A Parable On Obsolete Ideologies

byScott Alexander10y13th May 2009285 comments

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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?

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