Friday, March 2, 2007

"Universal happiness will prevail"

In a review of collections of the writings of Mao and Robespierre, John Kekes describes why seeking heaven on earth results in something more like hell:
Maximilien Robespierre led the phase of the French Revolution called the Terror. It lasted a little over a year. He gave the orders that resulted in beheading, drowning, shooting, or burying alive about 20,000 men, women, and children. Mao Zedong ruled China between 1949 and his death in 1976. During his tenure, his followers murdered, on a low estimate, 20 million people. These two men were among the handful of great mass murderers of modern times, in the same class as Hitler, Lenin, Pol Pot, and Stalin.

Both Robespierre and Mao seized control of and radicalized revolutions that they did not start. In each case, the revolution destroyed the previous corrupt regime and replaced it with hell on earth. Instead of their predecessors' venality, Robespierre and Mao sought ideological purity, and they had a cold impersonal hatred of those whom they suspected of not sharing their crazed theories. This hatred brought them to murder people indiscriminately, not for what they did but for what they were. Innocence was no part of Robespierre's or Mao's vocabulary; the notion that punishment should be for real crimes, both men thought, was subversive of the grandiose project of achieving happiness for all. Their ideologies dictated the only way to reach that lofty goal; those who disagreed with their ideologies became enemies of mankind, deserving only extermination. ....

They can believe such travesties because their ideologies offer a misguided explanation of why the world is as it is, rather than as it ought to be. Often, as everyone knows, we fail to get what we deserve; good people come to bad ends, and bad ones die in comfort. Justice doesn’t reliably prevail; reason doesn’t always guide key decisions; and even the best-laid plans may fail, thanks to stupidity, indifference, and selfishness. Ideologies explain why this happens and, more important, they promise that human life can escape these defects. The world isn’t as it should be? Blame bad political arrangements—poverty, injustice, fear, and poor education. The way to make the world better, therefore, is to change those bad political arrangements radically. Only force—revolution—can bring that radical change about. After a revolutionary cleansing, people will no longer be corrupt, evil will disappear, and justice and universal happiness will prevail.

If ideologues were reflective, they would realize that bad people are what causes bad political arrangements. Ideologies rest on the mistaken assumption that changing political arrangements will change people. But human nature remains what it always was; only the ways it expresses itself change. Good and bad motives, virtues and vices, excellences and defects—all have characterized and will continue to characterize human beings. The ideologues’ efforts to change human nature aren’t just futile; they’re also calamitous, since they’re marked by the very flaws that they seek to eradicate. The gruesome crimes of Robespierre, Mao, and other despots testify to this truth. [more]
 Words to Die By by John Kekes

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