One of the parts about Kingdom Coming that I found the most enjoyable was Michelle Goldberg’s brief mentioning of the civility of the people she talked to in researching the book. She said she was stricken by their cheerfulness and civility even when talking to a hostile journalist, describing in some length the friendliness of the people she talked to. But then she explained:
In my experience, people ae often kinder than their ideologies, and always more complicated. Yet individual decency can dissolve when groups are mobilized against diabolized enemies, especially when they believe they’re under attack.
The analogy I so wanted to appear in the next paragraph was to the saying, “Some of my best friends are Jews.” While now this saying is much derided as a sorry excuse for bigotry, in early 1930s Germany it wasn’t. In fact, it began as a perfectly honest saying: Nazis in good standing who were questioned about their anti-Semitism would immediately reply that they had Jewish friends.
These Nazis never had a problem with their dear friend Herr Cohen. The Jewish problem was in the abstract: it was about the essentialized Jew taking over Germany (itself an abstraction, like all other nations). If you were to ask the average Nazi, probably even the average Nazi Reichstag deputy, about the possibility of exterminating 6 million Jews, he’d be aghast that anyone could ever think it was possible.
Now PZ is commenting on a movie that once again depicts Christian fundamentalists as happy and blissful. He says,
They may be laughing fascists, but they’re still ethically and intellectually odious, and I think the framework Olson has used to tell his story is painfully flawed. If they are good people, they are good people who are doing very bad things. That does not come through in the movie.
I haven’t seen the movie he’s talking about, A Flock of Dodos, but it’s always crucial to draw attention to the individual-collective distinction. In the Letter from Birmingham Jail, MLK quotes Reinhold Niebuhr, “Groups are more immoral than individuals.” The individual Nazi was perfectly nice, and so was the individual Southern racist.
Individuals are rarely capable of committing atrocities, except through a collective entity such as a state or a church or a mass movement, and until anti-fascists start explaining to people that cheerful personality doesn’t matter when a person is motivated by fear of Jews or gays or atheists or blacks, fascists are going to keep having a field day telling everyone how happy they are.