Friday, June 15, 2007

Reductio ad Hitlerum

How would you advocate for the bombing of another country? Luckily, for the modern columnist, the trick is surprisingly simple. It boils down to painting the world leader you're trying to cripple as the next great fascist threat to Western Civilization. Who can resist the urge to correlate to Hitler when trying to demonize or inflame? In internet discussions this trick even has a name, Goodwin's Law, which states that as a discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler becomes almost inevitable.

For a real world example of this trick go read Normon Podhoretz's new article at Commentary Magazine in which he shows how Iran's president Ahmadinejad is an ambitious leader and an aggressive threat to Western Civilization, not unlike a former fascist dictator who broke international law while arming his country for war. Will diplomacy work with such a foe? Was Neville Chamberlain successful at Munich? Consider this reduction from the article:

"But since, to say it again, Ahmadinejad is a revolutionary with unlimited aims and not a statesman with whom we can “do business,” all this negotiating has had the same result as Munich had with Hitler. That is, it has bought the Iranians more time in which they have moved closer and closer to developing nuclear weapons."

Hitler has found himself en vogue these days as the argument fodder of choice. He is thrown into the mix like a burning coal smoldering even a hint of logic. Even the left cannot resit putting him to use. The steam of articles comparing Bush and co. to Hitler and the fascists has grown from a trickle to a torrent over the least few years. Their illustrations of abuse of power are so impassioned one would have to be blind to not see this country's slide into totalitarianism.

But the Hitler comparison is so versicle that the right uses the same trick, usually pointing out how some group or leader--be it terrorism, or Kim Jung Il, or Saddam Hussein--closely resembles fascism, while the liberals represent the Neville Chamberlain persona of capitulation and cowardice. This move has been used so often the grooves are worn into the beltway.

Consider this quote by George W. Bush days after 9/11: "These terrorists...we have seen their kind before. They're the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."

Or Donald Rumsfeld August 29, 2006: "I recount that history because once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism. Today -- another enemy, a different kind of enemy -- has made clear its intentions with attacks in places like New York and Washington, D.C., Bali, London, Madrid, Moscow and so many other places. But some seem not to have learned history's lessons."

Or Bush again on September 25, 2006: As veterans, you have seen this kind of enemy before. They are successors to fascists, to Nazis, to communists and other totalitarians of the 20th century. And history shows what the outcome will be."

And so Podhoretz's plea to bomb Iran is nothing new. It can hardly even be considered original. It simply follows an established practice that to really drive your political argument home you simply have to achieve Goodwin's Law faster and more often than the other guy. Read almost any Charles Krauthammer or Bill Kristol column and see how they all attempt to out-do each other in slinging the Hitler analogies.

Comparisons to Hitler are generally considered bad form in an argument. In the early days of on-line chat group discussions the first person to mention Hitler was declared the loser and the thread ended. But look where we are at today--deadly serious articles advocating the bombing of Iran because that country resembles Nazi Germany. Right then and there a referee should step in, throw a yellow flag, and have the writer ejected. But instead these writers are well paid and influential. Our discourse is now nothing more than a cheap trick--a reductio ad Hitlerum.

Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James once described two types of spiritual health. The healthy minded have a particularly positive outlook on life while those people having a sick soul see the evil in all things. What about those who look out into the ever-changing world and see shades of Hitler in all things? Our threat, terrorism, is as unique from fascism as communism was. If an impassioned political argument must be made can we at least employ a few other terrible 20th century dictators? Pinochet? Amin? You know, Just to keep the whole genre from getting stale.

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