Entry from September 8, 2008

In a feature that runs every Monday in The Washington Post under the heading: “Department of Human Behavior,” a Mr Shankar Vedantam regularly provides grateful readers of that organ with scientific proof that the sort of liberal and progressive attitudes that most of them harbor are more, well, scientific, than the alternatives. Today, for instance, he tells us that a new study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology claims that “a series of experiments offers empirical evidence in support” of W.H. Auden’s contention in his famous poem, “September 1, 1939,” written on the outbreak of World War II that

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn:
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

The social psychologists Michael J.A. Wohl and Nyla Branscombe showed that reminders given to test subjects of the events of September 11th, 2001 seemed “to dull the responsibility that Americans feel for the harm caused by the botched U.S. war in Iraq.” A control group, told of Nazi atrocities in Poland, experienced no such numbing effect, but another which was reminded of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 did.

“We show that when you remind Americans of those instances in which their group has been victimized in the past, you see an increased legitimization of American actions in Iraq and reduction in the amount of guilt they feel for the amount of harm their country may have inflicted on another group,” said Wohl, of Carleton University in Ottawa. “Even when you remind Americans of their history of victimization with an event that cannot be linked to the war in Iraq, you see an increase in legitimization and a decrease in collective guilt.”

Of course it goes without saying, both for Mr Vedantam and for Mr Wohl and Ms Branscombe, that the appropriate response to the “botched” war is guilt. Or do they mean that the appropriate response to any war waged by one’s country is guilt?

After all, Auden was giving voice to what has since become the normal liberal or progressive view of conflict — a view which has lately also been making a comeback among revisionist historians of World War II from Pat Buchanan to Nicolson Baker. A man of the left himself, and a Communist fellow-traveler for a time, Auden was one of the many progressive-minded people of the day for whom it had become an article of faith that the allies essentially brought Hitlerism on themselves by the harsh terms meted out to Germany by the Treaty of Versailles that had ended World War I. It was a view which hung around in the air for a long time, too, even after the post-war revelations about Nazi atrocities and war crimes made it seem in rather poor taste. Now, as I say, it is becoming fashionable once again.

Yet in essence it is just a version of the pacifist argument that all wars are avoidable if only you are nice to your potential enemies and give them no provocation for attacking you. Yes, sometimes those to whom evil is done do evil in return; and sometimes those to whom evil is done do not do evil in return, but rather visit condign punishment on the evil-doers; and sometimes those to whom evil is not done do evil anyway. The salient fact is that so long as you attribute all evil to those to whom evil has been done, then there is no evil that cannot be excused and apologized for and allowed to stand on the grounds that it was (presumably) provoked. This is an argument for not fighting — which, by the way, Auden was himself rather keen on not doing, since he had emigrated from Britain to neutral America shortly before the outbreak of war precisely in order to avoid it.

In fact, it is really the only argument for not fighting against manifest evil. Imperfect as it is, it is all that the pacifist has to justify himself for giving his permission to evil, so I suppose it is understandable that he is keen to persuade us, as these scientists and Mr Vedantam are, that the violent acts of which he disapproves can be taken out of their context while those which he seeks to excuse must be seen in theirs. Not surprisingly, when the experimenters re-supplied even as much of a context for a totally different war’s violence as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, people were reminded that they believe — as most of us do believe — that fighting back when their country is attacked is not something to feel guilty about. Only a scientist could believe something as foolish as that.

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