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Lenin, Stalin, Robespierre

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So, okay, let me try to work my way through this.

I want to get one thing out of the way first.

When I say that punishing an innocent person is a greater wrong than letting a guilty one go free, that doesn’t mean I think the wrong of letting a guilty person go free is negligible. It’s just that I think it’s the lesser of the two evils.

And I’ve got to admit that this is, and has always been, a sort of “thing” with me.  I can trace it back as far as the year I was seven years old–the whole idea of someone being imprisoned unjustly and agains his will.  (My first explosive issue with that came whem somebody explained the draft to me–no wonder I turned into something like an anarchist.)  But the point is that this sort of thing makes me literally physically ill, so much so that I won’t stay in a movie theater if that’s the direction the movie takes, I’ll turn the channel on the television, I’ll dump the book. 

And I never suggested that we should make it impossible to catch and punish actual criminals, only that we should take care first and foremost not to wrongly punish the innocent.  As for perfecting the process, of course I want it perfected, precisely because I think justice resides in the process.  If the process is flawed, then the process is not just, and justice is not served, even if the right person goes to jail.

And I am, as you can tell, talking only about the criminal law.

But is fear really “exculpatory?”  Sometimes it is, of course–if John beats the hell out of Mary three times a week, puts her in the hospital a few times a month, and then gets liquored up and starts chasing her through the house with an axe, it’s certainly the case that her fear of what he’s about to do to her is at least partial exculpation when she kills him.

But let’s say that Mark murders Officer Krupke because he’s scared to death that Krupke figured out he was the guy who robbed the bank–I don’t see any exculpation there at all, and I don’t think anybody else would either, even though Mark might be genuinely terrified.

And the phenomenon I’m talking about has been noted by other people.  My guess is that a good two third of every Ayn Rand villain exhibits it at some point in every Randian novel, especially in Atlas Shrugged.  Henry James noted it, too.

I’m not talking about the ways in which such people may fear the people they kill–I don’t think they fear those people at all.  It’s precisely because they don’t fear them that they kill them.

If that makes any sense.

But let me try to set this up as a scenario, something I think applies fairly well to Robespierre, a little less well to Lenin, and not at all to Stalin–because it requires an “idealist” to get himself into this kind of mental mess.

Take the case of Jedidiah.

Jedidiah is brought up in a religious family, and for most of his childhood he is very devout.  He really does believe in God, and the Commandments, and to live a holy life, as far as that is possible to a child.

As he grows up, however, he begins to resent the whole thing–the rules, and the hypocrisy of religious people and clergy, and the stories about God, which start to sound more and more bogus.

The problem is that if he ditches all that, he’s left with nothing but a long look into the abyss.   Death is final.  All the pain and suffering on earth have no relief.  Everything just plain sucks.

And that’s when Jedidiah discovers the ideology of revolution, which tells him that heaven is meant to be realized on earth and all that religious stuff is just keeping us from reaching the pinnacles of human happiness.   If we throw off religion and redesign society,  human life will finally be happy, pain free and meaningful.

And that one works only until our Jedidiah hits a wall that makes it impossible to deny that heaven can never be realized on earth.  The abyss is part of the human condition, and nothing can be done about it.

Think of is as a kind of reverse Pascal’s Wager

I don’t think Jedidiah is afraid of the people he kills, or that he kills them because he fears them.  In the end, most Jedidiah’s like killing if they kill at all, or they get adept at ignoring the killing that goes on around them, if they don’t.

I think Jedidiah is afraid not only of the abyss, but of the fact that he lost his bet. 

And in the loss of that bet is the complete and utter destruction of a life.

I’m doing this badly again.

But you get this kind of thing on a small scale in some of the more marginal areas of the Humanist movement, people you run across on e-mail discussion lists and those sorts of places.  They go completely ballistic if you say something like, say, that the evidence for the existence of an actual, human person who was Jesus is no worse than ambiguous–that it really cannot be proved that Jesus did not exist at all.

