The other day, Slate ran an article provocatively titled “The N-Word: Unmentionable lessons of the midterm aftermath” by Diane McWhorter. While the article is somewhat rambling, its main point appears to be that we shouldn’t be so afraid of invoking Nazi comparisons when discussing George Bush and the Republicans:
The taboo is itself a precept of the propaganda state. Usually its enforcers profess a politically correct motive: the exceptionalism of genocidal Jewish victimhood. Thus, poor Sen. Richard Durbin, the Democrat from Illinois, found himself apologizing to the Anti-Defamation League after Republicans jumped all over him for invoking Nazi Germany to describe the conditions at Guantanamo. And so by allowing the issue to be defined by the unique suffering of the Jews, we ignore the Holocaust’s more universal hallmark: the banal ordinariness of the citizens who perpetrated it. The relevance of Third Reich Germany to today’s America is not that Bush equals Hitler or that the United States government is a death machine. It’s that it provides a rather spectacular example of the insidious process by which decent people come to regard the unthinkable as not only thinkable but doable, justifiable. Of the way freethinkers and speakers become compliant and self-censoring. Of the mechanism by which moral or humanistic categories are converted into bureaucratic ones. And finally, of the willingness with which we hand control over to the state and convince ourselves that we are the masters of our destiny.
Where to begin?
(1) I don’t think anyone objects to Nazi or Hitler analogies under any circumstances. Actually, one irony that McWhorter misses entirely in her diatribe is that conservatives/Bush supporters themselves have made free use of “the N-word” and “the H-word” with regard to Iraq and Saddam Hussein, and more recently with regard to Iran. This is also emotionally manipulative rhetoric, to be sure — the point of any Nazi or Hitler analogy is to impress the audience with the target’s Evil with a capital E, without actually having to make any arguments for it. But at least in the case of Hussein, who gassed the Kurds and tortured and murdered dissidents by the thousands, the analogy has some moral basis; just as it has a moral basis in the case of Pol Pot, or even (on a far lesser scale) Slobodan Milosevic. On the other hand, as critical as I am of Vladimir Putin, for instance, I think that to compare him to Hitler or Stalin would inevitably have the effect of trivializing genocide.
(2) For all the talk of the “banality of evil,” the Germans who came to regard the persecution of Jews as justifiable were not simply decent people led astray by, say, perceptions of a threat to national security; they were people who accepted an ideology of overt and vicious bigotry based on religion and race. Are there disturbing elements in attitudes in America today toward some groups such as Muslims and illegal aliens? I would agree that there are; but the Nazi analogy is so outlandish, so disproportionate, so outrageous that, ironically, invoking it can only have the opposite effect. Instead of saying, “Hey, this could happen to us, too,” people are likely to react by saying, “This has nothing to do with us.”
(3) Why exactly does McWhorter need her Nazi analogies, anyway? Modern history is full of examples of governments using propaganda, trampling on civil liberties, or demonizing minority groups (McWhorter’s charges against Bush and present-day America) without descending into monstrosity and mass murder. Indeed, as one Slate reader pointed out in the magazine’s forum, The Fray:
isn’t our own history sufficient to show how horrendous the actions of the current administration are? Do we really need to bring up Nazi Germany when referring to the declaring of US citizens to be “enemy combatants” when our own history of doing that to the Japanese during WWII is just as good an example if not better? Do we really need to reach for the Nazi card when trying to talk about the suspension of habeas corpus and expansion of executive authority when our own history of Lincoln suspending it and being slapped down by the Supreme Court over it is good enough? Why not simply point out the many things that Bush has done and compare them to our own Declaration of Independence?
The reason, of course, is simple. None of those analogies would invoke absolute evil, or shut off debate and award McWhorter’s side the easy rhetorical victory.
But there is something else wrong with McWhorter’s article. A key part of her Bush/Hitler comparison is this:
The official name of that 1933 National Socialist masterstroke was the “Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich,” and the distress warranting
its transfer of dictatorial power to Hitler was the state crisis provoked by the Reichstag fire the month before. And so it was under the open-ended emergency
created by 9/11 that Bush’s Military Commissions Act, passed in September, gave
the president authority to designate anyone he so deemed, citizen or no, an ‘unlawful enemy combatant’ and, habeas corpus having been nullified, send noncitizens away indefinitely.*
That asterisk you see at the end leads to this:
Correction, Nov. 29, 2006: This piece originally claimed, incorrectly, that the Military Commissions Act strips U.S. citizens as well as noncitizens of habeas corpus rights. In fact, the provisions of the act relating to habeas corpus only apply to noncitizens. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
While I have serious misgivings about various national security measures pushed by the Bush administration, in particular with regard to detainees, I also think that the Nazi comparison is outlandish at best. (Actually, the U.S. during World War II is a better analogy in some ways.) It also seems to me that the correction is not a trivial one, since McWhorter’s parallel here rests largely on the assumption that the Act strips Americans in general of habeus corpus rights.
As Emily Litella used to say: Never mind.