For centuries, people have pondered the meaning of evil. But the solution to the riddle is that evil has no meaning. Evil is the absence of meaning; it is meaninglessness. To build, to create, to act in the world—these all have meaning. Evil cannot. It is only a black hole that can tear apart meaningful things, and return them to the hollow silence of the universe. This is what we mean when we say that evil is “banal.” It lacks the infinite grandeur of even a grain of sand, let alone of laughter, or of a kiss. In that sense, evil does not matter. It is incapable of mattering. It cannot live or mean things. The best it can do is look on in ire, envy, and despair. And the envious are always walled off from the world that we, the living, inhabit, by an invisible and impervious barrier that they erect themselves; they always have the deadly touch of King Midas. We defy evil and envy when we live. Living in this world sheds light into darkness. It is all we can do, and all that needs to be done, and it is more than enough. Therefore, we shall live. We shall be joyful, hard-working, silly, creative, and smart and sexy and brave and fun. Be a brief candle that helps spread another light.
– Timothy Sandefur, writing a long and moving item about a close relation who was one of the 14 people murdered in San Barnadino recently by Muslim terrorists. Read the whole, outstanding piece. I don’t know how Tim had the fortitude to write so well about such a terrible event to affect his family. The article contains links to charities and organisations well deserving of support.
I’m afraid I feel rather personally about the current immigration crises in the United States and Europe.
(Yes, we have a crisis in the United States as well, or at least, we have Presidential candidates with high poll numbers claiming that we do, and said candidates are threatening to enact draconian measures, including mass deportations.)
I take the matter quite personally because my own father was once a war refugee. Indeed, he was once a war refugee who, because he was a member of a non-Christian religion, was denied refuge in more or less every civilized part of the world. Seventy five years ago, of course, Jews were not considered particularly welcome even by countries that knew full well what was happening in Germany.
My father managed to save himself by ignoring laws that said that he wasn’t allowed to cross borders in the night without permission. Had it been up to many people, of course, he would have died instead, but he quite sensibly believed that he was under no moral obligation to pay attention to people who would have preferred him to remain where he was and die, and thus he formed his own immigration plan without the permission of the legal authorities at his destination.
(Of course, only this morning I read that Victor Orbán has complained that allowing Syrians into Europe would diminish the Christian character of the continent, the sort of claim I’ve heard before in different contexts, including from the political movement that forced my father to flee in the first place. This does bring to mind an ancient set of questions for adherents of Christianity, such as what sort of razor-wire walled internment camp designs Jesus would have favored, as well as whom Jesus would have deported. But I digress.)
For me, the question of immigration is, because of my family history, a very emotional one. None the less, I have given the matter a considerable amount of thought, and I believe that, although I care deeply about the issue, my position is still not an irrational one. Rather, I think that my family history simply allows me to put faces to the theoretical people who might be denied passage and die where they are, and thus gives me the ability to understand by example the human consequences of policies.
(Indeed, this is perhaps much the same thing that has happened for people who have viewed the the photographs of poor Aylan Kurdi, who drowned because even though his family had plenty of money to go from where they were to a place of safety, they had to give it to smugglers instead of to a reliable airline or ferry company. Seeing an individual face, hearing an individual name, makes it harder to ignore the consequences of a policy. But again, I digress.)
So, as I have said, I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I’ve come to a straightforward conclusion. Anyone proposing that immigration from one country to another be stopped through the use of coercive state violence is, morally speaking, doing the equivalent of proposing to beat on the hands of a drowning man desperately trying to climb out of the sea.
I claim that there is no more moral justification for preventing a man from Homs from traveling to your town, renting a house and then looking for work than there would be for preventing a man from within the borders of your supposed “nation state” from doing the same. I have scoured the literature on moral philosophy and failed to find any justification for the claim that a man born across an imaginary line has particularly different rights than a man born within it. I claim this is true regardless of whether the man from Homs seeks to rent the house next door because he is fleeing for his life or because he prefers the weather in your part of the world.
Indeed, the only way to stop a man from Homs from traveling to your town, renting an apartment from a willing owner, and taking a job from a willing employer, would seem to be to threaten to do violence or actually to do violence to that man. Which is to say, the only way to prevent him from moving would be the initiation of violence against an entirely peaceful person who has done nothing whatsoever to the people doing violence to him.
