Saturday, July 10, 2010

Nazis, Nazis . . . everywhere?! (I) more on the problem of inappropriate analogies

I just posted about sloppy historical analogies, and as readers will know from the periodic reports on this site, allusions to the Third Reich tend to be the sloppiest of all.  There's nothing like a political controversy to bring out this kind of atrocious reasoning and writing, so it's time for another brief round-up of recklessly wielded Nazi analogies and some of the rebukes they occasioned.

Although it's often foreign affairs that bring on the disease, there have recently been some domestic triggers, as well. Many liberals and leftists, outraged over the controversial new Arizona immigration law (SB 1070) did not hesitate to denounce the measure as something worthy of Hitler. Other groups and individuals that likewise opposed the law as a potential encouragement to racial profiling and anti-immigrant attitudes nonetheless condemned the comparisons as intellectually unjustified and ethically shameful. 

The Anti-Defamation League denounced a number of careless or provocative statements, declaring, "No matter how odious, bigoted, biased and unconstitutional Arizona's new law may be, let's be clear that there is no comparison between the situation facing immigrants, legal or illegal, in Arizona and what happened in the Holocaust."

NPR offered a more extended analysis in a conversation hosted by Alison Keyes. Guests Clarissa Martinez, Director of Immigration and National Campaigns, National Council of La Raza, and Ben Cohen, Associate Director of Communications, American Jewish Committee, agreed that the law was bad but the comparison was unhelpful.  Martinez observed that learning from the Nazi experience meant learning to speak out against injustice, but that not all injustices were of the same magnitude:  "we are also mindful that we cannot compare the shameful turn of events in Arizona with the systematic mass effort of a murderous regime to gas, shoot and exterminate the Jews in all Nazi-occupied territories."  Cohen said, "Basically, no. I don't think there is a comparison." One can legitimately "invoke the Holocaust" when speaking of contemporary genocides such as Cambodia or Rwanda. In this case, even the legal concerns are different:  In Nazi Germany, "people who had previously been equal citizens under the law suddenly found themselves horribly downgraded on the basis of racial origin. . . .  That prepared the ground for genocide, for the mass extermination of the Jews."

Of course, the writers of the right often turn to the Nazi epithet as a careless shorthand for the ultimate menace of "big government."  Last month, for example, Thomas Sowell warned that "American democracy is being dismantled, piece by piece, before our very eyes by the current administration in Washington, and few people seem to be concerned about it." He prefaced the piece by warning that both Hitler and Lenin had mobilized the apolitical or gullible in order to build their dictatorships. It was rather inane, but that was the extent of the totalitarian reference. Still, when the irrepressible and incomprehensible Sarah Palin encouraged her Twitter followers to "Read Thomas Sowell's article," criticism bubbled up. She was soon forced to tweet in self-defense, in her inimitable voice, "Lamestream media: I never compared Obama to Hitler. Quit making things up."

Sometimes, though, the commentators move from comparison to equation.   Simon Greer of Jewish Funds for Justice denounced conservative TV host Glenn Beck as "a con man" "bottling" an "ideological agenda" as "'theology'" by calling upon Americans to "Make sure your church puts God first and politics and government last." For Greer, "To put God first is to put humankind first, and to put humankind first is to put the common good first," which means turning to "effective and engaged government." Beck responded by charging,  "This leads to death camps. A Jew, of all people, should know that. This is exactly the kind of talk that led to the death camps in Germany. Put humankind and the common good first."  Emphasizing the common good, he said, would lead to the elimination of the undesirable. I guess they won't be going to any interfaith dinners together.

Beck was unrepentant, but former California Governor and current Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown had to do some urgent backpedaling after he denounced his Republican rival.  "Taking a page out of the playbook normally reserved for Glenn Beck," (in the words of the Huffington Post; nice, how everything fits so well into my little schema), he said of Meg Whitman:
"You know, by the time she's done with me, two months from now, I'll be a child-molesting..." He let the line trail off. "She'll have people believing whatever she wants about me.

"It's like Goebbels," referring to Hitler's notorious minister of propaganda. "Goebbels invented this kind of propaganda. He took control of the whole world. She wants to be president. That's her ambition, the first woman president. That's what this is all about."
The Whitman campaign was not amused and made sure, in its two-sentence statement, to identify Goebbels explicitly with the Holocaust and not just the Third Reich in general (that's historically quite legitimate, though it does have the feel of overkill and pandering, given the loopy as well as minimalist context).

Still, I'm not quite sure why Brown felt he had to apologize for his statement. According to his spokesperson:
"I wouldn't vouch for the accuracy of it, but I also don't want to dispute the accuracy of it," he told The Associated Press. "It was jogging talk taken out of context."
"Jogging talk":  well that explains it. All clear?

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