The decline of requirements

Hitler (one cannot mention him without the subliterates mouthing, “Reductio ad Hitlerum!” — not realizing that they are quoting Leo Strauss) was the great enabler. He gave cover to all lesser evils, including the greater of the lesser ones; and thereby retired all the prattling politicians from the Age of Hypocrisy, which he closed. Now all the baddies seemed good, by comparison, and everyone needed a baddie of his own, or they would get one assigned from Berlin.

The Age of Hypocrisy re-opened, of course, with Hitler’s death, when political discourse again softened. (Hypocrisy is the padding on the madhouse walls.) But for a twelve-year run in Germany, and shorter periods wherever their shadow fell, Hitler’s Nazis erased hypocrisy.

This is what Karl Kraus meant, when he said that the Nazis had left him speechless. For decades he had exposed the lies and deceitful posturing not only of politicians in the German-speaking world, but among their immense supporting cast of journalists and fashion-seeking intellectuals. He was the greater-than-Orwell who strode to the defence of the German language, when it was wickedly abused. He identified the new “smelly little orthodoxies” as they crawled from under the rocks of Western Civ — the squalid, unexamined premisses that led by increments to the slaughterhouse of Total War. He was not, even slightly, a revolutionist; he had no argument against anyone’s wealth or status, even his own. Rather, through savage satirical humour, with language untranslatably precise, impinging constantly upon the poetic, he undressed the false.

He had seen the First World War coming, in the malice spreading through the language; in the smugness that fogged perception; in the lies that people told each other, to preserve their amour-propre; in the jingo that lurked beneath the genteel. After, he saw worse.

Popular perceptions of him are wrong. As we learn from the vast and fatiguing biography of Edward Timms (it fills time that could be spent learning German), Kraus hardly stopped writing as the Second World War approached. Timms thought he gave up hope; I think Kraus merely ceased to be heard, by anyone. All his warnings had been ignored; everything he feared was being realized. (The people get so bored with prophets.) But Kraus had, I think, diligently turned his guns to the rear, to attack speech that was now no longer posturing, but explicit and crude. (The Nazis, even when speaking figuratively, chose euphemisms that any moron could decode.) But subtle precision is no use against a blunderbuss, which in the end only bigger weapons can destroy.

My sense is that we are once again coming to the end of lies and hypocrisy. The political class has delivered us once more, by increments. Trump and Sanders say things that are plain; in Europe, too, we have candidates who mean what they say. What they say is blather, and frequently unhinged, and not lying but indifferent to fact. It is sincere, however. “The people are angry,” and the new class of politician will play to that anger. It is a matter beyond any passing question of public policy. The people are angry about everything the “old politics” delivered, with their help. They want punishment, they want action. It is no elite rebellion: they want what is coming good and hard.

Trump and company are no Hitlers. This is what I mean by, “Hitler has them covered.” They are functioning today in an environment that parallels The Thirties in its de-moralization (note the hyphen), but is farther advanced. So many things then were still unthinkable, outside Party ranks in Germany and Russia. Now we are living in a time when the value of a human life can be more easily disregarded; in which survival depends on sentimentality alone. (As my friend Denyse O’Leary puts it, “On the eve of euthanasia, we are all the foetus now.”) Human decency has been “redefined,” and all the classical “rights” inverted. (Read the swinish Comment threads on almost any website.)

“Pause, take stock, think through what you are doing.” … What, today, would be the prospect for a politician who said such a thing? … Who said, “We must consider the likely consequences of every legislative action, including each ‘no brainer’ with what’s left of our brains. If there is something to fix, we must fix it carefully.”

For that is not the yammer people want from politicians: no more of this shuffling and avoidance. No more “say one thing and do another.” No more trying to hold the fort together, until the cavalry arrives. The cavalry has arrived!

The traditional restraints on malicious imbecility have been systematically removed; and this time it will take much less than a Hitler.