Friday, July 30, 2010

Who Goes Nazi? - Continued

In the essay it pays to not only find with relief the person most like oneself who Dorothy Thompson thinks is not vulnerable, but to identify one who is as well. I would hope to be something along the lines of Mr. A, with a dash of Mr. H. I fear that I would be Mr. G – indeed, am quite worried that I would have been in another set of circumstances. Eugene Ionesco, in “Rhinoceros,” seems entirely puzzled by who goes Nazi. His characters inhabit mere madness in society, where anyone and everyone becomes inhuman for no reason at all. Thompson believes she has a dividing line “Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t - whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi.” We would call this a moral compass today. I draw a somewhat different line. Thompson is certainly drawing her composites from people she has actually met and observed, but also gives them a neatness that authors use to make a point. I defer to her observations, but am comfortable adding to her interpretation.

In my comments over at ChicagoBoyz, I got sidetracked into the specifically German and specifically Nazi aspects of the parlor game. That is a good grounding for discussing the modern question, perhaps, but not so useful in itself. For we are not in danger of actual nazis coming to power, but of a half-dozen variants of tyranny whose future is obscured. There are the great national and international movements, of course, which is where our minds run first. But the more important personal questions occur on a smaller scale. All of the characters who Thompson identifies as being likely resisters of nazism have resisted milder versions of groupthink and lust for power before. As CS Lewis notes in Screwtape, having something that one likes for its own sake, caring nothing for the status or advantage in it, is a powerful defense against attacks via vanity. “…defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions."

Mr. A might have made something of his family connections and education to move into positions of greater prestige, but has chosen not to. The reasons are not clear, but seem to be related to some idea of who one is, of finding a place where one fits rather than making oneself over to fit. Or worse, making the places over so that one’s self can have its way. We see the same in Mrs. F’s and Mr. H’s abandoning career for romantic love, and Mr. K’s leaving off business and profit to do what he likes. The young German, most of all, has given nearly everything to avoid being a Nazi. James and Bill, the servants, do not fit my theory of nazi-avoidance in any obvious way.

The flip side of my theory fits also. The labor leader and the spoiled son have certainly gotten along by making others give things up, remaking their environments to fit them. Mrs. E has given up her very self, but there is a twist to it: she wants others to be made to give up their very selves as well. Something of the same might be said of Mr. C. He has sacrificed to get where he is, but the prize has eluded him. He also wants a “fairer” society which would reward him for his true worth – and punish those who did not acknowledge it before. Mr. J has divorced himself from his Jewish heritage and history and is entirely a man of the present. He approves of this new and powerful method of organising of society, believing that because he is post-Jewish, the new elite will reasonably exempt him. They worship power, so does he. He expects to get along fine. He does not yet see that they worship power not in the individual, but in the collective – and he is forever outside.

Mr. B, the wealthy sportsman, and Mr. G, the brilliant rationalizer, present a different case. Both automatically trim their sails to the prevailing winds, while retaining an alertness for their own main chance. Neither has much of an actual self to give up or impose on others, though both are content to go along for the ride of imposing.

Thompson is describing individuals from the upper reaches of society – they were all invited to this party with servants in attendance after all. I think that is the proper focus to take. Most shopkeepers and wage employees don’t have much say in the tyrannies of government. They can attempt to rise in the world by signing on to a rising tide and becoming a big wheel, or they can draw attention to themselves by visibly opposing it, but the little people can affect the world only with considerable effort.


Anna said...

Maybe I can offer why I think a "Bill" would not go nazi. I identify with Bill because I put myself through engineering school. Those of us who did that resisted the common youth problem of doing nothing and mooching off our parents, majoring in Volleyball Studies, and drinking.

Engineering is also a kind of moral compass in and of itself because it is a job where good ethics equals lives saved. The majority of engineers lean conservative, for a lot of reasons. A lot of us understand financial realities a lot better than most scientists and politicians.

Texan99 said...

"Screwtape" has some of the most useful advice I've found anywhere, and the "tripe and onions" point is one of my favorites:

"[While God] is delighted to see [humans] sacrificing even their innocent wills to His, He hates to see them drifting away from their own nature for any other reason. . . . The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack."

Screwtape also advises the all-purpose diabolical attack of persuading a human: "Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason." People can be mistaken about what they believe, but they'll generally muddle through as long as they don't tailoring their beliefs to some other standard but truth. "Believe this, because it makes you feel like a superior race." "Believe this, because you'll go far in the prevailing political system." If we can only insist on believing things solely for their truth, and then work on not lying about what we believe, we'll avoid all kinds of political errors at the vest least.

