A Slithy Tove

A Slithy Tove

Mini Teaser: Twentieth-century atrocities receive an unrewarding spin for the television age.

by Author(s): George Walden

Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

Humanity? A moral history? These are ambitious terms. Can this really be an account of the ethical forces that shaped or misshaped the lives of the entire human race through an entire century, from sexual mores and medical ethics to the morality of politics and international affairs? The scope of Jonathan Glover's Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century turns out to be more modest--largely a discussion of twentieth-century atrocities and criminal regimes from an ethical point of view.

We are, then, dealing not with the quotidian inhumanity of man to man, or his humanity for that matter, but with public policy that resulted in wars, massacres and repression. These we are invited retrospectively to condemn--a not insuperable challenge--while the author discusses how such aberrant behavior could possibly have come about. The targets are largely unmissable, and apart from one or two still controversial issues, such as Hiroshima, this is a highly consensual book. Once you place yourself on the side of humanity, sever the link between public and private morality, and see public policy as operating in a largely distinct realm, it is amazing how wide the consensus can become.

If the title, advertisement-like, inflates our expectations, the style is a concession to the televisual age. Rarely are we required to read more than a page or two of consecutive print. With his snapshot passages, sometimes a mere half page, quirky subheadings and anecdotalism, Glover seems to be aiming at an audience whose attention might wander if it were not sustained by constant changes of focus. There is something filmic about the result: a Short Cuts of twentieth-century horrors, each followed by roundtable deliberation, if you can imagine such a thing. The implication is that a filmic approach to history is the best and perhaps only way to engage a wide, modern audience.

And of course that approach must be novel: "This project of bringing ethics and psychology closer to one another involves thinking about the implications of some of the things we now know civilized people are capable of doing to each other." The impression is that in grafting a moral dimension onto well-known events and discussing the psychology of those involved, the author is doing something new. In fact, the ethics of public policy is a comfortably established discipline--too comfortably sometimes to be disciplined--especially in American universities, and the psychological aspects add surprisingly little that is not common sense.
Glover's method involves describing an incident or regime (Churchill's bombing of Germany, Hiroshima, My Lai, the Holocaust, Stalin's Russia), then subjecting it to categories of ethical elucidation devised by himself, such as "the erosion of moral identity", or the depletion of what he terms "the moral resources", meaning humanity's reserves of decency. The procedure is unrewarding.

Journalistic accounts of twentieth-century regimes or atrocities, heightened by chilling anecdotes, make up the bulk of the book. No doubt it is salutary that younger readers should be reminded that there was such a thing as the Moscow Trials or the Chinese Cultural Revolution, knowledge of which is now widely seen, unfortunately, as being as relevant to the contemporary consciousness as the Schleswig-Holstein question. And doubtless this catalogue of depravity will leave the general reader appalled, indignant, sorrowful, entertained and strangely gratified, because that is how humans are. I am sure sensationalism was the last thing on the author's mind, though it is to some extent inherent in the subject. But he has certainly not sought to play it down.

The reasons behind the moral failures and ambiguities Glover documents are as well known as the horrors. Means justifying ends, reliance on technology to distance ourselves from inhuman actions, tribalism, a tendency mutely to obey orders, beliefs that negate human sympathy, a morally blind response when friends or relatives come under attack, or a "capacity to unchain ourselves", that is, to go morally berserk as at My Lai--such dolefully familiar human motivations are too often presented as if they were psychological insights.

Interspersed in no coherent form (there is more discussion of the tainted sources of Nazism than of communism) are critiques of statesmen and thinkers. Notoriously complex or self-contradictory figures like Heidegger and Nietzsche are given two-dimensional readings. Nietzsche's "will to power" is interpreted as if he were a Nazi pamphleteer, and his call for a higher man is confused with racism. The "will to power" was in fact closer to our concept of self-realization and creativity, as Nietzsche urged humanity--rightly, for certain--to beware the miserable self-satisfactions of mankind in the mass. Similarly, Heidegger is presented pretty much as a Nazi natural (his relations with Hannah Arendt show that he was not a nice man, but that is something else), with few nuances, and no discussion of how the same thinker became a darling of the French Left or of his role in existentialism.

Given its higher number of aficionados, and the vastly higher death toll acknowledged by Glover, it is odd that Marxism-Leninism and the moral responsibilities of its apologists are not examined at greater length. Among the odd, banal or unhistorical phrases that litter the book ("Dominating society through Belief was Stalin's original contribution"; "Mao discouraged gentleness"; "People are trapped by the limitations of their view of the world"), we find the following: "The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing." It would be lovely if it were so. Andrei Vyshinsky, eloquent on Montesquieu, was a man of intellect whose voice Glover himself quotes shrieking imprecations at the innocents he condemned to death--"these filthy dogs, these accursed reptiles."

Heidegger is rightly censured by Glover for his reticence after the event. Professor Eric Hobsbawm is an influential intellectual who defended Stalinism and to this day has declined to condemn the Soviet experiment. What is the moral position of Professor Hobsbawm, and why is he immune from the same kind of censure as Heidegger?

