Lately I’ve been making the case that the modern world has largely replaced “religion,” defined as the veneration of paranormal beings, with idealism, defined as the veneration of mysterious universal principles.
While I am not a paranormalist, I see this change as almost entirely pernicious. Gods, goddesses, saints and such tend to come with holy books and sacred myths. So religions, while they do of course change, have a certain stability—think of them as DNA viruses. Idealisms are more like RNA viruses. Idealists are constantly creating new universals and mutating the existing ones, often in the weirdest and most surprising ways.
In my last post on the subject I referred to our present official idealism as, simply, Idealism. But of course we have a specific set of ideals that we venerate—Democracy, Equality, and so on. (I think italicizing these words is a good way to underscore their murky, ill-defined nature.)
So it’s probably best to pick a specific name for this faith. When naming other peoples’ beliefs—which is often necessary, as people tend to believe their beliefs are simply the truth—it’s a good idea to pick words that they consider complimentary, certainly not pejorative. I think a good name in this spirit is Progressive Idealism. Certainly it’s hard to imagine any officer of the Polygon taking umbrage at the epithet “progressive idealist.”
Okay. So the planet is a one-party state ruled by the PIs. Progressive Idealism is of course the idealism of the Allies of World War II, and the faith of today’s Brahmin caste. What we know as politics is mere squabbling between Progressive-Idealist factions. Even Communism is probably best understood as a PI splinter group. Like all good parties the Progressive Idealists have a color, and that color is gray. There are no red states or blue states. There are only pinkish and bluish grays. Moreover, Progressive Idealism is a nontheistic branch of Christianity, specifically its Unitarian (American) and Nonconformist (British) sects, both of course dating back to the Puritans, who were the first to construct the integrated political, educational and religious system whose much-improved descendant now holds Planet Three in its icy, inexorable grip.
So what’s the good news?
The good news is that we actually could have done a lot worse. Progressive Idealism was by no means the only idealism contending for power in the last century.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I have trouble seeing how anyone can not be fascinated by the Third Reich. National Socialism developed in the most civilized country in the world, and at least before the war its popularity there was overwhelming. And its failure to dominate the planet, or at least Europe, was the result of a few military mistakes that easily could have gone the other way.
I find it extremely easy, in fact, to imagine an alternate Nazi 2007. I don’t even imagine it as a Gestapo-dominated paranoid hell. Much of our historical memory of the Third Reich is, quite understandably, a memory of wartime Nazism. But if the war had gone the other way, this would be a memory of the wartime Allies, hardly a pretty picture either. Hitlerism no doubt would have moderated over time, as Stalinism and Maoism did.
For me the best way to understand National Socialism is, again, as a kind of Idealism. Instead of Progressive ideals such as Democracy, Equality, and Humanity, the Nazis venerated ideals such as Courage, Loyalty, and Aryanity (if we can use the word).
One interesting case of an ideal shared by both the 1930s Nazis and the 2007 Progressives is the Environment. Nazi environmentalism was definitely a different thing from ours, but the family resemblance is clear, and although environmentalism was hardly the most important part of the Nazi program it perhaps provides a window into their worldview.
A name for Nazi idealism that’s independent of the specific organization might be Aryanism. The “Aryan race” is certainly an Ideal by my definition—an undefinable universal—because human biodiversity is clinal. And in fact the Nazis struggled mightily for a definition of “Aryan” that made any sense at all, without success. Nor, even if Nazi anthropology somehow could be persuaded to cohere, is there any way to derive such concepts as “Aryan” or “German” science or art from the whole weird mirage.
For me, the simplest way to understand the Nazi conscience is to see that Germans in the Third Reich were concerned about the Volk in almost exactly the same way their grandchildren are concerned about the Environment. Both Aryanism and Environmentalism have deep roots in the human instinct for cleanliness and purity. Once the ideal of the Deutsche Volk as a universal coheres in your mind, it’s very easy to see how important it is to work for the future of the Volk, expel contaminants, and so on.
Aryanism is also more closely related to Equality than most of us would like to admit. German society before World War I was very hierarchical and aristocratic, at least by today’s standard. The alliance of Hindenburg and Hitler, the field marshal and the corporal, was something new. Nazism was a lower-middle-class movement, Vaisya to the core. It certainly did not believe that all humans were equal. But it did believe that all Germans were equal. This was a revolutionary idea, and it gave Nazism quite a bit of its demonic energy.
In our Progressive-Idealist world, Aryanism is about as unfashionable as it gets. The only people who openly espouse it are criminal gangs. So it’s very difficult to imagine a civilized society in which Aryanism is fashionable, exactly as Environmentalism is in our world. But of course, in 1930s Germany, so it was.
This is why Nazism still strikes us with a special horror, unlike Communism, despite the fact that Communism killed far more people. It is simply more alien and more unfashionable. Ultimately, Communism was if not a branch a close relative of Progressive Idealism, an estranged family member, misguided but “well-intentioned.” Nazism was a true enemy, defined very much as a reaction to the Progressive victory of the Great War.
It’s also important to remember that the mass murder of the Jews was not, by any means, a mainstream element of 1930s Aryanism. The peacetime Nazi program was to expel them, confiscating their property, which was thought in the usual undefined way to have been unfairly cheated from the German people. Therefore, the fact that most Germans supported the Nazis does not make them in any way complicit in the Holocaust (and still less their descendants). The Holocaust, a secret military operation, was the act of the people who planned and executed it.
Is it so impossible to imagine Environmentalism being used as the basis for mass murder? Our ideals of Humanity and the Environment coexist uneasily, to say the least. Today’s PIs have no trouble seeing themselves as both humanist and environmentalist. There is no need for this to make any sense—Idealism never has to make sense. But perhaps future historians will regard it as a bizarre and inexplicable juxtaposition.