Today I interviewed my friend Adam Hochschild for Peace Magazine. Talking with Adam is always a treat, but I needed to think ahead last night about what to ask. Preparing for it, I pulled The Unquiet Ghost off the shelf and took another look, probably for the first time since he first published it about fifteen years ago. I had forgotten how much I liked it.
The book deals with the adjustment of Russians to post-Stalinist life. In reviewing it, I realized how much it informed, even presaged, the most recent two books of his – the ones for which he has become famous.
These most recent two blur together in my mind (though the events that he describes in them took place about a hundred years apart) for they both deal with the liberation of African slaves. The penultimate book, King Leopold"s Ghost (Adam seems to like to name his books after ghosts) dealt with the hideous reign of the Belgian King Leopold II over the Congolese. Beginning in the 1890s, Leopold gained control of the territory, then enslaved and brutalized the people, forcing them to extract wild rubber to satisfy the new demand after the invention of the inflatable tire. Approximately ten million Africans died as a result of his greed. Adam tells us how these atrocities were publicized and finally overcome through the long-term efforts of a few courageous people, such as E.D. Morel, who discovered the extent of Leopold’s abuse and devoted his life to overcoming it.
The most recent book, Bury the Chains, jumps back a century and describes the social movement in Britain that led to the abolition of slavery, especially in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Here too, Adam (see photo) recounted the courage of a few remarkable individuals who devoted their whole lives to this cause. The most memorable character in the book is one Thomas Clarkson, who traveled some 35,000 miles on horseback, campaigning against slavery.
Yet my favorite book had preceded these two and set the agenda that Hochschild is still addressing. In The Unquiet Ghost he interviews numerous Russians about their knowledge and attitudes, past and present, about Stalin. He was fascinated with the remarkable denial that had prevailed throughout the repressive era, even among many Gulag prisoners themselves. He wanted to understand how evil becomes a normal, accepted phenomenon that can persist for years or centuries before any serious opposition occurs. Of course, the institutions of slavery that he would study later could exist only because of this astonishing, inexplicable denial. Slavery, like the abuse and murder of millions of Russians, became an everyday condition that surprised no one. How could such a thing happen? How could sane people take it for granted?
My re-reading of the book about Stalinism brought into clearer focus the stories that Adam had told, almost without commentary, in the two books about overcoming slavery. They too had really been about the willed blindness of most ordinary people about the evil that surrounded them. Yet a few extraordinary individuals had surmounted this personal failing, recognizing the evil and calling it by its true name. How could they see what others failed to see? Adam does not give a fully satisfying answer to that question, which still puzzles him, just as it puzzles me.
The usual explanation is based on the argument that power – actually, the potential for violent punishment – always wins out over other factors. People acquiesced because they had only one alternative: death. Yet not everyone does acquiesce. A second explanation is the Marxist account: people pursue their own financial interests and then kid themselves about what they are doing. While Adam does not rule that account out altogether, he also sees that it did not explain the rise of abolitionism in Britain. Idealism cannot be reduced to crass material considerations.
I think there are two psychological processes at work in this kind of denial. One is the phenomenon of normalization.” When an evil occurs on a wide scale, people simply get used to it and regard it as natural, immutable. This is the legendary “boiling frog” phenomenon. According to this theory (which may have some empirical basis – I don’t know) if a frog is throw into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put a frog into a pot of tepid water and gradually heat it, the frog will stay there are boil to death. That would certainly seem to explain the failure of the world to rise up and demand the dismantling of nuclear weapons. They have become normal and, so far, no massive tragedy has occurred – except to the Japanese.
But there is another, far more peculiar way of keeping populations from putting an end to evil: the adoration of a dictator. It appears to be perfectly normal for an oppressed society to worship the leader who is responsible for their suffering. This ”cult of personality” is not universal, but it is remarkably common. The Germans adored Hitler, the Chinese adored Mao, the Russians adored Stalin, the Cubans adored Castro, the North Koreans adore Kim Jong Il. This adoration is not incompatible with the dictator’s brutality; indeed, some brutality may even be a precondition for it, though I am not sure whether that is true.
Adam mentioned today his astonishment at hearing ex-prisoners say that they cannot understand why they felt love for Stalin. I ran into such people in Moscow in the mid-1990s. But some measure of this can be seen in democratic societies as well. Until recently, as Adam said, most Americans have accepted the war in Iraq and the use of torture against foreigners. Opposition to U.S. foreign policy would be taken as disloyalty. Yet I doubt that any Americans adored George W. Bush the way Germans adored Hitler or Russians adored Stalin. The acceptance of government policy was as much a matter of loyalty to “our boys” as to any quasi-Great Helmsman. So the adoration remains unexplained.
Still, I think Adam grasped a part of the truth, if not the whole thing, when he said that people need to believe that what happens is meaningful. Religion generally provides a rationale that enables people to accept the terrible fate that life hands them. Probably someone who is no-religious will grasp at a different explanation. When Job was suffering, his friends came to see him and, trying to reassure him, told him that he must have committed a terrible sin to have deserved the punishment God was imposing on him. But Job knew that this was a false consolation and he demanded a better account from God, who did not provide any explanation for the evil he had allowed.
There is a danger that religion, in providing meaning for the faithful, will offer explanations that justify the evil. A proper theodicy, if any can be developed, must provide a kind of meaning that does not make people passive. It must encourage Job to tell God the truth, and it must encourage Thomas Clarkson and ED Morel to challenge the evil of slavery. It must encourage you and me to tell the truth, without self-deception and denial, about global warming and nuclear weapons. Meaning must sustain adherence to that famous and useful prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.