Never mind!

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.)

Oops.

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.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Never mind!

  1. vbspurs

    Why exactly does McWhorter need her Nazi analogies, anyway?

    Because since the Eichmann trial, the West has been stuck on Holocaust (I don’t mean to be unduly flippant, but there it is).

    Before you start to wonder what I mean, I obviously mean that our Western canon of experiences of the brutal cannot possibly be equalled by anything greater than the genocide of the Holocaust.

    No amount of explaining the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, or the million Armenians viciously exterminated at the hands of their fellow “countrymen”, or the forced starvation of the Kulaks (a topic, no doubt close to your heart, Cathy), which resulted in 20 million deaths, comes close to the impact of the Holocaust.

    And rightly so.

    I suppose at heart, when people invoke the Holocaust/Nazism, they do so because of many reasons.

    …the recentness of the event (even the least historically-minded American knows what the Holocaust is — but the Killing Fields, less so).

    …the amount of victims it produced, some of whom we have personally met (personalisation and remembrance).

    Added to that, is the fact that the story of the latter half of the 20th century, is by force the story of the triumph of the United States.

    That sticks in some people’s craws, since for once, they cannot blame the US for having been responsible for the Holocaust, at least not directly.

    What better an analogy, but to try by hook or crook, make President Bush to be a proto-Hitler who in Borat-like fashion, just needs to be prodded in the right way, to get him to admit his REAL feelings on the topic of hatred and racism?

    It’s because people like Ms. McWhorter have a secret fear.

    That at any moment, the lack of educated Americans, they of sheep-like passivity and immersed in consumerism, will allow a Hitler to overtake the cultured, the responsible, the thoughtful Americans.

    That she puts herself firmly into the latter group, need obviously go unremarked.

    The inference is not lost on me, and certainly not on others.

    Despite our individual qualities, we’re all budding Eichmanns, supporting our Führer blindly.

    If not exactly ovens in Guantanamo, then certainly cages.

    Same diff, apparently.

    P.S.: Welcome back, Cathy.

    Cheers,
    Victoria

  2. colagirl

    Excellent post, Cathy. I especially liked your comment about how it is the Nazi analogy, in particular, that people reach for because it invokes absolute evil and completely shuts down debate (at least, in McWhorter’s mind.) Godwin’s Law was codified for a reason….

  3. Rainsborough

    There’s another frequently, too frequently, invoked analogy with Hitler’s Germany. It’s often said that Iran or Iraq or North Korea represents a threat today comparable to Nazi Germany in the late 30s (and, the suggestion goes, just as then we should have intervened aggressively early on, so now….).

    Why is this analogy utter foolishness? Because in the thirties Hitler’s Germany was on its way to becoming a formidable world power, one capable of overrunning France in weeks, isolating Britain, and nearly taking Moscow. Whereas today, even China, the world’s second military power, possesses but a fraction of the military capabilties of the United States. The world then was multipolar and Germany’s capabilities far exceeded those of the United States and threatened to become far greater yet. The world today is unipolar and likely to remain so for a decade or two or three to come.

    I’d agree that analogies to Nazi Germany are seldom or rarely apposite. But the fact that this administration has adopted a policy of torture creates unprecedented moral dilemmas. The Law School of the University of Minnesota is presently deciding whether to hire a lawyer who helped to draft the memos that found torture legal. Does this disqualify him? Before 2002 such questions were considerably less likely to arise than they are today We’re not anywhere near as mired in evil as was every German from 1933 to 1945, but the Bush administration has succeeded in spawning new orders of dirty-hands dilemmas.

  4. Richard of 9 11 01 Hawkeyi

    It seems to me that two wonderful events happened in the last few days and I’m happy to see both waiting opportunities for us westerners fed up with war to embrace. The Pope is actively healing wounds with most of our Muslim brothers and sisters on the planet and The President of Iran Ahmadinejad has given the opportunity for Americans to back out gracefully from this mess in Iraq. A war that should never have happened in the first place. President Bush and his administration has lied to the world and has turned our planet into a hot oven of danger to mankind. No I’m not excusing radical Muslims for there crimes and while we are on the subject, name one country on the planet who’s not guilty of committing evil against another. We all have our radicals from every corner of the planet bent on hate, but the bulk of the planet are lovers of peace and we are the majority. The point I’m making here is our leaders on the planet are screwing things up so bad that they are leading us to a road of certain annihilation and it’s time we start handing out a few pink slips for this incompetence, starting with the number one danger to freedom, George W. Bush. I’m sure George has his good side if we look real hard, I don’t believe any man is completely capable of pure evil but George needs to right his wrongs, apologize to his countrymen and begin to turn his attitude around for the better of Americans. He needs to fire his administration, hand in his resignation and pass the power over to the house leader Nancy Pelosa. Maybe having a woman in power will usher our sorry sad planet back onto the road of recovery for all living creatures. I see America as a leader for peace, but the people need to remove this loony tune who is only committed at fattening the pockets of the privileged rich and powerful few. Its time to take America back from the corporate dominators who have no use for America’s constitution, human rights, and our freedoms. Only profits of power and greed are their motivators and the only interest they have in you is consumerism and choking debt. The first thing we all need to do for the road back to peace is to face our fears, such as the manufactured fears of corporate media. IE FOX News, Remember that the majority rules and the majority in our planet want peace and justice for all mankind. Lets Rock this Joint!

  5. Rainsborough

    I think indeed the Pope did a terrific PR job in Turkey, and repaired some of the fray in his relations with Islam. But still, Turks are a lot more anti-American–for good reason (Iraq, US mistreatment of Turkish troops)–than they were before the wreckers took power.

    As for Iran and the wild man who runs the place, I see nothing hopeful there at all (except a younger generation very numerous and pretty pissed). His influence in Iraq has gone from zero to fifty, and heading a country declared a part of the axis of evil, he finds it easy to push the peddle of the nuclear program to the floor. He’ll do nothing to help us out of Iraq unless we pay a prohibitive price.

    When our man Bush screws up, he doesn’t do it small scale or in any way at all easy to repair.

  6. Comrade O'Brien

    Attention Comrades,
    Please visit http://ministryoflove.wordpress.com to learn about our creative protest of the Military Commissions Act.
    Regards,
    O’Brien

  7. Rob

    I agree that the N-word is, in almost all cases, inappropriate. Those cases in which it is appropriate would be discussions of Nazi Germany, or neo-Nazis. Period. The same goes for the S-word (Stalinist), the T-word (traitor), the A-word (appeaser), the D-words (defeatist, or dhimmi), the R-word (rabid). One could go on. The point is to avoid words which are merely provocations, and which only serve to demonstrate intellectual laziness and/or one’s prejudices.

    On the other hand, terms like Wingnut and Moonbat have almost become endearments, and I for one proudly wear the Moonbat label 😉

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