Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


One of my favourite Monty Python sketches is “How to do it“. It parodies a children’s show, teaching children how to do interesting and cool new things — in this case, “How to be a gynecologist… how to construct a box-girder bridge, … how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, and… how to rid the world of all known diseases.” The method described for the last is

First of all, become a doctor, and discover a marvelous cure for something. And then, when the medical profession starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right, so there will never be any diseases ever again.

I think of this sketch often, when I hear a certain kind of blustering politician, most commonly (but not exclusively) of the US Republican variety. The classic sort of “How to do it” (HTDI) solution is the completely generic “I’d get the both sides into the room and tell them, c’mon guys, let’s roll up our sleeves and just get it done. We’re not leaving here until we’ve come up with a solution.” (That’s for a conflict; if it’s a technical challenge, like cancer, or drought, replace “both sides” with “all the experts”. Depending on the politician’s demeanor and gender this may also include “knocking heads together”.) The point is, they see solving complicated problems the way they might appear in a montage in a Hollywood film: Lots of furrowed brows, sleeves being rolled up, maybe a fist pounds on a table. It’s a manager’s perspective. Not a very intelligent manager. Of course, it sounds ridiculous to anyone who has ever been involved in the details solving real problems, whether political, technical, or scientific, but it sounds good to other people who have only seen the same films that the politician has seen.

US Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson has now combined HTDI problem-solving with know-nothing historical analysis to solve the Nazi problem — sadly, seven decades too late for his solution to be of use to the victims. The problem, it turns out, is that the Jews didn’t have enough guns.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked him: “Just clarify, if there had been no gun control laws in Europe at that time, would six million Jews have been slaughtered?”

Carson replied: “I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed … I’m telling you that there is a reason that these dictatorial people take the guns first.”

I’ve commented before on this weird right-wing notion that the Nazis were gun-control freaks.* Usually it’s left in the form of a particular historical analogy, as in “First round up the guns, then round up the Jews.” For the right-wing mind, whether you’re talking gun control or diplomacy, it’s always Munich and it’s always 1938.

But who wants to get down to that level of historical detail? You could get embarrassing questions, like, do you think isolated Jews with rifles would have defended themselves more effectively than, say, the Polish army? Instead, Carson soars over these petty facts, gazing over the bloody landscape of human striving to see the timeless patterns that are hidden from lesser souls. It’s not just a single example, it’s all of “these dictatorial people” who take away the guns first. And there is (lest you think this was all a mere coincidence, all these heaps of historical examples that lay open to his gaze, though he has not actually told us what they are) “a reason” — a reason so trenchant and so evident to his penetrating mind that it would hardly be worth naming.

Carson went on to solve the problem of mass shootings, a solution which, you may be pleased to learn, does not involve restricting anyone’s access to guns. It’s a perfect HTDI solution:

 “Not only would I probably not cooperate with him, I would not just stand there and let him shoot me.

“I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.’”

One wonders why armies waste so much time training their soldiers to follow orders and advance under enemy fire, when all you need is Ben Carson to say “Hey guys, everybody attack.” (Good idea. We’re right behind you, Ben!)

What it reminds me of is the classic slur on the victims of the Holocaust, that they were too passive, that they let themselves be led “like lambs to the slaughter”. The historian Peter Gay commented on this:

I had an eye-opening discussion with an influential, intelligent, and decent German public servant with whom I spoke openly about current politics and ancient (which is to say: Nazi) history. One day, looking worried and puzzled, he confessed his failure to understand why Germany’s Jews in Hitler’s Reich had gone to their slaughter like lambs (he actually used this cliché). His admission inadvertently demonstrated to me more powerfully than ever that even the well-informed were ignorant about the life of Jews under the Nazis.

* If you’re wondering what “these dictatorial people” real do to prevent rebellion, there’s this remark in Ian Kershaw’s book about the final years of the Third Reich:

Hitler drew the line, however, at Goebbels’ plans to stop the production of beer and sweets. Even the Bolsheviks had never halted sweet production, Hitler stated… And, as regards beer, he feared above all ‘severe psychological repercussions in Bavaria’, and thought the move could provoke popular resentment. Hitler’s instinct… for avoiding popular discontent remained undiminished, and was again demonstrated in mid-August in the directive he gave to finance the provision of 190,000 bottles of egg-flip [Eierlikör, an alcoholic beverage made with eggs and cream] to be handed out by the NSV to those in the west suffering from bomb damage.

Comments on: "How to rid the world of genocide" (2)

  1. […] was commenting just recently on the cult of big ideas, where people whose life experiences have given them hierarchical power […]

  2. […] year I wrote a post about the kind of table-thumping simple-minded blather that you sometimes hear about public policy […]

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