Tuesday, October 3, 2017

It's really not a game

I’m trying to wrap up this series on the issues raised by the French historian Muriel Blaive, so that I can get into other stuff, like Tomio Okamura throwing the word “traitor” at Czech representatives in the EU parliament who voted for refugee quotas, and those representatives then getting death threats. Or the last-gasp campaign of TOP 09 (the electoral sensation of the 2010 campaign), on the reasonable slogan that “The EU needs to be changed. But with us, not without us.”

But I do have some threads to try to tie off.

I introduced the basic argument, then looked at the implications in terms of current politics, before providing an analysis of the dynamics of totalitarianism through the simplifying lens of game theory.

And the big simplification in that last piece was the clean distinction between a “bad” government and a population full of “good” people being oppressed by their bad government.

As I argued in the first of my posts on this, I think Blaive seriously misses the boat in trivializing the communist dictatorship when she quibbles over the word “totalitarian.” But she also asks a real and important question, about the extent to which Czechs were purely victims in World War II, and by implication the extent to which they were purely victims under communism.

To be clear, Czechs were victims of Nazi aggression in World War II, and the communist leaders conveyed to President Beneš in February 1948 that if he didn’t approve the takeover of the government by the communists, there were Soviet forces ready to back the communists, so in a meaningful sense they were victims of an imposed government in the case of communism as well. But Blaive is right that a narrative of pure victimhood is too simple.

Blaive’s big finding about totalitarianism is that the files of the secret police show more cooperation than resistance, but that’s exactly what we should expect to find in a dictatorship that is successfully imposing its will—opposition is very costly, and most people will avoid incurring that cost.

Similarly, in any totalitarian regime there will be people cooperating not just out of fear, but out of some more active agreement with the regime. Because there are among us only a few saints who would be good in all circumstances, and also, fortunately, only a few demons who seem guided by the will to do harm. Most of us have a large degree of situational morality and can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves and the options available to us.

I remember an incident—I think it was in Claudia Koonz’s book Mothers in the Fatherland—of a German Jewish woman who had gotten out before the Holocaust. Some years after the war she went back to her hometown and was in the house of a former neighbor, where she saw her family’s heirloom silver. She pointed it out, and the hosts acknowledged that, but had no thought of returning it to her. They liked the silver, and though they obtained it as the result of one of history’s great crimes, that was no reason not to keep it.

In Under a cruel star, Heda Margolius Kovály recounts (among many other things) experiences from the Czech capital shortly after the liberation from Germany. There were farmers who had acquired significant holdings in gold and silver plate during the war, because they had food and the formerly prosperous urban middle class had nothing else with which to pay. And there were people who seemed to resent her having survived the concentration camps and a death march as the Soviets closed in. The attitude of some of her fellow Czechs was annoyance at her for her suffering, because it interfered with their perception of themselves as victims. “Yeah, I’m sure Auschwitz was bad, but do you realize how awful things were here in Prague? This place was absolutely crawling with Nazis!” (That’s my snarky paraphrase of the attitude I remember Margolius Kovály describing.)

Margolius Kovály’s husband, Rudolf Margolius, was an important figure in the communist government after 1948, until he was caught up in the Slánský trial in 1952. As part of the madness of Stalinism, the satellite states of eastern Europe went through show trials where important communists were arrested, tortured, and convicted of absurd acts of treason. Many of them were guilty of having helped establish dictatorships in their countries, but they were tried and hanged for allegedly sabotaging their own communist governments at the behest of the West.

After Rudolf Margolius was arrested and denounced in the press, his wife (eventually widow) became a pariah. People in her apartment building were unhappy having the wife of a traitor living amongst them. Nobody would employ her, which then left her vulnerable to the accusation by the government that she was a “parasite,” refusing to work. People at work sites around the country engaged in denunciations of Margolius and the rest of the accused.

Some of this was fear, similar to the kind of rational calculation I described in my previous post: the government clearly wanted people to ostracize the families of the accused, and so it might be dangerous to be seen to be friendly toward them.

But some of it seemed more like a willingness to believe absurdities, or even an eagerness to scorn those you were told to scorn. The economy in the years after the war wasn’t great; people were offered a target for their frustrations about their own hardships, and they obediently redirected their anger.

My working assumption is that humans around the world are made of the same sort of stuff, and so analogous behaviors can be found pretty much anywhere you look.

It’s well known that during World War II the U.S. government relocated American citizens of Japanese ethnicity to concentration camps in the desert. People sold their houses, stores, and farms at absurdly low prices because they were in no position to bargain for better. After the war they came back to the coast, but for the most part they had no way of getting back their old property. Nor were the new White owners particularly eager to think about the injustice from which they had benefited.

Or take the response to the shooting death of Philando Castile, or the injury of Levar Jones. Both men were in the process of complying with police, trying to demonstrate their harmlessness. For their troubles, they were shot, one of them fatally.

And yet some significant portion of the U.S. public insists on saying, “If only he had complied,” or, “He was a thug,” or, “The officer was legitimately nervous.” Or one of dozens of variations on these themes.

Anything to avoid the conclusion that police sometimes unjustly injure or kill innocent civilians—and the more damning idea that his is more likely to happen to someone who’s not White.

When people can look at those tapes and absolve the police, something in them is broken, as surely as it is in someone who holds onto the heirloom silver of a Holocaust survivor.

This is the stuff of which humans are made, and it’s important for Blaive’s question about dictatorship and victimhood. Because maintaining a dictatorship is much easier than convincing everyone they’re in a prisoner’s dilemma that they can’t solve. Some significant portion of the population will cooperate not out of fear, but out of being with you in some sense.
  • They may be looking for a group to hate (such as Jews, or Blacks, or those dirty capitalists), and you enable them.
  • They may be looking for private advantage, of a couple different flavors. As I mentioned in the previous post, the totalitarian state has it in its power to confer special favors on you in return for your particularly active cooperation. It also has the power to destroy a person, so a denunciation by you—perhaps completely fabricated—can be a very effective way to damage a rival or to settle an old score.
  • Some people are inclined to physical brutality or cruelty, and the totalitarian state makes good use of them.
  • And there are those who fully agree with what the regime is attempting to accomplish, as I’ll get into next time.
All of these things make it easier to maintain a dictatorship. The people who want a democratic system with political freedom may be a majority (though not necessarily). And even if they are, they’re probably not a massive majority. It’s not like the regime is a small coterie of leaders, bureaucrats, and soldiers who have to actively keep the lid on everybody else. A lot of people are happy to go along with repressive power, for diverse reasons of their own.

People are not playing a society-wide game of prisoner’s dilemma, where they carefully work out the rational course of action given everybody else’s rational course of action.

They’re playing life, and they’re doing it—like all of us—by the seat of their pants, working off of very partial information and ultimately acting on a mix of what seems likely and what feels right.

So a totalitarian regime stays in power through more than mere rational calculation of its subjects. The regime relies upon a feeling in the air, an assumption that change is impossible, an assumption so obvious and widely shared that it doesn’t even have to be articulated.

And that is also the regime’s weakness. As long as the regime appears unshakeable, then people feel that the odds of getting hurt through resistance are very high. But when that image of immovability starts to shimmer like a mirage, then people’s sense of the odds can change very fast. Even while a rational calculation would tell you it’s foolish to resist, your heart tells you a different story. And so you resist, and most of your neighbors do as well, and suddenly there are so many of you resisting that the real odds of success change and catch up with your subjective impression.

And then the regime is gone.

Next up: Fan mail.

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