03 October 2015

The Guardian: “Hitler’s world may not be so far away”

A misunderstanding about the relationship between state authority and mass killing underlay an American myth of the Holocaust that prevailed in the early 21st century: that the US was a country that intentionally rescued people from the genocides caused by overweening states. Following this reasoning, the destruction of a state could be associated with rescue rather than risk. One of the errors of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the belief that regime change must be creative. The theory was that the destruction of a state and its ruling elite would bring freedom and justice. In fact, the succession of events precipitated by the illegal invasion of a sovereign state confirmed one of the unlearned lessons of the history of the second world war.

Though no American would deny that tanks work in the desert, some Americans do deny that deserts are growing larger. Though no American would deny ballistics, some Americans do deny climate science. Hitler denied that science could solve the basic problem of nutrition, but assumed that technology could win territory. It seemed to follow that waiting for research was pointless and that immediate military action was necessary. In the case of climate change, the denial of science likewise legitimates military action rather than investment in technology. If people do not take responsibility for the climate themselves, they will shift responsibility for the associated calamities to other people. Insofar as climate denial hinders technical progress, it might hasten real disasters, which in their turn can make catastrophic thinking still more credible. A vicious circle can begin in which politics collapses into ecological panic.

Timothy Snyder

Fascinating article, linking the twisted logic of the Nazi movement to modern issues such as the fight against terrorism and climate change. The author argues – pretty compellingly – that some of these problems can be kept in check by the state, the political structure that can and should protect the rights of its citizens against racism and xenophobia, but also from long-term, harder to grasp threats like climate change.

Woman protests against rising food prices in Dakar, Senegal, May 2008
‘In the 21st century, world grain stocks have never exceeded more than a few months’ supply.’ A woman protests against rising food prices in Dakar, Senegal, in May 2008. Photograph: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

The state is for the recognition, endorsement and protection of rights, which means creating the conditions under which rights can be recognised, endorsed, and protected. When states are absent, rights – by any definition – are impossible to sustain. States are not structures to be taken for granted, exploited or discarded, but are fruits of long and quiet effort. It is tempting but dangerous to gleefully fragment the state from the right or knowingly gaze at the shards from the left. Political thought is neither destruction nor critique, but rather the historically informed imagination of plural structures – a labour of the present that can preserve life and decency in the future.

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