The Godwinator

Fig.1: Obamacare analogy

George Will, whose pseudo-logical musings at the Washington Post inspired our work here so many years ago, has moved from ABC to Fox News.  In keeping with the tone of his new employer, he waxes historical about the legality of Obamacare (via Talking Points Memo):

In an interview with NPR’s “Morning Edition,” host Steve Inskeep asked Will about President Barack Obama’s argument that Republicans are short-circuiting the system by using government funding and the debt ceiling as leverage to dismantle Obamacare, rather than repealing the law outright.

“How does this short-circuit the system?” Will said. “I hear Democrats say, ‘The Affordable Care Act is the law,’ as though we’re supposed to genuflect at that sunburst of insight and move on. Well, the Fugitive Slave Act was the law, separate but equal was the law, lots of things are the law and then we change them.”

Many here are familiar with Godwin’s law, where as a discussion grows longer, the probability of a Hitler analogy approaches 1.  We might now offer two variations on that.  Given any possible disagreement, the probability of a completely inept Hitler is initially 1.  The second variation is implied in the first: Hitler is a mere stylistic choice: the invoker can select any other moral abomination according to need.

One further rule: some iron-manner will come to the defense of the Godwinator:

I generally agree with TPM, but this headline is an outrageous distortion of what GW said.

His view is that Obamacare law is wrong, which is a legitimate view (not  mine).  He then points out that we have rescinded laws that we all regard as wrong.  He was speaking to the process, not the content.

Nah.  That isn’t his view and this ignores the inappropriate analogy.  Looking past these kinds of rhetorical outrages keeps them alive.

5 thoughts on “The Godwinator”

  1. Hi John,

    Just to play devil’s advocate, what do you think would have been an appropriate analogy for Will’s suggestion that laws can be changed? That is, how would you rewrite his quote to make his point for him without the Ad Hitlerem/Godwinism/Ad Slavem?


  2. Good question Sean Leather–

    In the first place, I think the fugitive slave act and segregation involved fundamental violations of human rights. Obamacare does not. Quite the opposite. Or if one doesn’t believe that it’s the opposite of human rights violation, then it is at least as neutral as Medicare. This is the extent to which the analogy fails by degree.

    Second, by act of Congress (outlawing of slavery) and by Supreme Court Decision(s) (parts of segregation), they were determined to be unconstitutional. Obamacare, such as it is, has gone through that entire process–act of Congress (several times!), Supreme Court, lower court tests. This is how the analogy fails the type test.

    Finally, to answer your question, take any human-rights neutral (to the extent this is possible) question of public policy. In two seconds on Google I found this: He could point out that this law was eventually repealed. I don’t think this would make the point he’s really trying to make.

    It is obviously true (I think) that not every law is a just law. It is also obviously true that laws can be repealed by act of congress or by judicial decree. That’s the process. No one is denying that.

  3. Thanks for the in-depth response. I find this kind of example difficult to spot. I even had to start writing a different response, with more questions, before I could think it through clearly.

    I listened to Mr. Will’s interview yesterday, and I found myself nodding with some agreement. When he pointed out that the current budget/debt situation is part of the democratic process, I realized that he was right. I have been reading a lot of people saying that democracy does not work by one party “holding the government at gunpoint.” But since this gunpoint is still figurative (in the government) and not real, then it is still democracy (compared to other governments). That’s what I came away with.

    So, I felt Mr. Will made the above point with me, though I didn’t agree with much else that he said. And I completely missed this analogy in the whole interview. IIRC, he says it in an impromptu manner, so that it sounds like he picked these two examples off the top of his head. I didn’t pay much attention to what they were. Maybe that was the idea, and I tended to give him the benefit of the doubt (i.e. iron-man him).

    I recalled having an issue with another post of yours about Mr. Will. Either he is too subtle for me, or I’m too blind, or both.

  4. Hey Sean,

    Interesting points. I remembered that discussion (but reviewed it again). One reason George Will inspired our work here is that he is adept at appearing reasonable. He writes fairly engaging prose, finds interesting examples, etc. But as a matter of fact–so we have argued–he’s terrible (we have some 100 plus entries on him, I think that settles it). He tends to do two things: equivocate to provoke non-existent inconsistencies in his opponents and straw man. Both are difficult to spot if you’re not paying attention (especially the first).

    With regard to the present case, rhetoric of hostage-taking aside, the latest Republican moves are part of the democratic process as we have defined it in this country. So Will is actually correct about that. The same goes, by the way, for judicial review, which Will very often claims is anti-democratic.

    The more common criticism of the Republican position, however, (and thus, by the way, the position Will ought to attack if he were honest) is that they are exploiting their majority position in the current House to undermine duly-enacted laws (without even undermining the laws in question but that’s another point). Nothing they’re doing is illegal, or broadly speaking contrary to our democratic process, it is, so the objectors argue, contrary to the will of the majority (based on a couple of elections). So Will’s move there is again an equivocation (a favorite of his, thus the other post) on the meaning of “democratic process.”

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