Nazi Analogies

Anyone who has taken an ethics class is familiar with the Nazi analogy: "but on your view, a Nazi could be authentically happy. . ." therefore, etc.  In philosophy classes, as in real life, Nazi is short for every kind of evil person, activity or thing.  While this has a lot to do with history (Nazis were very bad indeed), it has probably less to do with actual Nazis (there were lots of different kinds of Nazis–none probably embodying every vice–thus the very justified criticism of liberal fascism).  Similar to the ethics class Nazi is the internet Nazi.  Godwin's law, or rather a corollary of Godwin's law, holds that invoking a Nazi analogy ends the discussion in a loss for the invoker.  There probably ought to a similar heuristic for politics, but there isn't.

Recently there's been a lot of incompetent talk about "appeasement."  Such talk, however, has little to do with actual appeasement–which involves, if I'm not mistaken, giving in to an aggressor in order to avoid conflict.  It's been used, however, to characterize any diplomatic interaction, which is obviously false.  Or maybe such is the fear of words and arguments–or so evil is our enemy–that his words will lull us into a kind of stupor, forcing us to agree to his demands.  But probably not.  I think such appeasement talk is just a handy way to keep the Nazis ever present in our national narrative.  

Yesterday Anne Applebaum, writing for the Post, complained about this.  She writes:

True, it seems that Nazi analogies can be used with almost infinite flexibility. Bush — in what was widely interpreted as an attack on Barack Obama last week — was making a point about politicians who talk to "terrorists and radicals," comparing them to those who appeased Hitler in the 1930s. Putin, in what was widely interpreted as an attack on the Bush administration last year, was comparing the Nazis to contemporary regimes with "contempt for human life" and "claims of exceptionality and diktat in the world" — in other words, the United States.

But the Nazis have been invoked in arguments over many other causes, too. In a speech explaining what "this Kosovo thing is all about," Bill Clinton once justified his decision to bomb Serbia by asking,"What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?" His secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was also fond of telling reporters that "Munich is my mindset," referring to Europe's decision to appease Hitler at Munich in 1938. In 2006, a British group opposed to national identity cards designed an advertisement showing Tony Blair as Hitler, except with a bar code in place of a moustache. Last spring, American feminist Naomi Wolf compared Hitler's brownshirts, the thugs who smashed Jewish shops and murdered old men, with the "groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and trousers," who "menaced poll workers counting the votes in Florida in 2000." On Sunday, Al Gore told college seniors that fighting global warming was comparable to fighting fascism. And, of course, Saddam Hussein has been compared to Hitler many times, by many people of many different political views.

Bush's Nazi analogy was just wrong–it wasn't an analogy to anything.  Even Bush's surrogates were ignorant of the origin of the "appeasement" line.  In the second paragraph above, however, the analogies are at least of the right type.  The comparisons may be (may be) extreme, but at most that's hyperbole–politics is full of it.  One can challenge the hyperbole for its exaggeration–which is a question not of factual basis (like the first) but of degree.  

I'm not endorsing the use of the analogies in the second instances, but if we're going to engage in ambidomal poxism (a pox on both your houses–anyone have a better name?) then we ought to make sure it's the same strain of pox.


One thought on “Nazi Analogies”

  1. Anyone who invokes Godwin’s law is trying to stifle passionate political discourse like Goebbels did.

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