Saturday, March 27, 2010

Miep Gies and the Zani score

At age 50, at a local theater, I attended a performance of The Diary of Ann Frank.

I knew the story of course, but, until now I'd missed the book, the movie and the play. Seeing it at this point in my life I am awed by the endurance and compassion of Otto and Edith Franck, sympathetic to the less favorably portrayed refugees, and curious about the heroes Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, Jan and Miep Gies, and Johannes and Bep Voskuijl. Curious too about what kind of man Otto Franck was to create such love and loyalty in his employees.

Of the heroes we know the most about Miep Gies, in part because of her astounding longevity. She passed for an ordinary person before and after World War II. She claimed, somewhat convincingly, that she was motivated not by courage but by a fear of unbearable guilt should she fail to perform her duty. It may be relevant that she was, by necessity, given up for adoption by her birth mother.

I wondered then, and wonder now, how extraordinary Gies was. In coverage of her death this past January I recall that of 81 people asked by the Dutch resistance to shelter Jews, 7 accepted. Clearly they did not ask just anyone; if we guess that only 1/10 were considered candidates, and 7/81 of those accepted, then Gies-class heroes were, and are, perhaps 1/100. Unusual certainly, but more common than world class athletes.

That feels right. I can believe that somewhere between 1/30 and 1/100 of humans are heroes born, and another 1/10 to 1/20 heroically inclined. Likewise it feels like 1/5 of us are Nazi-capable and 1/50 Nazi born.  The rest of us, in most circumstances, favor the good. Which is why civilization is possible.

I expect the epidemiology of heroism has been studied by scholars of later genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda. I know one such, so maybe I'll update my post with some real data.

Do the demographics of hero and villain vary by society? Obviously some societies are far more evil than others; Germany of 2010 is not Germany of 1940. I would not be surprised to learn, however, that the frequency of fundamental human heroism and villainy is fairly constant. It might instead be chance and circumstance that leads to the rare, but cataclysmic, ascendance of the villainous.

Could villains win in modern America? Obviously yes. Even if there had been any past doubts, the recent widespread public support for governmental torture has put them to rest. We, like most nations, are quite capable of industrial evil.

Given that we Americans, like most nations, have a low but real risk of repeating the worst of modern human history, shouldn't we put some measure in place so we can estimate and track our risk?

We can't call this the "Nazi score" because the word Nazi has too much baggage. It cannot, for example, be applied to readily applied to Israel and it is historically bound to a peculiar form of industrial organization. In any event  a Nazimeter score would be a Godwin's Law violation.

Still, the lessons of Nazism are so powerful, and so often studied, that it would be insane to ignore them. So I'll permute some characters and name this metric the Zani score.

It only remains then, to assemble the metric. Tradition dictates a 10 point scale, so we need to come up with 10 distinct indicators of roughly equal weight. As a rough guide we can assume that the National Socialists get 9-10 points and the American Tea Party movement must score less than 5.

Given that rough outline here's my start on the 10 indicators that sum to a Zani score for any social movement or organization. Suggestions are most welcome and I hope to refine the scale over time.

  1. A belief that the ends justify the means, or, in other words, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice".
  2. A sense of grievance and injustice.
  3. A charismatic leader.
  4. Celebration and admiration of violence.
  5. Tribal or ethnic boundaries; a division into the "chosen" and the "other".
  6. Anti-intellectual, in particular anti-geek.
  7. Denial of skepticism. Skeptics are outcast, dissent is forbidden.
  8. Welcoming and affirmation of the convert.
  9. Membership alone is proof of virtue.
  10. Scorn for the weak; denial of pity or sympathy for the other.
Any suggestions on additions or deletions? Does anyone know of a genuine, empirically tested, Zani metric?


Curmudgeon said...

I don't think your scale goes far enough to draw a meaningful distinction between would-be fascists, like the teabaggers, and genuine genocidal maniacs, like the Nazis.

A reasonable interpretation of your scale would place the teabaggers at about 9 of 10, due only to half marks with points #3 and #4. This is an absurdity if the highest score--reserved for NASDAP itself--is 10.

You should have a few more graduations to rank groups between those who cut the odd gas line and those who commit crimes against humanity. I'd suggest 'kill political opponents,' 'have control of a state,' and finally 'commit genocide.'

Paul said...

