"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Snyder's Nazi References are Not a Violation of Godwin's Law

There is a provocative article by historian Timothy Snyder connecting our climate quandaries with Hitlerian delusions.

I would like to speak in defense of the article - I do not know if I will feel inclined to defend Snyder's work in general as this is the first I've heard of it.

It's quite an intense and unusual piece. For instance:
The Holocaust may seem a distant horror whose lessons have already been learned. But sadly, the anxieties of our own era could once again give rise to scapegoats and imagined enemies, while contemporary environmental stresses could encourage new variations on Hitler’s ideas, especially in countries anxious about feeding their growing populations or maintaining a rising standard of living.
Of course it immediately drew fire as a violation of Godwin's Law. Breakthrough Institute's Mike Shellenberger was quick on the draw.
Apparently oblivious of Godwin's Law, Yale professor @TimothyDSnyder says climate deniers" are like Hitler.
I find this a superficial criticism. Starting a conversation specifically about Nazis is inherently not a violation of Godwin.
"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1" 
"there is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress." 
"Godwin's law applies especially to inappropriate, inordinate, or hyperbolic comparisons of other situations (or one's opponent) with Nazis – often referred to as "playing the Hitler card". The law and its corollaries would not apply to discussions covering known mainstays of Nazi Germany ... if that was the explicit topic of conversation, because a Nazi comparison in those circumstances may be appropriate"

Godwin's law is set to expire soon. The youngest person to have a clear memory of Nazi power will be nearly 80 years old now.

I knew many holocaust survivors including my own parents; most of them have passed on or are at best not following political discourse closely. I was an early enforcer of Godwin back when no one outside usenet had heard of it, but I'm less of one now. Atrocities eventually fade into history. We need to learn from them, not bury them in respect for the feelings of people no longer paying attention.

Snyder's invocation of "denying" in his closing paragraph does seem deliberately provocative. BTI's Shellenberger finds it irresistible to tweet:
Apparently oblivious of Godwin's Law, Yale professor @TimothyDSnyder says climate deniers" are like Hitler.
But this hardly seems oblivious. To the contrary, Snyder is willing to connect some dots that urgently need connecting.

In the end, this is about human history. A serious historian asserting that consequences have begun is timely and important. This speaks of climate in a language that is accessible to many powerful people who have dismissed the problem to date.


The fact that we experienced climate warriors may find this article strange and unsettling may be a feature, not a bug.

Once, a few years ago, trapped in an airport without any of my own reading material, I found myself reading a book by Fareed Zakariah about the geopolitics of the 21st century. The book never even mentioned climate change. I felt I was reading about a different planet, but it probably attained more readers than any contemporaneous book which faced our circumstances realistically.

In speaking in terms of power and history rather than in scientific or geophysical language, I wonder if Snyder will not be able to reach audiences focused on power and politics who have somehow not come to terms with our collective quandary.


By the way, Jim Hansen casually violated Godwin a few years back. His comparisons then seem to me far less considered than Snyder's. Still, maybe it's the passage of time and the passing of my parents and their siblings and their cohort from this world, but it bothers me less now than it did then.

It is time to start considering the enormity of our folly as a fair topic for conversation.


William M. Connolley said...

Pah, its a crap article: excusing WWII as "a war for resources" is daft; "premised on the denial of science" is drivel.

The article has a point to make - that we might be short of food, or think we might be short of food - under GW. But that's dull, because everyone and his dog has already said that. Mixing in the Nazi's to make his article sexy is distasteful and, because he then has to distort history, unhelpful.

Tom said...

Connolley is correct. If anything he is being too kind to the article.

Michael Tobis said...

I don't think we can know if the article is crap - it's unexpected and provocative. Accordingly we should only judge the book which it summarizes, which none of us have read as far as I know.

My point here is mostly that dismissing it on the basis of the very comparison it makes on the basis of an old usenet convention is ludicrous.

Is the imminent crisis shaping up to be as severe as that of 1939 - 1945? I think it's different, but on present evidence, likely to be even worse. So the comparison, whatever else it is, isn't excessive.

Ric said...

Reading that article and even thinking of Godwin's Law is both mysterious to me and, if turned into an accusation like Shellenberger's, incredibly childish.

Godwin's Law refers to on-line discussions that degenerate into the flinging of metaphorical primate feces in the form of shallow Nazi comparisons.

Snyder's article is serious from the get-go. And, if you didn't notice, he's forgotten more about history, Holocaust, and WW2 in the last month than 99.9% of us will learn in a lifetime. His resume and writings are highly distinguished and thoughtful, and bring fresh points of view that were previously neglected. For non-specialist consumption, see many essays in the NY Review of Books.

