A Parable On Obsolete Ideologies

Fol­lowup to: Yud­kowsky and Frank on Reli­gious Ex­pe­rience, Yud­kowksy and Frank On Reli­gious Ex­pe­rience Pt 2
With sincere apolo­gies to: Mike Godwin

You are Gen­eral Eisen­hower. It is 1945. The Allies have just triumphantly liber­ated Ber­lin. As the re­main­ing lead­ers of the old regime are be­ing tried and ex­e­cuted, it be­gins to be­come ap­par­ent just how vile and de­spi­ca­ble the Third Re­ich truly was.

In the midst of the chaos, a group of Ger­man lead­ers come to you with a pro­posal. Nazism, they ad­mit, was com­pletely wrong. Its racist ide­ol­ogy was false and its con­se­quences were hor­rific. How­ever, in the bleak poverty of post-war Ger­many, peo­ple need to keep united some­how. They need some­thing to be­lieve in. And a whole gen­er­a­tion of them have been raised on Nazi ide­ol­ogy and sym­bol­ism. Why not take ad­van­tage of the na­tional unity Nazism pro­vides while dis­card­ing all the racist bag­gage? “Make it so,” you say.

The swastikas hang­ing from ev­ery boule­vard stay up, but now they rep­re­sent “tra­di­tional val­ues” and even “peace”. Big pic­tures of Hitler still hang in ev­ery gov­ern­ment office, not be­cause Hitler was right about racial pu­rity, but be­cause he rep­re­sents the de­sire for spiritual pu­rity in­side all of us, and the de­sire to cre­ate a bet­ter so­ciety by any means nec­es­sary. It’s still ac­cept­able to shout “KILL ALL THE JEWS AND GYPSIES AND HOMOSEXUALS!” in pub­lic places, but only be­cause ev­ery­one re­al­izes that Hitler meant “Jews” as a metaphor for “greed”, “gyp­sies” as a metaphor for “su­per­sti­tion”, and “ho­mo­sex­u­als” as a metaphor for “lust”, and so what he re­ally meant is that you need to kill the greed, lust, and su­per­sti­tion in your own heart. Good Nazis love real, phys­i­cal Jews! Some Jews even choose to join the Party, in­spired by their prin­ci­pled stand against spiritual evil.

The Hitler Youth re­mains, but it’s be­come more or less a Ger­man ver­sion of the Boy Scouts. The Party in­fras­truc­ture re­mains, but only as a group of spiritual ad­vi­sors helping peo­ple fight the un­ter­men­schen in their own soul. They sug­gest that, dur­ing times of trou­ble, peo­ple look to Mein Kampf for in­spira­tion. If they open to a sen­tence like “The Aryan race shall con­quer all in its path”, then they can in­ter­pret “the Aryan race” to mean “righ­teous peo­ple”, and the sen­tence is re­ally just say­ing that good peo­ple can do any­thing if they set their minds to it. Isn’t that lovely?

Soon, “Nazi” comes to just be a syn­onym for “good per­son”. If any­one’s not a mem­ber of the Nazi Party, ev­ery­one im­me­di­ately be­comes sus­pi­cious. Why is she against ex­ter­mi­nat­ing greed, lust, and su­per­sti­tion from her soul? Does she re­ally not be­lieve good peo­ple can do any­thing if they set their minds to it? Why does he op­pose car­ing for your ag­ing par­ents? We definitely can’t trust him with high poli­ti­cal office.

It is four years later. Soon, the oc­cu­pa­tion will end, and Ger­many will be­come an in­de­pen­dent coun­try once again. The Soviets have already taken East Ger­many and turned it Com­mu­nist. As the de facto ruler of West Ger­many, its fate is in your hands. You ask your two most trusted sub­or­di­nates for ad­vice.

First, Colonel F gives his sug­ges­tion. It is vi­tal that you or­der the preser­va­tion of the Nazi ide­ol­ogy so that Ger­many re­mains strong. After all, the Ger­mans will need to stay united as a peo­ple in or­der to sur­vive the in­evitable strug­gle with the Soviets. If Nazism col­lapsed, then peo­ple would lose ev­ery­thing that con­nects them to­gether, and be­come dis­pir­ited. The beau­tiful po­etry of Mein Kampf speaks to some­thing deep in the soul of ev­ery Ger­man, and if the Allies try to erad­i­cate that just be­cause they dis­agree with one out­dated in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the text, they will have re­moved mean­ing from the lives of mil­lions of peo­ple all in the name of some sort of mis­guided de­sire to take ev­ery­thing ab­solutely liter­ally all the time.