Therefore, not only would it seem that there is no moral justification for preventing such behavior, and not only would it seem churlish, but it would also seem that, if anything at all can be called immoral, then doing violence to a peaceful person who wants nothing more than to rent a house, find a job and live as everyone else does is immoral. Perhaps, of course, there is no such thing as right and wrong beyond personal whim, perhaps morals are not a real thing at all, but if morals are indeed a real thing and if morality means anything useful, then clearly such acts are immoral.
I know that some, perhaps even here on Samizdata, would suggest that immigrants are coming to the West to take advantage of our generous state welfare policies. If you believe that, then there is a trivial solution. I will in no way oppose the proposal that the law that opens the border should also specify that immigrants and even their children should not receive state benefits until they’ve lived in the country for ten, or twenty, or, who cares, make it a thousand years if you like. I don’t believe in the dole or state benefits of any sort to begin with, so I can’t consistently oppose denying people such benefits.
I have heard some others say “but they will vote and they are illiberal!”, and if you believe that, fine, deny them the right to vote — I’m an anarchist, and as I don’t believe in elections in the first place, I feel comfortable with denying the franchise to immigrants forever if you feel that is necessary for you to agree to open the border.
But, if you refuse to consider opening the border even if those coming are doing so with their own resources, are renting or buying homes with their own money, are not taking state benefits and are not voting for more collectivism, then I am afraid that I do have to look askance at your position.
Which is to say, your position was immoral in the first place, but if you refuse to reverse a completely immoral position even if the supposed “pragmatic” rationale for holding it vanishes, then perhaps your rationale is not only immoral but was also not held for pragmatic reasons in the first place.
It would be nice if the world as a whole was a less awful place. The average country is, after all, a democratically elected kleptocracy with a desperately poor population. (For evidence, see India or Haiti or Nigeria or Honduras.)
However, sustained progress worldwide, at least if we’re going to run legal systems based on popular votes instead of more rational methods, depends on most of the world understanding basic economics. The recent rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in U.S. polling demonstrates that even the bulk of people in the U.S. have no understanding of the barest rudiments of economics.
H. L. Mencken once said “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” However, the argument of most statists, on both the left and the right, is that we are our brother’s keepers, that the better off are obligated to run the lives of those who are not so well off, and this includes the more educated running the lives of the less educated.
If you don’t believe me, look around you: we are told that people cannot be trusted to figure out on their own if they should take intoxicating substances or if they should save for retirement or how they should educate their children — all those decisions must be made by the intellectual elite via the state. This is meant quite literally. Drugs must not be legalized because people can’t make their own judgements about taking them, or so we are told. People in the U.S. may not be allowed to privately manage the 14% of their income that goes to government “pensions” — savings would be an awful idea, since they’d just be duped out of their cash by investment firms, so the state must handle that money for them via Social Security. Voucher systems where children go to private schools selected by their parents are unacceptable, only a state run public education system run by the teaching elite is acceptable.
We could go down the list, everything from negotiating salaries to deciding if they want to eat raw milk cheeses. If people were allowed to run their own lives, they would make bad choices, and so it is not merely right but necessary that others, among the elite, should make their choices for them.
So, the smarter must, according to statism, run the lives of the less intelligent and educated, but at the same time it is obvious that even most of the educated in developed countries are incapable of even understanding comparative advantage or supply and demand curves. They are, when it comes to economic education, mere children, unable to help themselves.
The inevitable conclusion, therefore, is that statist morality is not compatible with democracy, but only with a dictatorship run by libertarians.
Note that this isn’t the conclusion I would come to myself, as I don’t share this moral belief system. I don’t personally want to be the dictator — I have no interest in running everyone’s life. However, it is the conclusion that believers in the state, and especially believers in programs like Social Security and public education, must logically come to — applying that morality, a reasonable outcome can only be expected if I and my colleagues are made absolute rulers. Indeed, according to those moral claims, this is not merely a superior solution but is actually morally required.
And yes, I’m trolling you, but at the same time I’m completely serious about what the statist belief system implies.
Via Tim Blair and David Thompson, I came across this thoughtful philosophical discussion compèred by Joe Gelonesi of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:
Is having a loving family an unfair advantage?
The power of the family to tilt equality hasn’t gone unnoticed, and academics and public commentators have been blowing the whistle for some time. Now, philosophers Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse have felt compelled to conduct a cool reassessment.
Swift in particular has been conflicted for some time over the curious situation that arises when a parent wants to do the best for her child but in the process makes the playing field for others even more lopsided.
‘I got interested in this question because I was interested in equality of opportunity,’ he says.
