The Unit of Caring talks about how we don’t treat Soviet iconography with the same visceral hatred with which we treat Nazi iconography, even though the Soviets did plenty of really incredibly awful Nazi-like things.
(I don’t mean to pick on tUoC; she happened to write the particular post that sparked this train of thought, but it’s a line of reasoning that I’ve seen from a lot of sources. Probably you have too.)
It’s true. Unspeakably monstrous things were done in the name of the Soviet regime. I would not care to be in charge of proving that the Soviets were officially, objectively Not Nearly as Bad as the Nazis.
You know what other regimes have had unspeakably monstrous things done in their names?
All of them.
OK, I probably shouldn’t be making generalizations quite that sweeping. There have been a lot of governments, and a lot of governing ideologies, throughout the history of the world. Probably a few have somehow managed to rise and fall without providing sanction to atrocities.
This is quibbling, though. If we’re going to make a point of treating monsters like monsters, then it’s going to be hard to talk about human society in any other terms, ever. In large swathes of the ancient world, straight-up genocidal action — as in “round up all the men and kill them, rape all the women and then kill them unless anyone wants a personal slave” — was standard operating procedure during warfare. Pretty much every pre-modern European regime carried out punishment regimes that, to a modern ear, sound way too over-the-top awful to be believable as horror. Then the modern European regimes moved on to committing nightmare atrocities in their colonies. The U.S. itself, and the liberal-democratic ideology that it represents, has given its blessing to the funding of nun-raping death squad action and to dropping bombs on weddings and to the Trail of Tears. This is not aberrant. This is the default.
And that is a good and useful thing to remember. The sins of the past should not be erased; they remind us why it’s so important to keep getting better.
But, like…it’s actually useful to be able to think and talk about history without always immediately diving into the pit of OH MY GOD THOSE PEOPLE ARE SO TERRIBLE AND WE MUST REMEMBER HOW MUCH WE’RE SUPPOSED TO HATE THEM.
There are people who can’t do this. The people for whom the American Founding Fathers are nothing but “those slavery-allowing poor-people-disenfranchising pigs.” The people for whom every war leader is nothing but a murderer, for whom every king is nothing but a tyrant. Theirs, I think, is neither a reasonable nor a healthy way of looking at the world…even if I sympathize with the moral principles that drive them, as I sometimes do. Distance is useful. Equanimity, and reasoned calm, are even more useful. History is full of good and wonderful things — some of which do not precisely match up to the good and wonderful things that are most on our minds right now — and our judgment becomes twisted and false if we’re not able to value those things properly. History is full of beauty, and if we cannot appreciate that beauty, our lives are lesser.
I do not want to be stuck in the position of having to say, “The French? THE FRENCH? THOSE MURDEROUS INDOCHINESE-TORTURING SCUM HOW DARE YOU ELIDE THEIR HORRIBLENESS?” Even though, y’know, the tricolor definitely flew over a great deal of murderous Indochinese-torturing stuff. That is not a sane way to deal with the universe.
Fortunately, for the most part…most of the time…we’re capable of distance and equanimity and reasoned calm. We can think clearly about Alexander and Genghis Khan, about Caesar and Napoleon, about Nobunaga and von Bismarck.
Not about the Nazis, though. The Nazis get the MONSTER PEOPLE HATE HATE HATE response. They are our ultimate Despised Outgroup, so much so that talking about them in any other terms is deeply taboo.
I’m not going to wade into the waters of whether or not this is, culturally speaking, a good thing. (I’m clearly not qualified; when it comes to a regime that killed large numbers of my family members, a regime that left terrifying scars on my grandparents, I am not at my most rational and objective.) But it is worth remembering that they are really the only people we think of that way. Nazism is a special exception, a uniquely awful demon in our cultural mythology.
Every so often, someone will say “why are we so cavalier about people valorizing or joking about [GROUP X], they’re almost as bad as the Nazis!” Those people are usually right on the money, when you go look at the facts. But…there are a whole lot of GROUP Xs out there. And it does no one any good to play Atrocity Olympics, and spill buckets of ink and tears deciding exactly which ghastly crimes put a big important memetically-powerful thing Beyond the Pale. And it really, really does us no good to decide that we have to look at everything in history with revulsion.
So we will wear our hammer-and-sickle shirts; and we will talk about how awesome and badass guys like Alexander were; and we will go on pretty much ignoring the legions of the slain, because we have Distance and Equanimity and Reasoned Calm, and there is no other way to deal with the world. As we do so, if we are wise, we will remember what it is that we’re ignoring, even as we go on ignoring it.
Odds are good that, throughout it all, we’ll keep on wanting to punch anyone who wears a swastika.