Your other trusted sub­or­di­nate, Colonel Y, dis­agrees. He thinks that Mein Kampf may have some rous­ing pas­sages, but that there’s no spe­cial rea­son it has a unique abil­ity to im­part mean­ing to peo­ple other than that ev­ery­one be­lieves it does. Not only that, but the ac­tual con­tents of Mein Kampf are re­pul­sive. Sure, if you make an ex­traor­di­nary effort to gloss over or rein­ter­pret the re­pul­sive pas­sages, you can do it, but this is more trou­ble than it is worth and might very well leave some lin­ger­ing men­tal poi­son be­hind. Ger­many should com­pletely lose all the bag­gage of Nazism and re­place it with a com­pletely demo­cratic so­ciety that has no causal link­age what­so­ever to its bloody past.

Colonel F ob­jects. He hopes you don’t just im­me­di­ately side with Colonel Y just be­cause the ques­tion in­cludes the word “Nazi”. Con­demn­ing Nazism is an ob­vi­ous ap­plause light, but a poli­ti­cal de­ci­sion of this mag­ni­tude re­quires a more care­fully thought-out de­ci­sion. After all, Nazism has been purged of its most ob­jec­tion­able el­e­ments, and the Ger­mans re­ally do seem to like it and draw a richer life from it. Colonel Y needs to have a bet­ter rea­son his per­sonal dis­taste for an ide­ol­ogy be­cause of past his­tory in or­der to take it away from them.

Colonel Y thinks for a mo­ment, then be­gins speak­ing. You have no­ticed, he says, that the new Ger­man so­ciety also has a lot of nor­mal, “full-strength” Nazis around. The “re­formed” Nazis oc­ca­sion­ally de­nounce these peo­ple, and ac­cuse them of mis­in­ter­pret­ing Hitler’s words, but they don’t seem nearly as offended by the “full-strength” Nazis as they are by the idea of peo­ple who re­ject Nazism com­pletely.

Might the ex­is­tence of “re­formed” Nazis, he asks, en­able “full-strength” Nazis to be­come more pow­er­ful and in­fluen­tial? He thinks it might. It be­comes im­pos­si­ble to con­demn “full-strength” Nazis for wor­ship­ping a hor­rible figure like Hitler, or ador­ing a hor­rible book like Mein Kampf, when they’re do­ing the same thing them­selves. At worst, they can just say the oth­ers are mis­in­ter­pret­ing it a lit­tle. And it will be very difficult to make this ar­gu­ment, be­cause all ev­i­dence sug­gests that in fact it’s the “full-strength” Nazis who are fol­low­ing Hitler’s origi­nal in­tent and the true mean­ing of Mein Kampf, and the “re­formed” Nazis who have rein­ter­preted it for poli­ti­cal rea­sons. As­sum­ing the idea of not be­ing a Nazi at all re­mains so­cially be­yond the pale, in­tel­lec­tu­ally hon­est peo­ple will feel a strong pull to­wards “full-strength” Nazism.

Even if the “re­formed” Nazis ac­cept all mod­er­ate liberal prac­tices con­sid­ered rea­son­able to­day, he says, their ide­ol­ogy might still cause trou­ble later. To­day, in 1945, mixed race mar­riage is still con­sid­ered taboo by most liberal so­cieties, in­clud­ing the United States. The re-in­ter­preters of Mein Kampf have de­cided that, al­though “kill all the Jews” is clearly metaphor­i­cal, “never mix races” is meant liter­ally. If other na­tions be­gan le­gal­iz­ing mixed race mar­riage in the years to come, Party mem­bers will preach to the faith­ful that it is an abom­i­na­tion, and can even point to the verse in Mein Kampf that said so. It’s ut­terly plau­si­ble that a “re­formed” Nazi Ger­many may go on for­bid­ding mixed race mar­riage much longer than sur­round­ing coun­tries. Even if Party lead­ers even­tu­ally bow to pres­sure and change their in­ter­pre­ta­tion, the Party will always ex­ist as a force op­pos­ing racial equal­ity and so­cial jus­tice un­til the last pos­si­ble mo­ment.

And, he the­o­rizes, there could be even deeper sub­con­scious in­fluences. He ex­plains that peo­ple of­ten pro­cess ideas and morals in ways that are only tan­gen­tially linked to spe­cific facts and de­ci­sions. In­stead, we tend to con­flate things into huge, fuzzy con­cepts and as­sign “good” and “bad” tags to them. Say­ing “Jews are bad, but this doesn’t ap­ply to ac­tual spe­cific Jews” is the sort of thing the brain isn’t very good at. At best, it will end out with the sort of forced po­lite­ness a per­son who’s try­ing very hard not be racist shows around black peo­ple. As soon as we as­sign a good feel­ing to the broad idea of “Nazism”, that re­flects at least a lit­tle on ev­ery­thing Nazism stands for, ev­ery­thing Nazism ever has stood for, and ev­ery per­son who iden­ti­fies as a Nazi.