Another of Glover's less than novel statements is that "A climate of opinion can make a difference as to whether a disaster is avoided." What was the climate of opinion among Western intellectuals during the Cold War? In a letter to his friend "Koba" (Stalin's nickname) written from his death cell, which recently came to light and is perhaps the most awesome document of the twentieth century, the desperate Bukharin offers to go to the West "and win over large segments of the wavering intelligentsia" in favor of the Moscow Trials of which he is about to become a victim. Himself a brilliant intellectual, such was the climate of credulity in the West that I fear he would have had some success. If we are in the business of ex post facto allocation of guilt, do not the motives of those whose colossal failure of "moral imagination" (a term Glover rightly stresses) allowed them to applaud from the sidelines while millions were subjected to the monstrous experiment of communism deserve far more moral probing than they receive here?
There is another vast lacuna here. Glover's period was the century of the masses in every sense--mass entertainment, mass movements, mass unemployment and prosperity, mass psychology, mass annihilation. What was the role of mass man, cankered apple of the twentieth century's eye, in all this moral mayhem? Of his sufferings and heroism we know, but what of his part in wreaking misery on himself?

Glover does not go so far as to suggest that wars and atrocities are things inflicted by authority on a passively enduring humanity, and acknowledges here and there that The People frequently needed little encouragement to engage in mutual slaughter or repression. He quotes, for example, a former Red Guard's confession that he had rather enjoyed beating up his fellow men and women. (Having spent two years in China during the Cultural Revolution, I can confirm the enthusiasm, even hilarity, with which one "mass" stamped the face of another.)

But the propensity of mass man for direct action--to "have done with discussion", in Ortega y Gasset's chilling words, which foreshadowed fascism--and the malignant power of populism, of which we are seeing new examples today, need to be addressed at greater length to avoid perpetuating the myth of the moral sanctity of The People. If the result of meting out blame all around leads to the somewhat trite conclusion that in one way or another we all deserve whipping, that is the penalty of attempting a moral history of humanity. Glover could have quoted that extraordinarily powerful book, Diary of a Man in Despair, by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, a German aristocrat murdered by the Nazis, whose descriptions of the venomous zeal of the "little man"--the schoolteacher or sub-postmaster--in doing the FŸhrer's will evoke the rank odor of sweat under the armpits of their proud brown shirts. As Auden wrote:

"The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish: . . ."

For all its gimmicky presentation, the book's underlying approach is highly conventional, with its discussion of the Melian Dialogue and the theory of just war, its case histories selected to illustrate our capacity for evil, its Rawlsian leanings and opposition to the realist tradition in foreign affairs. Conformism is not always a bad thing, except when we pretend it is something else. And though Glover admits that the ethical dilemmas most of us face today are small beer by comparison with his period, the risk of falling into piousness and priggery is not wholly avoided. He speaks of his book as an attempt to see events "in an appropriate human perspective." But don't we all? What other perspective is there? There are also rather too many sententious passages, prefaced by phrases like "Those of us who . . .", or "Some of us do not want to be all dominance and assertion." And after describing Japanese atrocities against prisoners of war in sickening detail, Glover rebukes the British and Americans for calling the Japanese "yellow bastards" or "subhuman." Both actions are indeed reprehensible, but some of us retain a sense of proportion.

Confronting new generations with dilemmas about interpreting the past is a worthy task, and, for all its inadequacies, I am glad this book was written. Much of it is informative, readable and sound, and will do no one any harm. Nor would I doubt its sincerity for a moment. But morality is a slithy tove of a subject, one that easily wriggles from one's grip and darts off in unintended directions. Ours is an age of ease and smarmy sanctimoniousness, in which the most challenging decision many people take in the course of a year is whether to repaint their sitting rooms stonewall gray or magnolia; an era in which historical novels, TV shows, films and plays have discovered that there are easy profits and cheap glory to be gleaned from retrospective moralizing to a public imperfectly acquainted with history, not least because moralizing rather than imparting knowledge now plays a large part in public education.

In a final chapter outlining brief and unoriginal prescriptions for a healthier humanity (who has original ones?), involving greater international cooperation and suchlike, a passage about the danger of technology in the service of the destructive side of human psychology concludes with the fatal sentence: "Something needs to be done about this fatal combination" [my emphasis]. If this admirable but somewhat furry sentiment amounts to a plea for changing human psychology, I think we have a consensus for that.

From the grandiose title, the claims to novelty and the attention-grabbing presentation, it is clear that we are dealing with a popularized account of ethical thinking. Nothing wrong with that, any more than with the excellent popular science we now enjoy in abundance, and Glover's book has received good reviews in Britain. But ethics goes deeper than science, and the more popular a book the more important that it should not mislead--or overindulge--the non-specialist reader. The trouble with this book is that it risks leaving its readers feeling pretty good about themselves. As Karl Jaspers remarked, there comes a point at which morality becomes suspect--for purely moral reasons.

Essay Types: Book Review