There’s nothing really outrageous about such a statement, nor does anything in it “prove” that atheism is wrong.   Even if we could prove for certain that Jesus really lived and did at least some of the things (let’s say the non-miraculous ones) ascribed to him in the New Testament, that wouldn’t mean that Jesus was God or able to do miracles or even that Christianity is true.

And sane people get this.  When I read arguments about the historical existence of Jesus, I go “mmm, interesting,” and then sort of pass on to something else. 

But these people do not.  They’ll argue themselves and everybody else on the list into the ground just hammering it in over and over again:  nope, Jesus never existed, he never could have existed, it’s completely irrational and superstititious even to entertain the possibility that he existed–

They go, in fact, completely nuts.

This is not the reaction of an atheist.  This is the reaction of a person who still believes at the very core of his being that his original religion is true, who has made a bet against it and who is completely panicked by the implications of turning out to be wrong.

I’m getting that feeling, again, that I’m making no sense.

But it does seem to me that that reaction–the reaction of my guy on the e-mail list above–would explain why “idealisitic” revolutions, revolutions for ideological reasons (rather than just taking over the country so that you can milk it dry) inevitably end up not just in violence, but in violence of a particular kind.

Every once in a while, you do get a Lenin, who is just coldblooded, who pursues violence for the sake of violence.

But I think a lot more of the people involved in these things, both in actual revolutions and in arm’s length support of the same, are doing what my Jesus-just-couldn’t-have-existed guy did.

Okay.  End of blithering.

Written by janeh

October 29th, 2009 at 9:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Lenin, Stalin, Robespierre'

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  1. I think you have a good point. I’d have probably put it as ‘some people can’t bear to admit that they’ve been wrong’, but you’re probably right when you go a step further and point out that they realize that if they’re wrong now, everything they’ve done, every sacrifice they’ve made has been completely pointless. Worse than pointless; because the purpose of it as was to have a point. It doesn’t matter so much if some trivial hobby turns out to have been a waste of time; it does matter if the beliefs you’ve based your life on and the actions with which you built your life are pointless and even counter-productive. I’m not sure if this always means that the person undergoing this fear actually has some of his old belief system lurking deep in his soul, although that must certainly make it worse. I think someone who is committed to, say, an improved social system, might question at some point whether starving the peasants or shooting the rival intellectuals is an effective means to the end, and then shove all doubt out of their mind, because they CAN’T be wrong, if they were that would mean that they were just another bloody killer, and they aren’t, they’re good people really, they want the best for everyone and they’d get the best for everyone, if only there weren’t all these people causing problems. And then they turn from self-examination to murder yet again.

    You see it in a smaller, private way in the parents (usually mothers) who can’t admit that the child they are giving their lives to are actually murderous thugs (or, in a more benign version, lazy leeches). Their view of themselves as Good Mother (or Father) is too important to their sense of self to be overthrown by facts, and they don’t need to be converts from another way of defining themselves to construct a personal reality that is damaging to the whole family, but which at the least, doesn’t damage millions in the entire society – unlike the political fantasists.


    29 Oct 09 at 9:47 am

  2. Okay, so I agree that SOME (note: I did say some, not ALL) reformed believers feel that they can’t be wrong now that they’ve switched to the other side. And the only way not to be wrong is for the current ideology to be infallible and/or (SOMETIMES) the answer to eveything. (Notice all the qualifiers here? Wouldn’t want –Lord forbid–to be accused of generalizing.) And if they (they being the above mentioned SOME) suspect they might be wrong about the new ideals and they have rejected the old ones, then what is the answer and how can they ever be right about anything again? I get that.

    What, though, is the motivation of people who deny tangible information– events that occured within the last one hundred years and were witnessed by many? Examples, those people who claim: the Holocaust never happened, that men never walked on the moon, that 9/11 never happened . . . Ignorance? Guilt?