Dorothy Thompson is not talking primarily about which party guests will have the courage to defeat Naziism if it gets the upper hand; some of her non-Nazis probably will do well and others not. She's talking about an earlier stage: which ones will be drawn voluntarily to Naziism and which will understand immediately that it's the wrong way.

I thought one of the comments at ChicagoBoyz was interesting: his mother divided people up depending on whether they were the sort who would have hidden her family from the Nazis in a basement.

Here's a terrific movie about collaboration and resistance: "Divided We Fall."

Donna B. said...

James, having been exposed over many years, recognizes those who are themselves and those who are striving to be someone else.

He is an observer. He doesn't have the ambition or youth of Bill or the young German.

He is also comfortable with who he is. Though he might serve the Nazis, it would only be drinks and he would probably take a bit of joy in watering them down. Perhaps something worse.

James has never felt a need to prove himself and he's never been asked to. It's possible (though not a given) that if he were asked to put a poison pill in Hitler's morning coffee, he would do it.

Above all else, James is a survivor and will hold his own regardless who is in power.

That puts him in the position to hide a Jewish family from the Nazis... but it doesn't guarantee he will.

He would feign ignorance and astonishment rather than turn in a neighbor who had hidden a family.

He's probably a lot like most of us.

David Foster said...

Anna...regarding engineers and resistance to Naziism, here are some interesting thoughts from the German historian Friedrich Meinecke:

"It often happens nowdays…that young technicians, engineers, and so forth, who have enjoyed an excellent university training as specialists, will completely devote themselves to their calling for ten or fifteen years and without looking either to the right or to the left will try only to be first-rate specialists. But then, in their middle or late thirties, something they have never felt before awakens in them, something that was never really brought to their attention in their education–something that we would call a suppressed metaphysical desire. Then they rashly seize upon any sort of ideas and activities, anything that is fashionable at the moment and seems to them important for the welfare of individuals–whether it be anti-alcoholism, agricultural reform, eugenics, or the occult sciences. The former first-rate specialist changes into a kind of prophet, into an enthusiast, perhaps even into a fanatic and monomaniac. Thus arises the type of man who wants to reform the world."

Meinecke is summarizing the observations of a friend, made in the days prior to the Nazi takeover. I'd raise the question of whether the phenomenon he describes is or was a specifically German one, or whether we also see it in today's United States.

Brent said...

Isn't it interesting how, while employing a heavy hand against Nazism, she dismisses Communism as something that one flirts with in college? Nice people with the right breeding have the good sense to be progressive without losing their sense of proportion, I suppose is her underlying thought there.

Anna said...

David, I won't say that some people never go through a midlife crisis like that, but it has pretty much been the opposite of what I have observed in my career. The big zeitgeist today would be global warming etc. The people who grasped onto it immediately were mostly scientists and teachers, but the people who have been skeptical and opposed are the real world people. I guess maybe I should clarify, I am not talking about research engineers here, I am talking about consulting engineers who rarely ever grasp onto the crazy theory du jour.

If you want a stark example of this, look up the graduate programs of a high-minded research university like MIT and compare it to a graduate program of a more down to earth place like UTexas. Very different focuses.

Texan99 said...

I don't know about scientists vs. engineers, but I do think Meinecke in onto something important about the person with blinkers on during youth, who is inordinately exposed to rash enthusiasms when he finally wakes up and realizes his life is empty. Maybe he'll just leave his family during his mid-life crisis, or maybe he'll join a cult, but he'll be desperate to do something that makes him feel alive.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

texan, it's an intriguing idea. The engineers I know don't fit that pattern, but I doubt my circle is a representative sample. We should perhaps all ask around to see if that is something American as well as 19th C German (or perhaps pan-European).

Texan99 said...

A mid-life crisis based on a suddenly discovered emptiness is a common enough affliction, but I can't say it's tied to any particular job or profession. It's a disease of people who are separated from their deepest selves. An engineer who suffers from this malady will be a different kind of engineer from one who doesn't. Maybe the empty engineer is one who thought obsessive attention to mechanical processes was enough to sustain spiritual life, and who therefore made the mistake of never cultivating connections that could nourish his heart. He wouldn't suffer the same kind of crisis that, say, a political wheeler-and-dealer might, but he could still fall hard for a sudden enthusiasm in mid-life if his cold heart suddenly found a source of warmth after years of stoicism. Think of Silas Marner.

It's possible that the people you would likely be close to would never fall into this vulnerable camp at all, no matter what kind of training or education or career they have.