I disagree with William and Tom, and have severe doubts that they could defend their points of view adequately in an extended conversation with Snyder. Looking at war as about resources isn't new, isn't confined to Snyder, and cannot be dismissed out of hand any more than anything so complex can be tested like a physics hypothesis.

Gingerbaker said...

Somehow, people treat an accusation of Godwin's Law as if it highlights a logical fallacy. Which, of course, it does not.

Tom said...

"but it bothers me less now than it did then."

It might bother you less because you are not the object of the insult.

It also might bother you less because the object(s) of the insult(s) are in fact those you oppose.

David Young said...

MT, There is a long history of explaining Nazism based on philosophy and cultural trends. In "A History of Western Philosophy" Russell sees Naziism as in the Romantic tradition started by Rousseau and further developed by Neischze. Romanticism had a strong emphasis on race and blood from the beginning. And indeed the late 19th century was full of abuses of science such as social darwinism that even influenced US Supreme Court decisions. Racism was actually reinforced by popular misuses of Darwinism. Many birth control advocates were in fact deeply racist. Russell was not racist though.

The fact that Nazism may have "denied" science is I would argue not a "root cause" of anything and is just the standard for Romantics. They valued feeling and sentiment far more than pedestrian investigations of facts and data.

Russell's history is a very strong frontal assault on Romanticism and also Utilitarianism. He even goes so far as to say he prefers St. Thomas because he at least acknowledges the supremacy of reason. The disinterest in science is not an independent feature of these philosophies, it is a consequence of the devaluation of reason itself.

Something else worth reviewing is Hanna Arent's big book on totalitarianism. I've forgotten the details.

Anonymous said...

> [E]xcusing WWII as "a war for resources" is daft

By chance that's not what Snyder does. Here's the argument:

The mass murder of at least 500,000 Rwandans in 1994 followed a decline in agricultural production for several years before. Hutus killed Tutsis not only out of ethnic hatred, but to take their land, as many genocidaires later admitted.

In Sudan, drought drove Arabs into the lands of African pastoralists in 2003. The Sudanese government sided with the Arabs and pursued a policy of eliminating the Zaghawa, Masalit and Fur peoples in Darfur and surrounding regions.

Climate change has also brought uncertainties about food supply back to the center of great power politics. China today, like Germany before the war, is an industrial power incapable of feeding its population from its own territory, and is thus dependent on unpredictable international markets.

This could make China’s population susceptible to a revival of ideas like Lebensraum. The Chinese government must balance a not-so-distant history of starving its own population with today’s promise of ever-increasing prosperity — all while confronting increasingly unfavorable environmental conditions. The danger is not that the Chinese might actually starve to death in the near future, any more than Germans would have during the 1930s. The risk is that a developed country able to project military power could, like Hitler’s Germany, fall into ecological panic, and take drastic steps to protect its existing standard of living.

Trying to explain genocides (or simply the War on terror) on ideological ground would be dafter still.

Florifulgurator said...

For some years, meanwhile, I used to say to the very very few brave persons who were willing to look into the abyss before us: Forget Auschwitz - it will quite probably get worse this century.

Now I need to read Snyder's new book. Amazon.com has lots of info http://www.amazon.com/Black-Earth-Holocaust-History-Warning/dp/1101903457/

Florifulgurator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan Anderson said...

All this sophistry isn't worth a hill of beans. Kevin Anderson has the right stuff, as did Philippe Squarzoni, and a few other tough nuts who don't burk the facts. This is not getting better ("bold" bit posted at Snyder article):

In my view it is about acknowledging responsibility for the future and for all of humanity, such as it is. We have a slowly developing emergency, a possibility to use our skills and intelligence and humanity to grow into taking care of things. Or we can go on distracting ourselves with ever more marketing and consumption and all go together. No magic wand is going to make all tidy. But the means are ready to hand, the warnings clear, and decades old, and the time is now.

I'm with those who are a bit tired of not using strong language and metaphors to point out that with half the population going nuts and a good few otherwise sensible people thinking they don't need to pay attention, a bit of oversimplification and hyperbole might be one way to get a few more people worried enough to get busy.

Tom said...

Deaths by all forms of violence are in steep decline. Conflict deaths, intrastate deaths, murder and, yes, death by pogrom/hate crime/massacre. Even with Syria added in.


Now if we could get our vehicles under control, we'd be on to something.