‘I had done some work on social mobility and the evidence is overwhelmingly that the reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens in those families.’
Once he got thinking, Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions—from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories—form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations.
So, what to do?
According to Swift, from a purely instrumental position the answer is straightforward.
‘One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.’
It seems that from both the child’s and adult’s point of view there is something to be said about living in a family way. This doesn’t exactly parry the criticism that families exacerbate social inequality. For this, Swift and Brighouse needed to sort out those activities that contribute to unnecessary inequality from those that don’t.
‘What we realised we needed was a way of thinking about what it was we wanted to allow parents to do for their children, and what it was that we didn’t need to allow parents to do for their children, if allowing those activities would create unfairnesses for other people’s children’.
I hesitate to add anything to David Thompson’s takedown. I would almost call it an exorcism. Thompson writes:
Conceivably, there are quite a few parents and children who would like to escape a state education similar to my own, where those deemed overly studious ran the risk of being bullied, tormented or whipped across the face with bootlaces, thanks to the attention of the school’s dozen or so budding sociopaths, who amused themselves, in corridors and in class, with apparent impunity. A state school, a comprehensive, where objects of discernible value were routine targets of vandalism and theft, and where the teaching of basic grammar was thought inegalitarian and therefore superfluous. A conceit embraced by other ‘progressive’ educational establishments.
But it’s not all Thou Shalt Not:
“In contrast, reading stories at bedtime, argues Swift, gives rise to acceptable familial relationship goods, even though this also bestows advantage.”
Ah, this “we” would allow.
“Swift makes it clear that although both elite schooling and bedtime stories might skew the family game, restricting the former would not interfere with the creation of the special loving bond that families give rise to. Taking the books away is another story.”
No, “we” won’t take your books away. So there’s that.
The one thing I feel compelled to add is that the philosopher (I think it is Swift rather than Brighouse who is being quoted) does concede that abolishing the family would be “a really bad idea”. He goes to some lengths to explain exactly why private schools should be abolished but reading bedtime stories should be permitted. No doubt all three, Gelonesi, Swift and Brighouse, feel genuine frustration that the rubes in the audience have got themselves so worked up. Why, the whole point of the theory of “familial relationship goods” is to show that reading to your children and other forms of passing on privilege within the domestic sphere can be justified!
Gelonesi is quite clear that Swift and Brighouse are defenders of the family:
Although it’s controversial, it seems that Swift and Brighouse are philosophically inching their way to a novel accommodation for a weathered institution ever more in need of a rationale for existing.
And there is the metacontext: the family is in need of a rationale for existing. From philosophers.
Philosophically, Swift and Brighouse’s argument that parental care is an acceptable deviation from the straight road to equality seems weak to me. If equality is the destination, the supreme principle, then familial love should be abolished.
“This week Short, probably Britain’s greatest-ever chess player, suggested that women were biologically worse at chess and that “rather than fretting about inequality, we should just get on with it.” The reaction has been predictably bitter.”
“I like Nigel Short. I went to see him play his 1993 world championship game against Kasparov. But I’m dismayed he said this — even if it turned out he was right — because it can become self-fulfilling.”
– Tom Whipple, who writes on scientific matters for the Times.
“Eppur si muove!” (“And yet it moves!”)
– Some say these words were muttered defiantly by Galileo Galilei after he was forced by the Inquisition to recant his theory that the Earth goes round the sun.
“I want more women to do computer science, not because of my views on gender equality but because I want more people in general to do science. The chess debate will make that harder. It takes enough courage as it is to decide you want to become the only girl on your computer science course. Hearing that you are also hard-wired to be worse at it is not going to help.”
– Tom Whipple, who writes on scientific matters for the Times.
“In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration”
– Thomas Henry Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his robust defence of Darwin’s theory of evolution in public debate.
“Whatever biological influence on mathematical ability there may or may not be, there is indisputably a far greater influence: culture. Publicly debating biology directly influences that culture — for the worse.”
– Tom Whipple, who writes on scientific matters for the Times.
The Guardian reports:
Chimpanzees granted petition to hear ‘legal persons’ status in court
Wise’s argument in this case and others is that chimpanzees are intelligent, emotionally complex and self-aware enough to merit some basic human rights, such as the rights against illegal detainment and cruel treatment. They are “autonomous and self-determining”, in Wise’s words.
You can probably see why this post bears the “Self-ownership” tag. Many of the people arguing for legal personhood for animals are twerps like this one, who claims that she finds “discrimination on the grounds of species as distasteful as discrimination on the grounds of race or sex.”