He has read other es­says that dis­cuss the abil­ity of con­no­ta­tions to warp think­ing. Imag­ine you’re taught things like “un­ter­men­schen like Jews and Gyp­sies are peo­ple too, and should be treated equally.” The con­tent of this opinion is perfectly fine. Un­for­tu­nately, it cre­ates a cat­e­gory called “un­ter­men­schen” with a bad con­no­ta­tion and sticks Jews and Gyp­sies into it. Once you have ac­cepted that Jews and Gyp­sies com­prise a differ­ent cat­e­gory, even if that cat­e­gory is “peo­ple who are ex­actly like the rest of us ex­cept for be­ing in this cat­e­gory here”, three-quar­ters of the dam­age is already done. Here the Colonel sighs, and re­minds you of the dis­crim­i­na­tion faced by wig­gins in the mod­ern mil­i­tary.

And (he adds) won’t some­one please think of the chil­dren? They’re not very good at metaphor, they trust al­most any­thing they hear, and they form a scaf­fold­ing of be­lief that later life can only edit, not de­mol­ish and re­build. If some­one was scared of ghosts as a child, they may not be­lieve in ghosts now, but they’re go­ing to have some visceral re­ac­tion to them. Imag­ine tel­ling a child “We should kill ev­ery­one in the lesser races” five times a day, on the as­sump­tion that once they’re a teenager they’ll un­der­stand what a “figu­ra­tive” means and it’ll all be okay.

He closes by tel­ling you that he’s not at all con­vinced that what­ever metaphors the Nazis rein­ter­pret Mein Kampf to mean aren’t go­ing to be dam­ag­ing in them­selves. After all, these metaphors will have been in­vented by Nazis, who are not ex­actly known for choos­ing the best moral les­sons. What if “kill all lesser races” gets rein­ter­preted to “have no tol­er­ance for any­thing that is less than perfect”? This sounds sort of like a good moral les­son, un­til peo­ple start preach­ing that it means we should lock up gay peo­ple, be­cause ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is an “im­perfec­tion”. That, he says, is the sort of thing that hap­pens when you get your moral­ity from cliched max­ims taken by draw­ing va­pid con­clu­sions from de­spi­ca­bly evil works of liter­a­ture.

So, the Colonel con­cludes, if you re­ally want the Ger­man peo­ple to be peace­ful and moral, you re­ally have no choice but to nip this grow­ing “re­formed Nazi” move­ment in the bud. Colonel F has made some good points about re­spect­ing the Ger­mans’ cul­ture, but do­ing so would make it difficult to erad­i­cate their ex­ist­ing racist ideas, bias their younger gen­er­a­tion to­wards habits of thought that en­courage fu­ture racism, cre­ate a strong re­gres­sive ten­dency in their so­ciety, and yoke them to poorly fash­ioned moral ar­gu­ments.

And, he finishes, he doesn’t re­ally think Nazism is that nec­es­sary for Ger­many to sur­vive. Even in some crazy al­ter­nate uni­verse where the Allies had im­me­di­ately cracked down on Nazism as soon as they cap­tured Ber­lin, yea, even in the ab­surd case where Ger­many im­me­di­ately switched to a com­pletely demo­cratic so­ciety that con­demned ev­ery­thing re­motely as­so­ci­ated with Nazism as evil and even banned swastikas and pic­tures of Hitler from even be­ing dis­played—even in that uni­verse, Ger­mans would keep a strong cul­tural iden­tity and find new sym­bols of their pa­tri­o­tism.

Ridicu­lous, Colonel F ob­jects! In such a uni­verse, the Ger­mans would be left adrift with­out the an­chor of tra­di­tion, and im­me­di­ately be taken over by the Soviets.

Colonel Y just smiles enig­mat­i­cally. You are re­minded of the time he first ap­peared at your com­mand tent, dur­ing the mid­dle of an un­nat­u­ral thun­der­storm, with a copy of Hugh Everett’s The The­ory of the Univer­sal Wave Func­tion tucked un­der one arm. You shud­der, shake your head, and drag your­self back to the pre­sent.

So, Gen­eral, what is your de­ci­sion?