Monday, December 27, 2010

Utopias and Villains

Thinking more about Harry Potter: Voldemort, now he's an obvious villain type, potted Nietzschean, power for its own sake, and knowledge in service of power. We know him well, his type all over pop culture, one of its guilty pleasures: old Westerns' Black Barts, Krauts and Japs, James Bond's sneering opponents, Islamic terrorists, ruthless drug lords, serial killers, all of the same ilk. He's instantly identifiable as a villain: the face, the manner, the way he treats even his allies. And far more Nazi than Communist, and by design--Nazis dream of exerting unrestrained power as a member of the Master Race over others, rather than of working together in a universal brotherhood of the proletariat--so the wizards over the Muggles, the oppression and exploitation of such as goblins and elves, fits far better. But Umbridge is a masterpiece: a roundish, pink-wearing cat lady, never raises her voice or even has an unpleasant edge to it, an everyday Englishwoman to her core, and utterly sinister, a living, breathing reminder that we, all of us, have to choose Gryffindor over Slytherin, not despite our humanity but because of it, and that the right choice isn't always the default position.

Norman Davies, a historian of Europe with a special interest in and sympathy for Poland, in his history of Europe, stopped to consider the question, more common in earlier generations, of whether Naziism or Communism is the greater evil. The actual numbers of dead were greater in Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China. And Davies writes with merciless clarity about Soviet evil. But he, too, notes that the Communist Utopia, though dependent for its achievement on a human nature we don't see much of, would be a good place, and the Nazi Utopia, all too realizable in a world of human beings subject to the temptations of privilege, power and tribalism, would, even if achieved, be a nightmare.

The libertarian/Ayn Rand Utopias, like the Communists' and in contrast to the Nazis', wouldn't be bad places, either: all those people picking themselves up by their bootstraps, actualizing themselves, free at last of constraint and perverse incentives, innovating, building, their labors rewarded, the cornucopia of free markets overflowing, individuals' right conduct, in charity and restraint, arising from themselves rather than imposed from without. And just as impossible to achieve as the Communist Utopia, and for the same reasons: humans aren't wired that way, and human rights and desires are incommensurable, cannot all simultaneously be achieved, and require inevitably imperfect reconciliation and judgment when they conflict. The Communists and the libertarians both, oddly, dream of a withering away of the state, when humanity is free of, well, humanity, and are both too damned willing to break eggs by the millions in service of their Utopian omelets. The Nazis dream of an unrestrained, all powerful, racist state in service of their own ego/ids, acknowledging human conflicts and resolving them with gun and gas. Umbridge would have been a good German; the Nazis would have applauded the Mudblood Registry. More compatible, alas, with human nature, and all too possible on earth. Not, strictly, a Utopia (literally nowhere): it has happened, and will again, in small as well as large. We must not be seduced by Utopias offered by ideologues. But, more important, we must reject, and actively resist, that which gives rise to Naziism, and that arises, above all, within ourselves.

2 comments:

BlakNo1 said...

Dumbeldore/Snape 2012!!!!

ProfWombat said...

Snape could be the stealth candidate...

Maybe he'd be a good chief of staff. Maybe McGonigall for President, now's I think of it...