However the arguments put forward by the Nonhuman Rights Project do not seem obviously wrongheaded to me. For instance they do discriminate on grounds of species, between higher and lower animals. This comes from their Q&A page:
Your first plaintiffs are chimpanzees, and you are also talking about elephants, whales and dolphins. What’s next after that? Dogs and pigs?
Our plaintiffs will be animals for whom there is clear scientific evidence of such complex cognitive abilities as self-awareness and autonomy. Currently that evidence exists for elephants, dolphins and whales, and all four species of great apes. So, for the foreseeable future, our plaintiffs are likely to come from these three groups.
Here is a fact I find disturbing to contemplate: some severely mentally disabled human beings are less intelligent than chimpanzees. If our society does start to act on that fact in its laws I hope and pray that it does so in the direction of granting more rights to animals, not taking rights away from disabled humans.
Identity politics is spreading, filling the chasm where the politics of ideas used to be. Even the general election looks set to be a festival of identity, a less violent form of the communalistic politics we sniffily condemn in places like India. Politicos rarely speak of ‘the electorate’ anymore. Instead, they prefer to change their message depending on which ethnic, gender or generational pocket they’re talking to. Just look at Labour’s pink bus, Operation Black Vote and the Tories wooing of the ‘grey vote’. The end result is implicitly divisive, hinting that the young have different interests to the old, blacks think differently to whites, and women are a distinctive political species.
So writes Brendan O’Neill. He’s right, of course, about the vileness of this but doesn’t really drill down into how this state of affairs came to pass.
I put the rise of such “identity” politics, with its insistence that being “offended” about X or Y is sufficient reason to ban or harm said, down to a long process that to some extent has its origins towards the end of the period known as the “Enlightenment”. We saw early stirrings in the so-called “Romantic” era and the elevation of feeling and emotion above supposedly “cold” reason. The process really got under way, in my opinion, with the rise of post-modernism and with notions of relativism. We have even seen such nonsense as “feminist” science as opposed, say, to science per se. The very notion of there being an external, graspable reality that one cannot wish away is all of a piece with this mindset. (For more on the many horrors of post-modernism, I recommend Stephen Hicks and Raymond Tallis.) Allied to this is the way in which notions of self respect or self esteem have become conflated with a demand that others respect us and make us feel good regardless of any objective merit or otherwise. And for some people, they want to be respected not for any individual achievements or qualities (which might require a bit of work) but for simply being.
That a figure from the left such as Peter Tatchell has come in for the hatred of the PC, identity-politics left is richly ironic. I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, but on certain issues, not least in his brave approach to Zimbabwe, he is morally and intellectually in a different class to many of those on that side of the spectrum.
A small reminder to people who are fond of referring to the human race as a plague on the planet (or as a disease, or as a danger to the “natural order”) and who think life would be better off without us and our technology:
The only long term hope of survival life has is humans and our successors moving it through the cosmos.
In the “natural order of things” C3 photosynthesis will become impossible on earth in 600M years, and by about 800M years from now there will be no more multicellular life. Eventually the last evidence that there ever was such a thing as life on Earth will vanish without a trace. That is presuming, of course, that a gamma ray burst doesn’t sterilize the planet much earlier. (There is increasing evidence gamma ray busts that energetic happen more frequently than one might think.)
The universe is hostile to life. Every species you see around you, and every last sign of that species ever having existed, will disappear forever without intelligent life preserving it and carrying it elsewhere. At the moment, absent any evidence of life elsewhere, that means us.
Maybe you believe you are a long term thinker, that those around you are short term thinkers and you really, really know what’s “sustainable”, but if you don’t consider this seriously, if you think it is somehow silly to pay attention to it, you’re just a short term thinker with a slightly but insignificantly longer time horizon.
Hat tip to “bloke in spain”, who pointed out this article by Dr Helen Pankhurst in the Telegraph:
95 years since its first female MP, Britain is lagging behind.
We brag about our democracy, but women are still less represented in our legislature than in Kyrgyzstan, China, Rwanda and Sudan
“Now there’s a list of democracies to regard with awe & envy,” said bloke in spain.
Before I turn to the article, a word about the author. At the bottom of the piece there is a note saying, “Dr Helen Pankhurst is the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the original Suffragettes, and a special adviser on gender equality at CARE International UK.” If you were wondering, CARE International UK is a charity adequately described by the fact that it has a special adviser on gender equality and Emmeline Pankhurst was a great name in the fight for women’s suffrage, and, equally admirably, though this is less celebrated in the history books, a pioneer in the struggle against Bolshevism.
