Thursday, April 15, 2010

Wherein the break is briefly interrupted

The local PBS station just aired Daniel Goldhagen's film about genocide, Worse than War (made to accompany his book of the same name). It has some powerful and emotional moments.

It also has an argument and a set of policy recommendations, none of which I have the time or inclination to go into, at least not now. But one or two reactions may be worth noting. Most of Goldhagen's scholarship (including his prize-winning undergraduate thesis and his Ph.D. dissertation, which became the famous and controversial book Hitler's Willing Executioners) deals with the Nazi genocide of the Jews. This film however deals with genocide in general, focusing on various instances of it, especially fairly recent ones (e.g., Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s; Guatemala in the '80s; Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge; and Darfur).

Goldhagen argues in the film that genocidal political leaders are not "crazy" but are "rational calculators" (his phrase) who weigh costs and benefits; if they are made to realize that genocide will not 'pay' because they will be punished swiftly, then they will not order it. This description may very well apply to Slobodan Milosevic or Omar al-Bashir. Goldhagen does not say explicitly, however, that this description applies to Hitler. And whether the "rational calculator" label applies to perpetrators, as opposed to leaders, is less clear still. (As Goldhagen mentions at one point, surviving concentration camp inmates were sent on forced death marches in the very last days of Nazi Germany, even after officials in the Nazi hierarchy had ordered killings to stop; the organizers of the death marches ignored those orders.) Goldhagen also observes that genocidal leaders mobilize and play on prejudices that people already have; of course, since such prejudices are usually irrational, "rational calculators" have to know how to mobilize and harness irrationality. In the process, however, isn't it possible that these "rational calculators" may come to believe the myths that they start out by exploiting? If so, does that make them less rational? These questions were not really addressed in the film; perhaps they are addressed in the book.

[The break from posting will now resume.]

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