Events

Friday, August 1, 2008

Barack Obama: Hitler? or Just Willie Horton?

Although I am always on the lookout for problematic historical analogies, I must say that I missed this one.

By now, most of us have seen the McCain attack ad that juxtaposes shots of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears with footage of Obama in Berlin in a savage assault on his—energy policy. (Huh?)

I thought it was silly, confused, and of course wrongheaded in more ways than one. Others claim to see more.

There seem to be two main currents of interpretation. The first charges McCain and his strategists with playing on racial fears:
This vicious, nasty, disgusting ad is about the black mens and the white womens. And how the former ain't supposed to touch the latter. It's about a threat to the white womens! Rape!.
Logical flaw: One does not simultaneously compare the object of fear to both the negative analogue and the positive, endangered object. The ad criticizes Obama by likening him to the ditzy Paris and Britney. They cannot therefore be both slutty airheads and virginal everygirls (“I’m really scared he will rape my chaste honor student, who, by the way, is a notorious skank with an IQ the same as the room temperature”).

Even assuming that playing the racial-sexual card were the nefarious strategy here, it would not appeal to any sizeable portion of the electorate, no matter how little respect either the campaign strategist or the critic has for the American voter. In any case, let’s keep things in perspective. It’s hardly Willie Horton. (It took George H. W. Bush, the patrician gentleman, to bring us that unparalleled piece of vileness.)

The second interpretation is the more interesting and sinister. Writing for the New Republic (TNR), Eve Fairbanks muses, darkly:
McCain's newest TV ad, "Celeb," reminded Jon of the Simpsons' "Will There Ever Be a Rainbow?" episode, but was I the only one who thought it mimicked the end of "Triumph of the Will"?
Sadly, no.  Others, too, succumbed to temptation, most notably Rick Perlstein. Having praised the aforementioned psycho-sexual interpretation in pseudo-dialect (nuff said), he proceeds to attack the ad from a different angle, under the title, “Liberal Fascism”:

Recall that John McCain's new adviser Karl Rove has said he creates campaigns for people who watch TV with the sound off. I watched John McCain's new TV commercial with the sound off—the one, it's already been well-explicated, with the Barack Obama will rape yo daughta overtones:

I compared it to another famous piece of political film, also with the sound off:

That one, of course, is Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda masterpiece Triumph of the Will, its most iconic scene, in fact: Adolph Hitler addressing the closing ceremonies at the 1936 Olympics the Nazi Party Congress of 1934 in Nuremberg. I actually wonder if the Republicans had a crew on the scene to capture just the right angles; for instance, the identical camera placement shooting the speaker over the shoulder at stage right.

“Of course.” Even aside from the misspelling of Hitler’s given name (we won’t be pedants here), or the more serious initial confusion of films, or the highly dubious assertion that the embedded stills of the speeches inside the meeting hall are more “iconic” than the outdoor scenes at the Mars Field and Luitpold Arena, there are grounds for doubt.

Perlstein apparently sees the ad as of a piece with the notion of “liberal fascism” advanced by right-wing journalist Jonah Goldberg in his eponymous and preposterous book. It seems a bit of a stretch, and it’s not really articulated: The attack ad is kind of like a bad book and uses the techniques of an evil film to associate the target with the evil subject of that film . . . so, uh . . the guys who made the ad are really more like the evil ones who made or appear in the first film (got that?).

To the extent that visual similarities exist, they are largely inconsequential—by now, part of mainstream cinematic language. To the extent that they might represent a deliberate smear, they are ineffectual.

Logical flaw: There is no real attempt, in either substance or tone, to link Obama to anything fascistic. Indeed, there cannot be a tight connection, because the main point of the ad (to the extent it has one) is contained in the question, “But is he ready to lead?” No one doubts that Hitler had the ability to lead—specifically, to mobilize the masses in support of evil. This ad, by contrast, likens Obama to two celebrities notorious for their sex lives and substance abuse. Silly? Yes. Sinister? Hardly, especially given that his most nefarious policy would appear to be opposition to offshore oil drilling. Folks, we aren’t exactly on a train to Auschwitz here. The only people astute enough to get the presumed message would also be astute enough to reject it. Conclusion: Really bad strategy.

Noam Scheiber of TNR, citing both Fairbanks and Perlstein, nonetheless goes on to worry about the effect of the Nazi analogy on the elderly South Florida Jewish electorate. A lot of the resultant commentary then digresses into extended, mostly neurotic, though occasionally humorous, musings on that demographic, e.g. this sensible one by mpatrickhendri:
Yep, I can see it now, a elderly couple in Tarpon Springs nervously watches a commercial starring the newest installment of Hitler standing in front of a monument celebrating Prussia's victory over Denmark, and the inevitable question comes to mind: 'Is it dinner time?"
For God sakes, indeed. You guys even seen Leno ask people on the street what continent South America is on? Sure, they get the subtle point: crowds equal genocide. Fellas, BO has higher popularity among jewish voters than Joe Lieberman. Get over it, the jewish vote isn't going anywhere.
Indeed. How many ways can one misread and exaggerate the importance of a 32-second ad?

When the always provocative conservative blog, Little Green Footballs (LGF), first looked at the video, it said, simply and sensibly:  "The point that Obama is treated as a celebrity is a good one, but the comparison with Spears and Hilton is a little weird."

I could have lived with that analysis. Historians, no less than scientists, cherish the principle of parsimony.

Most recently, after surveying the commentaries cited above, LGF spoke of TNR playing the “Godwin Card.” For those unfamiliar with the term (I have not hitherto mentioned it, though it is very pertinent to much of what appears on this blog), the principle, enunciated by Mike Godwin in 1990, is that:
"As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."
It is thus related to Leo Stauss’s reductio ad Hitlerum, though without any necessary judgment as to validity of the analogy.

The press and the electorate really deserve better. If it is ridiculous for right-wingers to accuse left-wingers of fascism, it is only slightly less ridiculous for left-wingers to see right-wingers everywhere accusing left-wingers of fascism, and in the process, further muddy the debate by implying that right-wingers are all fascists.

If you are serious in believing that neo-fascist ideologies are a global threat, then there are some serious debates out there that are worth taking seriously (1, 2, 3, 4). Otherwise, give the Nazi stuff a rest. Please. There are bigger issues and better ways to discuss them.

What was objectively bizarre about the ad was not just the introduction of silly celebrities into the electoral equation, but the disjuncture between the substance of the attack and the film footage. Linking Britney to higher electricity taxes? Excuse me? If McCain, whose supposed forte is his expertise in foreign and military affairs, wanted to take his best shot and criticize Obama’s presumed or “presumptuous” victory tour, he would have played to that strength and addressed the substance of the policy speech that the latter actually gave in Berlin. Others—conservative (1 , 2) or merely possessed of a healthy skepticism (1, 2, 3, 4)—have done just that.

It’s not an attempt to propagate a theory of liberal fascism. It’s not penis envy. It’s publicity and popularity envy. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and an incoherent ad is just an incoherent ad.

To me, the video is just a sign of a wavering campaign knocked off its footing by the success of a foreign tour that it dared Obama to make.

If this is the best the McCain people can come up with, then the Obama camp can breathe a sigh of relief. If the McCain campaign really was trying to associate Obama with Hitler, then the attempt was as incompetent as it was dishonorable. To cite the inimitable Talleyrand: worse than a crime—a mistake.

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