capitulated and called it victory.

As for the redeeming part of the picture, Twentieth Century science and technology was truly beneficial to the human race, though too often it was held in unjust suspicion. Einstein, of course, does not play the same role in this arena that Marx played in his. While the politicist whips up his mobs, the scientist seeks to persuade his own mind. While the politicist is ever prepared to sacrifice truth, the scientist has to be governed by it, or be an imposter. Here was the great parting of ways.

Science, of course, is only human endeavor, subject to all the weaknesses and errors thereof. It has been argued, in fact, that science as a whole is often held back by convention and prejudice until the overwhelming weight of evidence pushes it forward --- but those reluctant revolutions make all the difference. And while the product of science is liable to all manner of abuse, to blame science itself for such horrors is not only unfair, it's a crude and superstitious error. It is to be hoped that scientists will not encourage the abuse of science, but to expect them to prevent abuse is asking altogether too much of them, and could only be accomplished by self-abolition. On the whole, the scientists of the Twentieth Century did a most commendable job. Those who deny it are merely those who take it for granted, or who entertain romantic and utterly false sentiments about the life of pre-modern man.

Still ... depravity? The historian shrugs.

"A generalization, admittedly, but a perfectly fair one. The two centuries preceding the Twentieth advanced the rights and dignity of man. The Twentieth roundly violated them, while adding nothing to their principles except a gruesome collection of false idols. If you object to the word, I apologize for not having given my definition. The human mind is depraved when it craves power more than truth --- no matter how noble and glorious the ends to which power promises to put itself."


My further comment on this post at Winds of Change (my thanks to Joe Katzman for the link, and to all who commented):

I really do think that history will look back on the 20th century as the absolute low point of human history - as bad as anything the Dark Ages offered, without any of the excuses. All of of us who were born into it - those of us who are remembered at all - will be looked on with some suspicion because of that. The way you might look at the portrait of a 15th Century German burgher, and wonder how many witches he burned back in the Good Old Days.

What science did during this time, though, was to create a sound and sustainable philosophy of itself. It realized that it was not a revealed religion, competent to speak on all subjects (Heisenberg, Gödel). It realized that it was not a super-human process that was immune to human failures (Kuhn, Popper). It recognized that many of its propositions were provisional and subject to revision, so it was not a matter of discovering the truth once and for all, but a process of continually discovering and practicing truth. In this way, science avoided absolutism on the one hand and relativism on the other. (I elaborate some more on this in a little post about the 21st Century - Two Futures.)

Politicism, on the other hand, makes free use of both relativism and absolutism. In a sense, they're both the same thing: contempt for truth. For the politicist, Utopia is whatever is left after you've reviled and smashed everything that everyone else has worked so hard to build, and "truth" is whatever is left after all dissent has been silenced.