Tuesday, October 16, 2007

So What's With All the Nazi Analogies?

I have broken what for me has been a cardinal rule in recent days in using Nazi analogies when writing about the Bush administration's embrace of torture as well as a deafening lack of response from most Americans to this and other outrages not unlike the Germans who failed to speak out about the excesses of the Third Reich.

Nazi analogies usually are bad because they stifle debate and inevitably trigger side debates about whether comparing someone to Hitler or something contemporary to an aspect of the Third Reich is appropriate, let alone in good taste. And then further side debates about whether calling someone a Nazi is as bad as calling them, say, a "kike" or "nigger."

Then there is Godwin's Law, which states that as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches inevitability.

As a longtime newspaper editor, I forbade use of Nazi analogies by my reporters because they were unnecessarily inflammatory and the comparisons invariably were exaggerated.

Many a public official has found to their dismay that the backlash against offhanded Nazi analogizing is far more damaging than their remark is effective. Then there is CNN pop-off Lou Dobbs, who earlier this year became the umpteenth media maven to feel the wrath of Jewish groups for breaking their secret rule book of inappropriate analogies after he accused advocates for illegal immigrants of using propaganda techniques employed by Nazis.

I bring some personal baggage to the issue, as well. I am proud to say that Jewish blood courses through my body, my family lost a number of relatives in Hitler's death camps and a dear Jewish uncle survived years as an American POW because he happened to be a dentist and worked on the teeth of his captors. So I suppose that I am even more on guard for false or misplaced analogizing.

Having said all that, I have broken my rule for a couple of reasons:

First, some heavy hitters have paved the way, including President Bush himself and former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and more recently blogger Andrew Sullivan and New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich.

Second, the conduct of the Bush administration has become so extreme and the silence out on the hustings so overwhelming that while using Nazi analogies will still inflame, such comparisons have become increasingly appropriate.

Conservatives have used Nazi analogies for years, which is lost on conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg, who has railed with regularity that lefties like Jesse Jackson beat the "He Acts Like a Nazi" drum hard.

As it is, President Bush and his mouthpieces have not been shy about such analogies to justify the Iraq war since even before the 2003 invasion.

But Rumsfeld upped the ante last year before his exit in a speech to the American Legion in which he raised the specter of appeasement in Iraq a la British Prime Minister Chamberlain. Then President Bush, speaking to the same group, declared that Islamic terrorists were "successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists, and other totalitarians of the 20th century."

Sullivan, who chooses his words with care, first noted in May the horrifying similarities between the Gestapo's use of Verschärfte Vernehmung, enhanced torture techniques that would leave no visible marks, and the CIA's embrace of these techniques, as well as the tortured Nazi-like explanations of the White House and Justice Department in trying to justify their use. Then Rich, who is no stranger to hyperbole, in my view appropriately compared all those silent Americans to "Good Germans" in his Sunday Times column.

A final thought: While I don’t feel squeaky clean about using Nazi analogies, my president’s embrace of torture makes me feel dirty and the silence of so many of my fellow Americans is an abomination.

So there.


Unknown said...

The reason invocations of ultimate evil in comparisons with a course of action with which you disagree or those advocating such a course of action is that such an invocation is an appeal to the emotion—a fallacy. The desire to convince has been abandoned in a desire to wound or a desire to rouse to mob action.

I sometimes wonder if the Republic can survive the loss of moderation and rationale discourse.

chamblee54 said...

I thought that the Nazis were black and white.

jj mollo said...

The World War and the Civil War have left wounds on our consciousness that have never healed. The questions that every thoughtful American is forced to confront frequently refer to those contexts. We made terrible mistakes allowing Hitler's power to coelesce and in tolerating the institution of slavery. It is natural that we feel the traumatic residue of these issues. These are central issues. We can't help but see them in some form in every political argument. Since we all make separate evaluations and interpretations of past events, we learn different lessons, and apply them differently. It is considered impolite and tedious to mention these subjects in a comment thread, but they can't help but mold our positions. It is not good, however, to liken our political adversaries to those archetypes of evil. First of all, it represents an irresponsible exaggeration. Secondly, it offends to such an extent that no further discussion is likely. The willingness to offend in this fashion is gratifying, but not useful. It splits us, at least on the internet, into non-interacting mutually incomprehensible societies.

Unknown said...

Let's be blunt. Torture has its merits. Like when it is used on terrorists to force out information to expose other terrorists and thus save the lives of innocent people.

It is one thing to pat yourself on the back and say you are against torture. It is another thing to look in the mirror and say you are willing to sacrifice people's lives to mollify your own personal cringe factor.

And the whole idea of comparing any American politician to the Nazis makes your as guilty of poisoning the necessary discourse in the country as anything the right wing does.