To this I’ll add my thoughts on the post nuclear generation and also the unwritten laws of journalism and the reporting of death. I’m not sure they sit squarely with your Zani (nice anagram btw) metric scale but feel they need to be taken into consideration.
From the dawn of time, well since the start of recorded history there have been wars. Until the establishment of civilisation and/or second generation weapons the young men of one valley/town/county/country have been sent to fight the young men of another valley/town/county/country.
When asked what he thought about Western Civilisation, Gandhi replied that he thought it would be a good idea and notwithstanding I still have some sympathy for that view I think that the advances in mass transportation, mechanised farming and good quality dentistry (amongst others) brought civilization proper – civilisation 1.1, if you like – into society at around the turn of the last century. To celebrate we invented second generation weapons and had the first world war. [First generation weapons were essentially sticks and stones and I would also include the muzzle loading rifle (maybe a gen 1.5 weapon) . My definition of early weapons is that essentially they were only capable of killing one person at a time. True there were cannons and early grenades but the bulk of the killing in any battle was done by one man killing one other man.] Second generation weapons came from the scientists and enabled one man to kill many men. We got, in short order, the hand held machine gun, the poisoned gas shell, the torpedo (and the submarine to launch it), the arrival of the air force with ever bigger planes and therefore ever bigger bombs also. And finally – or at least to date – we have the atom bomb.
So the first world war was the first war to have a death toll that was almost, almost but not quite, enough to have the survivors say ‘ENOUGH!: there must be no more wars’.
And so to the second world war. Many observers and historians think there wasn’t really a second world war it was just a continuation of the first with a sufficient gap to grow a new crop of cannon fodder. Anyway, it ended effectively, if not legally, on August 9th 1945 when a B29 called Bockscar dropped a bomb called Fat Man. 43 seconds later 75,000 people were dead. And the survivors said ‘ENOUGH!: there must be no more wars’. And the generation that followed – you and I amongst them – have been the first generation ever to have grown up without fearing that we would be sent to war. True there was fear that a war may start in which everybody died through mutually assured destruction but I think that that fear was negligible if not completely false.
But we still have wars you say. Well No we don’t I argue. Compared with 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 all ‘wars’ since are not worthy of the name. In terms of casualties anything after 1945 (or before 1914 for that matter) is not in the same league as the biggies. Best guestimates for casualties are 40 million dead in WWI and 60 million dead in WWII. In Afghanistan last year the Brits lost just over 200 soldiers. That’s roughly one every 2 days. On 1 July 1916 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme the Brits lost 19,240 troops (and an additional 40,000 injured). War had become so dangerous, so horrific that we cannot ever have another. Nobody in today’s world could hide that number of dead, nobody could argue that such a toll was acceptable. I believe (and fervently hope) that we will never see the like in my lifetime. Indeed the next global war will either be the collapse of capitalism or the fight for water and I think either are several centuries away. But I digress...

Paul said...

And now to Paul’s theories on the journalistic reporting of death. You’ll have to adjust these to your own geography and nationality but they do, I believe, hold true the world over. I live in Leeds – the third biggest town in England – and here is an incomplete list of whose deaths I hear about. I take a local newspaper occasionally, read a national paper most days, watch the local TV news most days (if only the 5 minute infoburst after the national TV news), said national news most days, the BBC news website virtually (no pun intended) every day and also I gather information from generally reading bulletin boards on various subjects. I also gather news from friends and family as we all do all the time.
So if one of my family or friends dies I hear about it immediately. If someone on my street dies I’ll hear about that pretty quickly too. If someone dies near me in a car crash I’ll probably hear about that but there is a chance I’ll miss that news. Of course if more than one person dies in the crash the greater the chance I’ll hear about it. Two cars involved and killing infant pedestrians and you’ll probably hear about that up to 100 miles away. Now what about plane crashes? Well, if a two seater plane crashes anywhere within 5 miles of my house I’ll hear about that. If it goes down over 100 miles away then whether I hear about it or not is down to its’ newsworthiness – if the crash killed anyone on the ground? was the pilot rich and/or famous? But if a commercial airliner crashes anywhere in the UK I’ll hear about it. I’ll hear about it if it happens anywhere in the world if there are dead Brits involved. But if a plane full of Zambians crashes in Africa there is a good chance I will never know. It won’t make the TV news unless there is vt footage of the actual crash and will probably only get a small paragraph in the national paper. Murder! Again, anyone murdered within a mile of my house will register on my radar but a murder in London... Well that depends on its’ newsworthiness. Was the victim famous? Was the victim the victim of a serial killer (Journalists love serial killers the world over)? War! Was the dead person the first general to die? Did they live near me? Was it a female soldier? Were they the 50th/100th person to die? If not, then they slip by unnoticed.
I could go on but you all know the rules, even if you’ve never contemplated them before. I think we are only tolerating the ‘wars’ we have now because we know that on the one hand whilst even one death is unjustifiable and intolerable that on the other hand unless you are losing 20,000 a day you are only playing at war.
Sad, but true.

John Gordon said...


The Zani score isn't a retrospective measure of harm caused. By that scale Greenpeace would beat the Tea Party, and both would be indistinguishable from the Red Cross on any scale that included, for example, the Khmer Rouge.

The Zani score is intended, semi-seriously, to be a measure of how concerned one should be about nascent entities or organizations. It tries to measure social structures that, 999/1000 times go nowhere, but 1/1000 times lead, given chance and circumstance, to very bad things.

It is odd that the Tea Party has such a high Zani score -- I didn't expect that. Maybe, however, if we were to run a simulation of America over the next 20 years, and that simulation included complete economic collapse, we'd find that some offspring of the Tea Party ended up being a very bad thing.

We can't (yet) run those simulations of course, so our only guide is historical analysis (the same kind of research that often gives us misleading ideas of medical disorders - but we can't really do double blind trials here).

Can you suggest some changes that would, without resort to retrospective measures like 'control of a state', give us a lower ranking for the Tea Party? I do agree their rank seems too high.

John Gordon said...


Some time ago I read an analysis of modern conflict that made the case that we were doing very well by historic standards -- even when the baseline was the post-WW II period. I think it was in The Economist.

I went looking for that article a few months ago but, oddly, I couldn't find it.

As to the future of civilization in the face of low cost havoc (bioweapons, etc), climate disruption, peak oil, malthusian collapse and disruptive tech (esp. AI) - it does look fairly grim. The only consolation is that I really don't understand how we survived the discovery of fusion bombs. Maybe we have a fairy godmother somewhere.