    29 Oct 09 at 4:08 pm

  3. OK, I must be expressing myself poorly. Our whole elaborate, expensive, time-consuming and frequently wrong process of criminal justice is not itself justice. It is a system by which we hope to arrive at justice, the way one hopes to make gunpowder or chocolate cake–by folowing the directions very carefully. But the directions are not the outcome, and if the guilty are punished and the innocent protected by some other system, they have as much justice as ever. We adhere to our present system because we hope it is better than the alternatives, or fear that they may be worse. We continue to tinker with it because we can see that the process does not always deliver. But a staunch adherent of the Code Napoleon may and often does have a very similar concept of justice while having a different way of seeking to obtain it. For that matter the problem with vigilante justice is not that it doesn’t involve a grand jury or a judge, but that because it doesn’t we feel it is more likely to go astray. And it is critical–why I’ve gone over this three times–never to confuse process with justice. With all the good will intelligence and honesty you’re ever likely to see, there will still be many times when someone receives a double helping of process and not a speck of justice. And being able to say “we went exactly by the rules” shouldn’t let anyone involved sleep easy.

    As for our massacre-prone utopians, I can only say again that time and time again the bloodletting peaks well before it it obvious to the revolutionaries that they can’t create the earthly paradise. It is not their reaction to losing. It is how they intend to win.

    And a lot of people go into hysterics when they’re contradicted. They’re poor people to hold a debate with, but it’s worse if they’re a boss.


    29 Oct 09 at 4:26 pm

  4. I’m nit sure there is a good explanation of Stalin etc but I suspect that one problem with revolutions is that they expect too much from governments and get frustrated when reality intervenes.

    Lets consider Saddam Hussein as a simpler case. He wreaked the economy of Iraq by wasting the money on himself and his cronies. So we get rid of him and Iraq still has bad roads.

    Assuming you have enough trained engineers and construction equipment and skilled labor, it still takes time to design and build roads. And even more time if you have to train people and buy equipment.

    The saying “The longest journey begins with a single step” applies. Changing the government is the first step.


    29 Oct 09 at 8:38 pm

  5. I like the idea that we have a legal system, not a justice system. Justice is not achievable (in this world, anyway). A good legal system can provide some justice, enough to keep society working reasonably well, and the better the legal system, the fewer people you have convicted unjustly or wrongly exonerated. I think some people put too much faith in the legal system to generate justice – for example, since drunk driving is obviously a bad idea because it injures and kills a lot of people, we ban it and punish offenders. But some drivers continue to re-offend. Some people seem to think that what’s needed is stiffer and stiffer penalties, and if we have them, we’ll eventually have a situation in which we have zero offenders and offenses. I tend to think social pressures and milder penalties will deter the vast majority of would-be offenders, and a minority aren’t going to be deterred by anything short of a death penalty (for themselves), although they can be kept off the roads for periods of various duration by locking them up. Gearing the typical punishment to the worst cases tends to bring the legal system into disrepute. Drug laws often seem to work like this. OTOH, Dalrymple says that NOT punishing first or early offenses enough, especially violence against people, makes matters worse. There’s a balance needed.

    I think the holocaust deniers etc. are often operating out of a combination of mis-applied scientific method, as in ‘I don’t take anything for granted, I collect and analyze my own data (whether I have the needed skills or not)’, and pleasure in the sensation of being brighter and more in the know than everyone else, who believes the standard version of reality (‘sheeple’, I think, is the term used).

    Then you get the people who think that the more effort they put into something, especially dangerous and/or morally or emotionally unpleasant thing the more Right the cause has to be.

    Logic doesn’t come into a lot of this stuff. I’ve been trying to restrain myself in debate in another online forum with someone who is opposed to flu shots – fair enough – but who is putting up as evidence 3 videos by some politician who I caught on a largely discredited position on one major issue plus with rather odd ideas about how and when double-blind experiments are used with humans (hint: strong evidence of positive results must ethically lead to the experiment being abandoned and all participants offered the active drug) and how placebos are used. this was minutes into the first video. But it’s *obvious* this guy is more plausible than anyone and anything else because Big Pharma has corrupted all the scientists and the governments!!!


    30 Oct 09 at 6:43 am

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