Saturday, June 02, 2007

Outside the Box

The British historian Paul Johnson is one of those priceless intellectuals whose erudition is such, and whose depth of understanding is such, that he helps liberate the rest of us from mental habits of which we are otherwise hardly aware -- habits which subtly confine our thinking and cloud our judgment about the human predicament, past and future.

In a recent piece in the London Spectator (reprinted by Catholic Education Resources Center), Johnson said this:
One of the great errors of political taxonomy is to classify Hitler as right-wing. He, and still more his closest colleague, Goebbels, were socialists, and the fact they were nationalists first did not orient them more to the right. There are six indispensable hallmarks of a conservative. First, firm belief in one, beneficent and omnipotent God. Second, absolute morality as the basis of public law. Third, strict limits on the size of the state. Fourth, respect for a multiplicity of traditional power centres. Fifth, restraint and self-restraint in all things. Sixth, search for the right balance between the individual and the traditional units of society. Hitler broke all these rules: he was an atheistic pagan, a moral relativist, a totalitarian, an ultra-centralist, an uninhibited exhibitionist and a collectivist. In many ways Stalin was to the right of him. There is a seventh point. A conservative is not afraid of force, or of using it thoroughly. But always as a last resort. With Hitler it was the first.

This brings me to another puzzle of ideological classification. The phrase is often used by thoughtless people, TV interviewers, tabloid columnists, etc. ‘He is even to the right of Genghis Khan.’ The implication is that Genghis Khan is on the extreme right of the political spectrum. What is the origin of this belief? And when did the phrase come into use? I believe it is hardly more than half a century old. Hitler, again, is to blame. He is seen, falsely, as the epitome of ‘the Right’. He is also seen, more accurately, as a mass killer on an unprecedented scale. Before the 20th century, the classical perpetrator of terrorist massacre, pillage and the destruction of cities was Genghis Khan. He was not, however, seen as a political figure of either left or right — just as a savage barbarian. Hitler, however, was linked with him as a mass killer, and therefore Genghis took on Hitler’s political colouration. In fact, Stalin killed more people than Hitler, and Mao twice as many again, 70 million at the latest count. So logically, Genghis should have taken on this political colouration, and the phrase should run, ‘He’s even to the left of Genghis Khan.’
We are today facing a new resurgence of barbarism potentially as lethal and catastrophic as that over which Hitler, Stalin and Mao presided. By conveniently locating those past horrors on a political grid with which we feel comfortable, we dull our wits and betray our responsibilities. Thank goodness we have people like Johnson, people who know the depths to which we can sink if and when we shirk our responsibilities.


John said...

It seems that Gil has been gradually drifting toward this extremly conservative approach and now with his glorifying Paul Johnson he seems that he has gone off the cliff.Johnson's defense and support of Nixon, Oliver North and even Franco is offensive to my Christian mindset. Moral certainty also has problems that conflict with a compassionate Christianity. I am afraid that you have lost me.

John A

Gil Bailie said...

John: slow down. I have no idea what Paul Johnson has written about Nixon, much less Oliver North. His history of Christianity and his book "The Intellectuals" and others are full of marvelous insights. Compassionate Christianity has to be truth-telling as well, and Johnson has often told truths that the vast majority of intellectuals were gingerly avoiding. I'm not endorsing everything he's ever done or written. But he's earned my respect as a thoughtful and principled person.