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The Trinity of Terrible Ideas
Three of the most dangerous ideas in history, by their powers combined…
First, a very special thank you to Rod Dreher at The American Conservative, who managed to single-handedly blow up this Substack over the weekend. And a thank you as well to the many of you who have since newly subscribed; please keep letting me know your perspectives in the comments below, and if you find the work thought-provoking please consider sharing with others who may be interested.
Now, one thing I would like to do on The Upheaval is to examine some historical occurrences of ideological revolutions (big or small) that sparked, or occurred amid, periods of turmoil, and explore what parallels and lessons they may offer today. Before doing so, however, I thought it might be interesting to briefly offer a simplified hypothesis of at least one way societies have ended up going very, very wrong: the Trinity of Terrible Ideas.
What’s the Trinity of Terrible Ideas? In short, what I’d call three of the most dangerous social ideas in history, which, when combined, tend to end in disaster – like an especially explosive mix of toxic chemicals. Those ideas are: victimhood, equity, and utopia.
Let’s examine each, and then go through some examples.
Victimhood, the belief (whether factual or erroneous) that one or one’s group is being victimized by some oppressor or oppressors. This has a number of important effects when embraced as a core feature of a social identity: it distinguishes a class of enemies; it promotes in-group unity in shared oppression; it scapegoats any flaws by one’s own group; and it seems to excuse as righteous any action seen as rectifying the injustice of that oppression.
Equity, the objective of achieving equality of outcome between people or groups in defined domains, such as wealth (note that we are using the contemporary definition of “equity,” not the one you’d find in, say, Aristotle). This is in practice nearly impossible, given the naturally occurring differences between individual people, market dynamics, the role of chance, and other factors. Achieving perfect equity would therefore take almost godlike powers to enforce perfect distribution – which states or groups have nonetheless duly attempted to take on, for the greater good. Moreover, in such a circumstance, the diversity, dignity, and worth of the individual is collapsed into the metrics of the balance sheet.
Utopia, a vision for a perfect state or society, is similarly impossible to achieve. This of course also hasn’t stopped people from trying, embarking on more and more intense efforts to reach their unreachable vision. For true believers, however, it can never be the vision that is wrong – instead an ever expanding cast of characters is blamed for manifest failures (see “victimhood” above): “counter-revolutionaries,” “reactionaries,” “wreckers,” “saboteurs,” apostates, and anyone else that the soon-to-be perfect world would be more perfect without, anyway. Or, as Milan Kundera put it more eloquently in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality… here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets even smaller and poorer.”
So, we now have our three Terrible Ideas. Next we’ll look at some examples of how, working together, they can cause some serious trouble even with only 2/3 of the trinity in place.
Let’s jump straight to Nazis, as one does. While they weren’t too big on equity, Hitler and the Nazi party had a utopian vision: a Thousand-Year Reich, a racially pure Aryan-German Volksgemeinschaft to be made possible by the total control of Gleichschaltung. Standing in the way of this vision were, of course, the Jews, who were portrayed as a shadowy, exceptionally powerful cabal of parasitic villains who could be blamed for Germany’s loss in WWI, its economic ills, and just about anything else. Add to that the deep belief that the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War, had unfairly punished Germany with outrageous terms in order to hold down the German people. The result: war and mass murder.
Similarly, modern-day Islamist Jihadists like ISIS aren’t so into equity, but they do have a utopian vision: the return to an Islamic golden age, with the uniting of the Muslim world under a new Caliphate, which would theoretically end modern-day decadence through the restoration of fundamentalist religious law. And they have a victimhood complex: any local problems can be blamed on oppression by colonialism, the “Great Satan” of the United States, Western imperialists generally, “Crusaders,” the pernicious influence of heretics and apostates, and the Jews again. On proclaiming his new Caliphate, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared: “The time has come for those generations that were drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, and being ruled by the vilest of all people, after their long slumber in the darkness of neglect — the time has come for them to rise.” The result: war and mass terrorism.
The Hutus of Rwanda had a victimhood complex too, colonial Belgium having deliberately set up the minority ethnic Tutsis as an economic and political elite above the majority ethnic Hutus. The Hutu Power movement relentlessly described the Tutsis (most of whom were actually also poor) as cunning, vicious oppressors, to the extent that when the Rwandan Genocide was conceived and launched in the 1990s it was portrayed internally as a “self-defense” operation. It was also, however, an explicit attempt to achieve equity, the 1957 “Bahutu Manifesto” that served as the basis for the Hutu Power movement having railed against the “total monopoly” of the Tutsis over economic and political life and called for a redistribution of power to Hutus in accordance with “statistical law.” The result: war and mass murder.
Today’s China, unlike in its Maoist past (see below), has largely abandoned any attempt to achieve the utopia of Communism, at least any time soon. Nor is it clear the Chinese Communist Party still cares much for equity, what with Deng Xiaoping having declared the new policy to be to “let some people get rich first,” and China’s economic inequality now being among the worst in the world. What modern China does have in abundance is perhaps the most spectacular victimhood complex of any state. The “Century of Humiliation” (百年国耻) at the hands of Western and Japanese Imperialists from 1839-1949 is central to China’s self-conception, and “never forget national humiliation” (勿忘国耻) is hammered into every school student as the first commandment of their “patriotic education.” Victimhood now colors every aspect of China’s political worldview, from its genuine belief that “foreign forces” and “black hands” are attempting to instigate a “color revolution” in Hong Kong, to its determination to ignore mounting global criticism of its actions in Xinjiang – dismissing it as one senior party official did by saying, “China today is not the China of 1840... The days of Chinese people being bullied by the West have passed.” And then there is the fiery “wolf warrior” rhetoric by Chinese diplomats, which usually does little except alienate the rest of the world. But they can hardly help it, those diplomats, when the Big Boss Xi Jinping is regularly declaring in speeches like one last October that, “seventy years ago, the imperialist invaders fired upon the doorstep of a new China” and “the Chinese people understood that you must use the language that invaders can understand – to fight war with war and to stop an invasion with force, earning peace and respect through victory.” And now that “the people of China are now organized, and are not to be trifled with,” they will “never allow any person or any force to violate and split the motherland's sacred territory,” given that “once provoked, things will get ugly.” The result: to be determined.
Finally, a select few movements have managed to combine the whole Trinity of Terrible Ideas, including the Soviets, Mao’s Chinese Communists, and the Khamer Rouge. All combined utopian visions of a perfect society (Communism) with an attempt to achieve equity (forced redistribution of property), and plenty of enemies to blame the people’s suffering on and remove (rich peasants, “land lords,” “feudalists,” priests, “reactionaries,” “imperialists,” etc.). The result was, well… more than I can get into here now in this already long post; but it of course involved mass murder, on a scale unsurpassed in human history.
So, the theory of the Trinity of Terrible Ideas is pretty straightforward: (Victimhood + Equity + Utopia) + Power = big trouble.
Is this too simplistic? Of course it is. All of the examples above are far too complex to be described only by this hypothesis. But it could perhaps serve as a basic heuristic, a warning mechanism, so to speak, such that when we see contemporary movements centering victimhood, calling for perfect equity, and espousing utopian ideals, we might be forgiven if we feel somewhat alarmed about the overall direction in which they seem to be headed.