A few days ago, in my trawls for reliable bits of Ukraine news on Twitter (I manage to stay off Twitter for weeks at a time, and then the obsession returns like a fit), I ran across this comment on a clip from one of Putin’s speeches:
Yes, that’s Mike Godwin, of “Godwin’s Law” fame. If you need a refresher, Godwin’s Law refers to the end stage of an argument on the internet, when someone brings up Hitler or Nazis or the Holocaust, out of all proportion to the topic being discussed. At the dawn of the public internet, in the late 80s and early 90s, that was a meaningful observation: the Soviet empire was on its way out, and totalitarian movements were (we thought, at least in the West) a disproportionately evil memory, a bugaboo for whiners to invoke when they don’t get their way.
Godwin’s Law, like the post-Cold War era, now has an end date on its tombstone.
When we thought Nazism and fascism were dusted and in the past, invoking them became a way of administering a moral shock to someone whose behavior we were opposing. Everybody knows Nazis are the quintessential bad guys, after all! By degrees, the word’s meaning eroded: at its most specific, it came to mean “someone who fought for Germany in World War II” or “undirected anti-semite.” At its least specific, it meant “bad guy.” And in Putinist Russia, apparently, it means “someone who hates Russia.” The whole Third Reich, apparently, is defined by its attacks against the Soviet state. Jewish people apparently don’t signify much in this definition, which is why some Russians apparently see no problem with calling Volodymyr Zelensky, a scion of Holocaust survivors, a “Nazi” leader.
Thus one instance of the death of Godwin’s Law. The other is here at home.
People still object to being called “Nazi.” But it is now impossible to shame those people who espouse what Nazism actually stood for. They’re not ashamed of it. They’re not ashamed of the idea of suppressing queer communities, not ashamed of treating women like so many milling cattle, not ashamed of rounding up undesirables and deliberately insulting their humanity, not ashamed of training police to deliver white wrongdoers to the inside of a courtroom and black wrongdoers to a grave, not ashamed of randomly accusing people of being pedophiles so as to stigmatize whatever aspect of the person’s identity draws their contempt. They’re not ashamed of putting barbed wire around ballot boxes, not ashamed of looting the public weal on the grounds that they deserve to take and have, not ashamed of being cruel to people in public; not ashamed of sabotaging public health if it’s likely to lead to the deaths of people they hate.
And they measure the rest of us by their own crooked beam, and assume that we would do the same to them and worse.
A lot of us think that this rank outgrowth of evil is due to a lack of education. And it’s true that there’s some staggering ignorance in some of the things these terrible people say. By all means let us upgrade the education of as many people as possible; but it’s my conviction that other people is the education we’re looking for. I recommend Tara Westover’s Educated, and point out for those who’ve read it that it wasn’t Westover’s curriculum that changed and liberated her, it was the influence of reality in the form of the new people she met. The curriculum hardly made a dent until the people in her life gave her the capacity to grasp it. It is not the capacity to understand a treatise that makes the difference. Stupid people are not naturally cruel. I know one young man who has never so much as spoken a word and will be under basic needs care for the rest of his life; yet what capacity he has for trust and concord, he says yes to, in Hammarskjold’s phrase. The most ignorant tweet was written by a person smarter than he is; but they have refused the education of other people that leads to a welcome for reality.
I know that coalitions suck. I know that the best that can be said of some of us is that we’re Not The Bad Guys. I know that we crave a protagonist person or group to rally around. In that sense Ukraine has done the world a massive favor by demonstrating their willingness to fight to the death for their own independence. They are literally on the front lines of democracy. And what is democracy but the education of other people translated into the rule of law?
This, in my view, is the only potent antidote to the cynicism and cruelty the bad guys would tempt us with. It’s the reality that we must constantly set against the fog of lies. The bad guys are not ashamed of themselves: but they sure as hell resent that we think they should be. The Great Litany of the Book of Common Prayer contains a petition to God — “that it may please thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and to turn their hearts”; all of which is work for the Almighty. It is not fit for us, and we are not fit for it. We can’t make the enemies of democracy ashamed of themselves; they are not in their present state capable of it. We can, however, fight for reality and truth against delusions and lies. Glory to the heroes.
And now, as a palate finisher, some pictures.