It is heartening to see Dr Helen Pankhurst gain entry to the pages of the Telegraph on the strength of the name of her great ancestress, thus upholding the hereditary principle in these Jacobinical times.
Ninety-five years ago today, on November 28, 1919, an American became the first woman in Parliament. Technically, she had been beaten to it the previous December by the countess Constance Markievicz, an Irish nationalist who fought and won her campaign for Dublin St Patrick’s from Holloway Prison. But Sinn Fein, her party, was boycotting Parliament, and with them she refused her seat.
So it fell to Lady Nancy Astor to enter the House of Commons as its first female member (and first female Conservative), succeeding her husband in the by-election triggered by his ascent to the Lords. It was one year since the Act of Parliament which had given propertied women over 30 the right to vote and stand. She would serve her constituency of Plymouth Sutton for another 26 years.
Yet since then the progress for women’s representation has been slow. Until 1987 women represented less than five per cent of MPs; this doubled in 1992 then doubled again to 20 per cent in 1997. Even now, nearly a hundred years after the initial Act, only 23 per cent of representatives in both houses are women. Will it take until the 200th anniversary of Lady Astor’s election before we write about equal representation as if it were business as usual?
I disagree that the progress for women’s representation in the United Kingdom has been slow since 1919. Progress was quite fast between 1919 and the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1928, when women gained the vote on the same terms as men, and nonexistent since then. Progress has been nonexistent for the excellent reason that there was no more progress to be made. Once women and men had equal rights to vote or stand for office they were equally well represented by being represented (not duplicated) by whatever representative they had voted for. You know, voting for your unrestricted choice of candidate, like you do in a representative democracy. One of the things you’re allowed to do is vote for someone not like you in the nether regions. This innovation seems to have worked out OK since 1919; I think we might keep it on. Does Dr Pankhurst think that Lady Nancy Astor MP was incapable of representing her male constituents?
Twenty five years ago today, the crossings between East and West Germany, most notably at the Berlin Wall, were opened, and shortly thereafter, the last of the Marxist regimes in Europe ended.
The Berlin Wall was a symbol of the depravity and viciousness of the Marxist idea. Karl Marx was a pure hate monger masquerading as a social philosopher. His ideas may, in the end, be summarized thus: wealth can be gained only by stealing from others, and thus successful people are evil, and thus it is okay to threaten or kill rich people (or even people who are just a bit better off than you are), to steal their belongings, and to threaten anyone who might in the future have more stuff than you do. If you somehow get more things than other people, it is okay for other people to take your stuff, and if you resist, it is okay to beat you up or kill you.
Even more succinctly, Marxism is the idea that envy is laudable, and should be turned into social policy with the use of pervasive violence.
I am putting this more bluntly and baldly than the average Marxist would. They prefer concealing their central idea beneath a heavy blanket of words. They dress up their “philosophy” in avant garde costumes, adding layers of verbiage, complicated and counterfactual claims about language and logic, bizarre ideas about the nature of history, etc., all in the service of keeping people from seeing what they’re actually suggesting. What lies underneath is nothing much more than hate of people who have more stuff than you do, justified by little or nothing more than wanting to take what they have for yourself.
When you base your beliefs on this sort of foundation, the violence that proceeds is not an accident or the result of an improper understanding or implementation of an otherwise fine program. The violence is the direct and intentional result of the underlying program. The violence is the entire purpose of the underlying program.
In spite of the claims of apologists, the Marxism that fell twenty five years ago was the true Marxism. You cannot force people to work whether they get any benefit of it or not if they can flee from you, so you have to build walls. The Berlin Wall was not an aberration, it was the the only way to keep the quite literal slaves from fleeing their bondage. You cannot take stuff from people who have it without goons with guns, since they will not want to hand their material possessions over, so you bring in goons with guns to scour your population. In a free market, you get ahead by making things people want like bread or telephones, but in a Marxist society, the only way to get ahead is through gaining political power, and so people who are exceptionally talented at deploying violence and thuggery and are ambitious rise to the top of your society. Stalin or someone like him was not an accident, he was an inevitability.
What is shocking but sadly unsurprising to me is this: after a seventy year experiment that lead to a hundred million deaths, we still have people in our universities and even on our streets who profess to be Marxists.
