Thursday, October 14, 2004

Revisiting Koestler's Fallacies, Part 1

Re-read yesterday the essay ‘The Seven Deadly Fallacies’ by Arthur Koestler, which doesn’t appear to have been illegally posted on the web by anyone yet. It seems in many ways appropriate to our present international situation, so I thought I would reproduce almost all of it here:

[This is a condensed version of a compressed version of an extempore lecture given in Carnegie Hall, New York, in March 1948.]

The war hysteria from which a considerable number of people seem to suffer here in the United States is not a sign of mature awareness. Nor is the mentality of appeasement. Appeasement of an expanding power creates a fog in which neither of the opponents knows where he is; and so the world slides into war, without either of the opponents wanting it. Appeasement means playing poker; a firm, clearly outlined, principled policy means playing chess. I shall take it for granted henceforth that war hysteria and appeasement are our Scylla and Charybdis, and that the liberal’s precarious task is to navigate like Ulysses between the two.

Allow me, as an aid to navigation, to point out some of the logical fallacies and emotional eddies in which young idealists frequently get shipwrecked. Here they are:

1. First is the confusion of Left and East. Some sections of the reactionary press are unable or unwilling to distinguish between liberals, New Dealers, Social Democrats, and Communists; they are all damned Reds. Naturally we are indignant at such poisonous imbecility. But the Left itself is partly responsible for this confusion. The Left Babbitt assumes that there is a continuous spectrum stretching from pale pink liberals to red socialists and so on to infrared Communists. It is time that he got it into his head that Moscow is not to his left but to his east. The Soviet Union is not a socialist country, and Cominform policy is not socialist policy. So let us bear in mind that ‘East is east and Left is left’ and if the twain sometimes still meet, the meeting is purely coincidental.

2. The second fallacy is the soul-searching fallacy. The other day there was a press conference at which I mentioned that the frightened people in Italy and France look upon you Americans as their only hope of salvation, both from the economic point of view through ERP, and from the military point of view against open or disguised Russian aggression. Thereupon one of the reporters present said, ‘Do you really believe that we can help Europe with our dirty hands?’ I asked: ‘What do you mean by “dirty hands”?’ He said: ‘Well, I mean our policy in Greece, and in Palestine, and backing up Franco, and the way we treat Negroes and Jews. We are dirty all over, and when we pose as defenders of democracy it is sheer hypocrisy.’

The answer to this fallacy is to project the argument back to 1938. Then it would have run as follows: ‘We have no right to fight Hitler’s plan of sending the Jews to the gas chambers as long as there are “restricted” hotels in America and so long as Negroes do not have absolute equality here. Once American democracy has become a perfect democracy, then and then only shall we have a right to defend what remains of Europe. And if Europe goes to the dogs before we have finished, that’s just too bad and cannot be helped.’

3. Third, and closely related to the soul-searching fallacy, is the fallacy of the false equation. Its European version runs: ‘Soviet totalitarianism is bad. American imperialism is equally bad. There is nothing to choose between them, so let us stay in No Man’s land until fate catches up with us.’ To prove that the American system is ‘just as bad’ as the Russian system, to make the two sides of the equation balance, your purist has recourse to half-conscious little subterfuges. He equates the Hollywood purges with the Moscow purges. He has never lived under a totalitarian regime, so when he draws comparisons he does not know what he is talking about. His conscience is in revolt against the appalling slums of Chicago, in which the Negro workers of the slaughter-house industry live like rats. I have spent a few days in Chicago, and I was appalled by what I saw and heard and smelled. Do not think I am a naïve tourist, a romantic admirer of your system. But now compare your treatment of racial minorities at its worst, with the Soviet treatment of the minorities of Crimean Republic, the Chechen Republic, the Volga-German Republic, whose total populations were deported because they had, as the official Soviet communiqué said, ‘proved themselves unreliable during the war’. Even the babes in their cradles were unreliable and had to go to Siberia. In Chicago I saw men on strike, and sympathised with them. In Russia strikes, or incitement to strike, are qualified as high treason and punished by the maximum penalty. In American elections political machines corrupt and distort the People’s will. In Russian elections 99½ per cent vote for the one official list- the remaining ½ per cent presumably being in bed with influenza. Your enlightened Babbitt equates in imperfect democracy with a perfect totalitarian regime; his philosophy boils down to the maxim that there is nothing to choose between measles and leprosy.

4. Fallacy number four is the anti-anti attitude. It runs: ‘I am not a Communist. In fact, I dislike Communist politics, but I don’t want to be identified with anti-Communist witch-hunting. Hence I am neither a Communist nor an anti-Communist, but an anti-anti-Communist. If W. R. Hearst says that twice two is four, I shall automatically hold that twice two is five, or at least 4½.’

