Friday, March 11, 2005

Poison Politics: Using the 'N-Word'

No, not that n-word. I'm talking about "Nazi," the epithet-turned-buzzword that's polluting political discourse in this country.

The most egregious recent example of this comes from Colorado University professor Ward Churchill, who has encountered a firestorm of criticism for referring to those who died in the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns." (An excellent, thoughtful piece on the incident and Churchill's supposed Indian identity can be found here.)

Hackles were raised again just last week when Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia compared Republican efforts to ban the filibuster in the Senate with Nazi Germany (one presumes that Byrd, a former KKK member, speaks from experience).

Long the preserve of the left, words like "Nazi" and "fascist" have been lazily employed to describe anything we disapprove of. Here are a few other notable Nazi comparisons from the left:
  • In Dude, Where's My Country, Michael Moore clamis that the "Patriot Act is as un-American as Mein Kampf." When challenged about this analogy by Robert Novak on CNN's Crossfire, Moore responded, "The Patriot Act is the first step. Mein Kampf was written long before Hitler came to power. And if the people of Germany had done something early on to stop these early signs...if people don’t speak up against this, you end up with something like they had in Germany."
  • Smarmy, arrogant cartoonist Ted Rall (yes, the one who made fun of "Terror Widows" not long after 9/11) posted the following under the heading "Is Bush A Nazi?":
    Lately we're being told that it's either (a)
    inappropriate or (b) untrue to refer to Bush's illegitimate junta as Nazi, neo-Nazi or neofascist. Because, you know, you're not necessarily a Nazi just because you seize power like one, take advantage of a national Reichstag Fire-like tragedy like one, build concentration and death camps like one, start unprovoked wars like one, Red-bait your liberal opponents like one or create a national security apparatus that behaves like something a Nazi would create and even has a Nazi-sounding name. All of those people who see a little Adolf in the not-so-bright eyes of America's homeland-grown despot are just imagining things.
  • Renowned linguist and political "theorist" Noam Chomsky, writing on his blog (for a more thorough examination of his blog, click here) compared those who "lament piously" over the terrorist activities of Iraqi insurgents to "Nazi and Stalinist apologists wringing their hands over the terror of the Partisans and the Hungarian resistance."
In today's political landscape, this kind of rhetoric is by no means confined to the left. Increasingly those on the right have been getting in on the act.

Here are some of their greatest hits:
  • Bill O'Reilly, hosting The O'Reilly Factor on FOX News:
    Joseph Goebbels was the Minister of Propaganda for the Nazi regime and whose very famous quote was, "If you tell a lie long enough, it becomes the truth." All right? "If you tell a lie long enough, it becomes the truth." And that's what [Al Franken] and Michael Moore and all of these guys do.
    On celebrities who went to a Fahrenheit 9/11 screening: "Here are the people who would turn out to see Josef Goebbels convince you that Poland invaded the Third Reich. It's the same thing, by the way."
  • Ralph Peters, writing in a vitriolic New York Post article called "Howard the Coward," comments upon the Howard Dean campaign and Dean's boisterous supporters:
    These are the techniques employed by Hitler's Brownshirts. Had Goebbels enjoyed access to the internet, he would have used the same swarm tactics as Dean's Flannelshirts....Dean was already practicing the Big Lie. Montreal was just a stop on his journey from Munich to Berlin. He was already looking around for his Leni Riefenstahl.
    Strangely enough, this article is no longer available in the Post's archives (a fact that FAIR does not miss in their criticism of the Post and FOX News), but the text of the article can be found here.
  • Dr. Ted Baehr of the Christian Film and Television Commission comparing Million Dollar Baby to Nazi film I Accuse:
    After (that film) was released, a majority of German people said they had changed their minds and now supported mercy killings. After a few more of Goebbels' films about invalids and handicapped people, the German people became strong believers in the efficacy of mass mercy killings. Similarities between the National Socialist use of film and Million Dollar Baby are frightening.
  • Right-Wing blog Power Line on pro-Democrat vandals in Wisconsin:
    Democrats attacked a Republican campaign office in a manner reminiscent of the Brownshirts of seventy years ago....In this campaign season, there is seemingly no length to which the Democratic Party, like the National Socialist Party of seventy years ago, will not go.
    This post is nicely disputed by Jason Steed on PoliticalJuice, but he manages to stick in a Nazi comparison of his own.
Perhaps this is just symptomatic of the great race to the bottom that our political culture has become. As the marketplace of ideas devolves into a bargain basement, pundits and hotheads everywhere are willing to slander history in order to take a cheap shot.

Whether the attack comes from the left or from the right, it is my position that lazy comparisons to Nazis are never appropriate.

Plenty of governments do unpleasant things and curtail certain freedoms (yes, ours included). This tendency is not limited to the Nazis. While the term "Nazi" is synonymous with propaganda and strong-arm politics, it is inextricably tied to ethnic scapegoating and mass murder—with arguably the most extreme example of man's inhumanity toward man in modern history. No comparison to the Nazis can possibly avoid this association.

Sadly, propagandists and tyrants (large and small) are a dime-a-dozen in the modern world, so there's plenty of fertile ground for analogy. Reflexively associating unpleasant tactics with Nazism serves only to chip away at the memory of how horrible—how truly exceptional—that regime was.

The frequency and fervency of these kinds of attacks are testament not only to the mean-spiritedness of today's punditocracy, but also to a profound failure of the imagination. There's no excuse for substituting actual arguments with rhetorical shorthand—particularly not this most vile variety.
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