Sunday, January 23, 2011

Give Me Your Tired, Your Wretched Analogies

My dear helpful RWA1 struck again, linking on Facebook to this article from the Washington Times, and commenting, "It is time to retire analogies to Nazis and fascists once and for all." It appears that a Democratic Congressman compared "Republican attacks on President Obama's health care law to Nazi propaganda," but backed down when criticized by (of all people!) Abraham H. Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and the dead-armadillo group No Labels.
"You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually, people believe it," said Mr. Cohen on the House floor Tuesday. "The Germans said enough about the Jews and the people believed it, and you had the Holocaust."
I can think of two good reasons for eschewing analogies to Nazis and fascists. One is that it would limit, slightly, the output of American political discourse, since comparing your opponents to Nazis is a treasured bipartisan tactic. The US Government regularly uses comparisons between Hitler and foreign political figures it wants to demonize; an embargo on such comparisons would be a terrible hardship for our own propaganda mills, possibly forcing us to rely on the cheaper product of overseas propaganda mills. (If it meant never having to hear the word "Islamofascist" again, I might be won over. And would Communist and Socialist analogies also be retired?)

The obligatory reaction such comparisons evoke ("Oh, how could you say such an awful thing? You're so hateful!") is the second good reason: it enables everyone concerned to ignore the issue involved by trying to seize the moral high ground and extract an apology, by which time everyone will have forgotten what they were talking about to begin with. Rep. Cohen ("who", the WashTimes delicately informed its readers, "is Jewish") should have known that; he later "said it was 'disappointing' his comments have been used to distract from the health care reform debate." Disappointing, maybe; surprising, not at all. So why did he give his opponents such an easy out?

Lying, even the systematic repetition of outrageous lies for propaganda purposes, is not a specifically Nazi practice. Maybe his propaganda minister Goebbels codified the technique, as the WashTimes indicates, but according to Wikipedia Hitler coined the phrase "Big Lie" in Mein Kampf in 1925 -- and it was something he accused the Jews of doing, amusingly enough. When Goebbels wrote about the Big Lie in 1941, it was to accuse the English of doing it. It appears, in short, that like "Political Correctness", the Big Lie is what other people do rather than a method anyone avows as their own practice. (Rep. Cohen's history was faulty in other respects: anti-Semitic propaganda found such a ready audience among German gentiles because Germany, along with the rest of Christian Europe, had a long tradition of anti-Semitic propaganda and violence. It's not as if the Nazis invented anti-Semitism, or conjured it into German heads that had never harbored it before.)

I think that calls to stop using Nazi/fascist analogies are a distraction in themselves. It's not as if Nazism or fascism died in 1945 with the end of World War II, after all. Fascism survived in Franco's Spain, for example, until the Generalissimo's death in 1975. Various US-backed dictators in Latin America, such as Pinochet, Alfredo Stroessner and numerous Argentinian generals, admired Hitler. So did many American political and business figures, but this admiration went down the memory hole when Hitler became an official enemy. Since fascism, especially, is a specific and definable system of government, I can't see why it should be improper to point out that a given politician or country or movement or party is exhibiting fascist tendencies. When a country engages in torture, invades other countries aggressively, or inflicts collective punishment of civilian populations, these are not specifically Nazi practices, but they are the sort of conduct that supposedly revealed the endemic evil of Nazism. When Noam Chomsky says that if the Nuremberg Principles were enforced, every American president since World War II would have to be hanged, he's not saying that American presidents are Nazis, but they have committed the same crimes that were held up as proof of Nazi depravity. That's a more important matter, it seems to me, but it's exactly what is not acceptable to discuss in civil political discourse.

Of course, neither side will quit invoking Nazis until the other side does, so there's no real danger it will stop anytime soon. What is important, to return to Rep. Cohen, is not whether the lies of Republican opponents of Obama's health care reform bill are Nazi lies; what is important is that they are lies. Dragging in the urban legend (as it evidently is) of the Nazi Big-Lie is a distraction. From "death panels" to "job killing," the Republicans have lied. (So have the Democrats, of course, about other things, and they should be confronted on the substance, not compared to Nazis.) That may be partly because, although there are many valid criticisms that could have been made of Obama's bill, they were not those the Republicans were interested in making. The best way to deter the use of invalid Nazi / fascist analogies is to concentrate on substance. Anyone who wants to attack the Republicans (or the Democrats) should stay focused, on-message, without bringing in irrelevancies that will be used to evade the real issues.

P.S. If there ever should be a bilateral disarmament treaty on Nazi analogies, not to worry: there will still be fag discourse, as beloved among liberals as it is among conservatives.