Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Stalinism in Manhattan

At a dinner party last night I ran into a specimen of a human category I had thought extinct: Homo Stalinoides. This rare type has internalized the whole propaganda line of the Soviet Union ca. 1950. Curiously enough, this Stalinoid was lodged in the body of a person I thought I knew fairly well.

Many might think that Homo Stalinoides is now extinct. In most places, yes. But lower Manhattan, where my friend resides, is a museum of all sorts of human oddities that have disappeared almost everywhere else.

What are the thought patterns of Homo Stalinoides? One of the most important memes is moral equivalence. It seems that all the horrors of Stalinism have counterparts, equally dire and deplorable, in the US. Thus my friend claimed that the Gulag was matched by the US Depression. It availed nought when I mentioned books that documented in detail the huge, avoidable death toll of the crimes of Stalin and his henchment. In his book The Great Terror Robert Conquest has provided the most detailed account of Soviet tyranny. The group of French scholars who authored the Black Book of Communism has calculated the death toll of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot at 70 million. Hitler did not begin to approach that figure. And, despite my friend‘s espousal of the sophistry of moral equivalence, there is no parallel at all in democratic countries.

The fallacy of moral equivalence was a ploy commonly adopted by defenders of Soviet policies during the Cold War. Such an approach is not without costs, for there is an explicit concession. The problem with the argument is that it concedes the evils of Soviet policies. They must be evil if they are matched by the policies of the US and its allies, which have always been, in this view, prima facie instances of evil The device has other avatars, even less savory. Positing a moral equivalence between a number of acts carried out by the Allies during World War II and the deeds of the Nazis, especially the Holocaust, is a common strategy employed by far-right apologists for the Nazis in Germany today. Analogous arguments occur in the works of authors not per se sympathetic to Nazism, such as F.J.P. Veale, Noam Chomsky, and Joseph Sobran. Commonly cited as examples are the Allies' aerial destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hamburg and Dresden; the systematic murder and rape of Germans in the East by the Red Army; and so forth.

Another ploy essayed by my friend reflects the old claim of Daniel Guerin and others that Hitler was a mere tool of German business, and therefore a projection of capitalism. This assertion has been addressed by the historian Henry Ashby Turner, who is best known for his 1985 book German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler. In it he rebutted the claim that it was German big business which primarily financed and otherwise promoted Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. He argued that the extent of business support for Hitler and his Nazi Party had been much exaggerated. On the basis of careful examination of unpublished records of major German corporations and of Hitler's party, Turner concluded that the bulk of the Nazis' funds during their rise came from their party's members and other ordinary Germans and that the principal political recipients of big business funding were the traditional right-of-center parties, the German People’s Part and the German National People’s Party. The only election campaign in which big business contributed significant amounts of money to the Nazis was that of March 5, 1933, after they were already in power Hitler was using German business interests, not the other way around.
Also unmentioned by my friend is the inconvenient fact that Stalin was Hitler’s ally. The link was forged in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 23, 1939. This unholy union allowed Hitler to invade Poland unimpeded. In fact the two dictators divided the country, with the Germans in the West and Soviets in the East. It was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that specified Soviet oil shipments that powered General Rommel’s tanks--all the way to the west coast of France.

My Stalinoid friend thoroughly approved of Stalin’s destruction of Christian art and architecture. symbols of superstition and feudal oppression. I refrained from pointing out that a similar benefit could be obtained by destroying the lugubrious colonial Mexican art that my friend (a fellow art historian) is studying.

Now in his sixties, my friend is a dinosaur. As his generation dies out, so too this quaint, not to say grotesque survival of Soviet apologetics will to all intents and purposes disappear. It is already much faded. If these views are doomed to extinction, why worry about them?

I worry because there is a larger issue, and that is the liberal conformism that prevails in Manhattan where I live. Almost without exception, Gothamites subscribe to a set of views whose validity is assumed to be axiomatic. Abortion and unlimited immigration are just fine, while the death penalty and “Islamophobia” are wrong. I might even agree with some of these views. After all, I live in Manhattan too. Yet that is not the issue.

There are several problems with the prevailing climate in my tight little isle. First, the views are imposed en bloc as a kind of catechism. One is not supposed to analyze the items separately, so that one demurs from approving of abortion, for example. It is all a seemless web. The second difficulty is the inability to understand the very different mindset that prevails west of the Hudson. In my traveling days, I took care to take at least one annual trip into the American heartland, so that I could access what was happening there. The lifestyle is very different, and so are the opinions. And there is no way that Manhattan or New York City can separate itself from the rest of the United States.

When Bush was reelected in 2004, the city was enveloped in an eery silence. How could such a thing possibly happen? While I too deplored the result, before the election I thought that it was likely that Bush would get back in. I had had lots of frustrating internet conversations with people in other parts of the country who held that “national security” trumped everything. They were going to vote for Bush, and they did.

Of course, in New York City it would have been unwise even to hint that George Bush might be reelected. That would be tantamount to wishing that such a calamity would occur.

New Yorkers are blithely unconcerned with bringing others around to their views. Why bother? They are just too dumb.

Occasionally, older liberals hark back to the conformity that enveloped the country during the McCarthy period. I remember that era, and it was indeed deplorable. However, liberal conformity is just as deadly. You can probably keep your job, but you won’t get many dinner invitations. Isolate the heretic! is the name of the game.


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