Don’t laugh, for the roots of this fallacy are very deep in all of us, myself included. I remember how painful it was when a doddering elder in a London club walked up to me and said with a tap on my shoulder: ‘Well, young man, I am glad that at last you have come round to see reason. I myself knew twenty-five years ago what Bolshevism means, and it’s never too late to repent.’

You can’t help this sort of thing; you can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons. In the last war we fought in the name of democracy in an alliance with Dictator Metaxas of Greece, Dictator Chiang Kai-Shek and Dictator Stalin. At that time Nazism was the main menace to the world, and politics is based on forming alliances. But there is a fundamental difference between a war-time alliance, and political identification with one’s allies. Being allied to Chiang did not mean that we wished to imitate the Chinese regime. Being against our will in one camp with the Hearst press or Senator McCarthy does not mean that we identify ourselves with their ideas and methods. This fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it is an expression of a lack of self-confidence. If you are sure of yourself- politically and ideologically- you will no longer be frightened to say that twice two makes four, even if Colonel McCormick says the same.

5. Fallacy number five is the sentimental fallacy. For years we were allied to Communists in the struggle against Nazism, and now when we have to part company, the roots of past loyalty are difficult to tear out. Our bedfellows of yesterday do not share this sentimental squeamishness. Over the slightest disagreement they will denounce us as Fascists, traitors and cannibals. These emotional ties are one-way ties, and it is essential to bear in mind that they are entirely irrational and conservative in nature.

6. Fallacy number six is the fallacy of the perfect cause. It is related to number two, the soul-searching fallacy. Only absolutely clean hands have a right to reach out to protect and save what remains of Europe. Only an absolutely perfect cause is worth fighting for. And the search for the perfect cause becomes an excuse for quietism.

History knows no perfect causes, no situation of white against black. Eastern totalitarianism is black; its victory would mean the end of our civilization. Western democracy is not white but grey. To live, even to die for a perfect cause is a luxury permitted to few. In 1942 or ’43 I published an article which began with the words: ‘In this war we are fighting a total lie in the name of a half-truth.’ The total lie was Hitler’s New Order. The half-truth was our democracy. Today we face a similar emergency and a similar predicament. Once more the choice between us is merely that between a grey twilight and total darkness. But ask the refugees who manage to escape, at the risk of their lives, from behind the iron curtain into our grey twilight world whether this choice is worth fighting for. They know. You don’t.

7. The last fallacy, number seven, is the confusion between short-term and long-term aims. It is the most dangerous of all. By long-term aims I mean the age-old struggle for reform, for social justice, for a more equitable system of government. By short-term aims I mean the necessity of fighting an immediate emergency.

The danger of confusion is twofold. Your leftist Babbitt may refuse to fight against the short-term emergency until he has finished the job of creating a perfect government in his country, in a century or two. The opposite danger is to become so obsessed with the immediate emergency, that all principles of the long-term struggle are thrown overboard. Ex-Communists and disappointed radicals are in particular danger of toppling over the other extreme. It is essential that we should keep in mind that there are two distinct levels involved in our struggle; that to defend our system against a deadly threat does not imply acceptance of everything in this system, does not imply giving up our long-term fight to improve it; and vice versa, that our criticism of the shortcomings of this system does not free us from the duty to defend it, despite its ambiguous greyness, against the total corruption of the human ideal.

The power-vacuum which two world wars have created in Central and Western Europe, has inescapably linked your fate with that of the European continent. I feel the enormous burden which is falling on your shoulders. For there will either be a Pax American in the world, or there will be no pax. Never has such a burden and such a responsibility been borne by any single nation in history. It is the more unfair to you as yours is an adolescent civilization, with adolescent enthusiasms and adolescent pimples. The task of the progressive intelligentsia of your country is to help the rest of the nation to face its enormous responsibilities. It is time for the American liberal to grow up.

Ill-informed comments from me to follow…


Dave said...

Interesting. I'll have to think about this a bit. I don't know that I disagree with anything Koestler said, but I feel (ie not think) that I may differ on precisely where lines are drawn. Then again, I may not. I think he may not have said enough on how self-interest (enlightened or otherwise) works into this process.

It certainly seems like a good checklist to interrogate one's own assumptions.

A quick digression:

This bit, by the way, is one place where I think the US has fallen down sharply in the War on Terror: "The opposite danger is to become so obsessed with the immediate emergency, that all principles of the long-term struggle are thrown overboard."

Patriot Act, my arse.

Dr. Clam said...

I agree complete with you on the way the United States has over-reacted. The whole Guantanamo Bay thing has been an enormous demonstration of unconfidence in democratic institutions. Unfortunately it does not seem to be a debate they are even having over there- John Kerry voted for the Patriot Act, f'rinstance.