There are, everywhere, professors who teach a Marxist interpretation of history, of literature, of economics and sociology, and not merely for some sort of historical perspective, but as an actual active ideology they would like their students to adopt. It is, indeed, an entirely ordinary sort of thing, so common it is not even worthy of note. There are people who wear Che Guevara T-shirts in the streets, never mind the people Guevara ruthlessly executed, including children, in the name of Marxism.
Would it be considered equally ordinary for a professor to be out teaching the Nazi interpretation of literature or social interactions, and encouraging their students towards adopting the Nazi point of view? Would people feel equally unmoved by people walking around wearing a Joseph Goebbels shirt?
Note that I do not suggest censorship. That is not the point. What I am instead suggesting is that, to this very day, our culture has not yet absorbed the lessons of Marxism, has not come to terms with the fact that it was not a noble experiment that failed, but rather a monstrous calamity that needs to be understood for what it was, lest it happen again.
It will be obvious that this post was prompted by Perry Metzger’s post “A Sad Anniversary”.
Regarding the undoubted fact that the net result of the First World War was almost wholly bad, consider this analogy: your home is invaded by a gang, who have given ample evidence of their lawless nature as they rampaged through your neighbourhood before reaching you. Maybe you have not always been a blameless citizen yourself, but, by God, you won’t take this lying down. So you resist, calling in your family and neighbours to help. They pay a high price for their solidarity. At the end of the fight you look round and see relatives and friends dead, crippled and embittered. The neighbourhood you sought to defend has been wrecked. You also know that many of those dead gang members were more deluded than evil. What was it all for? Nothing has been gained, much has been lost. Worse yet, this slaughter will begin a cycle of violence that will take many more lives in future. Surely it would have been better all round to just let them in and let them take what they want?
Or would it?
One hundred years ago today, on July 28th, 1914, a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia and began an invasion. This was the official beginning of World War I.
Within weeks, every major and most minor countries in Europe had declared war upon some subset of the others.
Almost all wars are a terrible, stupid waste of human life, but “The Great War” was especially pointless.
You can grossly oversimplify and explain what most wars were about in a sentence or two. World War II could be said to have been about a group of governments attempting to gain through conquest and others trying to stop them. Vietnam could be explained as the US government’s attempt to back an authoritarian government with little internal support to try to hold back a communist takeover. These aren’t great explanations but they’re at least “sort of” explanations.
World War I has no real explanation beyond “a bunch of inter-governmental alliances got triggered in the aftermath of an assassination.” If you study the events in a history class, it takes days to explain the causes of the war, which is to say, to get to the point where you understand that there wasn’t really much of a cause, and not really much in the way of actual objectives on either side. (Sure there are “explanations” and I’m certain someone with a pedantic streak will bring them up, but I feel that they’re beside the point.)
It was not war for conquest, not war for political objectives, just war for war’s sake.
In spite of this lack of real purpose, enormous patriotic fervor was brought to bear by both sides. Anyone opposing the war was painted as a near enemy of humanity. Young men by the millions were conscripted or (even more tragically) convinced to voluntarily enlist “for their country”.
In the end, 16 million people died and a further 21 million suffered injury, some grievously enough to render them crippled for life, and all, in the end, to accomplish nothing of significance.
One might have thought that something might have been learned by our culture from this event, that the deaths of the millions might have at least brought about some sort of lasting moral disgust that convinced people that perhaps there was something deeply sick about blind patriotism, that perhaps warfare was in general not a glorious pursuit, that perhaps the presumption that governments act in the interest of their population might be misguided, etc.
There was, of course, a brief paroxysm of loathing. How could there not be when so many of Europe’s young men died uselessly in muddy holes? However, it did not last. The cultural memory faded quickly. Eventually, the world went back to business as usual, with governments slaughtering each other’s populations, and even more often their own populations, with increasing zeal.
World War I proved to be just an overture. The 16 million killed were barely a footnote in what was to come. In the 20th Century, about 160 million people died in wars, and about a further 260 million were killed by their own governments in democides of one sort or another. That’s 420 million people killed by various sorts of government managed madness in a single century alone.
420 million people killed by governments. That’s a staggering figure, far, far beyond my ability to comprehend.
Has the bloodletting ceased, now, in the 21st century? No, of course it has not. The human race appears to be immune to education.
And this is why, tonight night, I’m going to sit in a very old pub in New York City, raise a glass of scotch, and mourn for the dead, as too few people seems to remember them.