Thursday 26 August 2010

We always come back to Hitler

For quite some time now, we have all been able to see in various media outlets how politicians are compared to Hitler. While on the one hand this can be an amusing way of criticizing somebody for their policies, it does on the other hand distract from an honest debate about the issues. In fact, such a comparison in print or as an image or a video can serve as a scare tactic whereby the author is not convincing you of the legitimacy of his arguments; he is scaring you into believing him, into believing the veracity of his point of view.

Hitler is the embodiment of evil. Nazism probably evokes in all of us a visceral reaction to the horrors of World War II. Anyone who has any knowledge of WW II reacts negatively to any mention of this. Consequently, making the association between Hitler and anybody, between Nazism and any proposed policy or idea is a sure fire way of making a connection in the mind of the public to something horrible; so horrible, it must be stopped at any cost. At that point, rational debate stops; a search for the facts stops; the quest for the truth stops and we all hunker down in our tightly held beliefs only to periodically emerge to point an accusatory finger at our opponents and yell some obscenity.

I have seen some pretty funny stuff using this Hitler comparison but I have also seen some pretty serious stuff using this comparison. To be perfectly clear, I find the serious stuff to be quite stupid. This is not a rational debate; this is an example pure and simple of scare tactics meant to impress the target audience with what turns out to be an outlandish point of view. I say outlandish because a close examination of the idea behind the Hitler comparison invariably leads to an argument with holes like Swiss cheese.

Barack Obama

I was a little taken aback when I first saw this image. In doing a search on Google, one can uncover all sorts of similar pictures all linking Obama to the likeness of Hitler and the Nazis. This is quite remarkable imagery and certainly does a lot to evoke an idea of impending doom.

With Google searches, I can turn up George Bush as Hitler, Bill Clinton as Hitler, Hillary as Hitler, etc., etc. Ha! Others have certainly found this a good way to voice their concern and/or disagreement with a politician.

Sarah Palin: Death Panels
In the middle of 2009, debate was running hot on Barack Obama's proposed health care reform. On August 7, 2009, Sarah Palin posted on her Facebook page a note in which she described how the Obama plan would enable "death panels". Supposedly, elderly people would go before a review panel that would judge whether the person received health care or not. Palin characterised this as the panel would determine who lived and who died. All of this was linked to a Nazi euthanasia program called Action T4. Fair? Reading about the actual T4 program is horrifying and making such a comparison to Obama's health care plan is not just unjustified; it's downright insulting.

Of course, none of this was in the least bit true but that didn't stop an already misinformed and scared public from quickly making the connection between Obama and Hitler. Death Panels? Next stop: death camps! PolitiFact.Com conclusively proved that all this was just a bunch of nonsense but then went on to award Sarah Palin the dubious distinction of "Lie of the Year" for 2009.

Barney Frank: heckler
Mr. Frank has been the United States House Representative for Massachusetts's 4th congressional district since 1981. He is a member of the Democratic Party. On August 18, 2009, he participated at town hall meeting in Dartmouth, Massachusetts where the following video was shot.

This video shows Mr. Frank at a Q & A confronted by a misinformed woman who holds up a defaced picture of Obama as a likeness of Hitler and asks about the Nazi T4 program and Obama's supposed death panels. Barney then lets the woman have it belittling her about her comparisons to Hitler and Nazism of being completely unworthy of comment and an affront to American politics and civilization.

“As you stand there with a picture of the president defaced to look like Hitler and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis, my answer to you is, as I said, before, it is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated.”

Comedy: Yes, the Nazis can be funny
Consider it commentary but it is certainly amusing commentary. The film The Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich (2004) has a scene during which Hitler talks with his staff in German with subtitles. People have taken this scene and replaced the subtitles with dialogue relating to modern events with quite hilarious results. I feel sorry however if you speak German as I suspect these little video clips would not be quite so funny.

The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper
In the Fall of 2008, the Conservative party with their minority rule in parliament was in deep trouble over its budget. The opposition parties had gathered together as a coalition with the intention of defeating the Conservatives and taking over power. On December 4, 2008, Prime Minister Harper convinced the Governor General Michaƫlle Jean to prorogue parliament, that is, suspend its activities temporarily until January 2009. Of course, this was done by Harper to avoid a confidence motion which would have surely seen him defeated; it allowed his party time to regroup.

Proroguing parliament under such circumstances is so rare, it is tantamount to sidestepping democracy itself and many in Canada were outraged at such a flagrant disregard for the political process. This video, from the movie The Downfall captures quite humorously the view of many about the Prime Minister, Mr. Stephen Harper.

YouTube: Hitler Rants About George Bush

YouTube: Hitler Rants About Hitler Parodies

Godwin's Law
Yep, somebody has actually codified this idea. Back in 1989, an author by the name of Mike Godwin humorously observed: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." He noticed that sooner or later, people start making comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis.

Godwin was talking about the Internet and online discussions but this idea dates even farther back in time.

Reductio ad Hitlerum
Coined by an academic ethicist, Leo Strauss, in 1953, this expression refers to the idea whereby somebody compares a policy to a policy advocated by Hitler and therefore said policy is wrong. Obviously such argumentation is wrong but it can certainly be effective in evoking a visceral reaction to a policy with which one disagrees. It's a lousy argument but it's great politics.

Where will it end?

On July 18, 2010, the Iowa Tea Party erected a billboard about socialism showing Hitler, Stalin and Obama. Fair? Funny?

Washington Post - Sunday, July 18, 2010
The tea party makes trouble with a capital T By Dana Milbank

The National Post - Jul 16/2010
Dear Tea Party, please quit trying to help by Jonathon Narvey

So, as I once again turn my attention back to the latest headlines to see what's going on in the world, I bid you, "Sieg Heil!" (Hail victory) :-)


Wikipedia: Godwin's Law

Wikipedia: Reductio ad Hitlerum

PolitiFact.Com: Sarah Palin falsely claims Barack Obama runs a 'death panel'
August 7, 2009

PolitiFact.Com: PolitiFact's Lie of the Year: 'Death panels'
December 18, 2009

Wikipedia: Action T4
This article is about the actual Nazi "death panels".


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1 comment:

SarwateR said...

1. It is amazing how well this post holds up three years later. It is also reflective of how dangerous rhetoric of this type has become so prevalent.

2. I had never heard of Godwin's Law before but I shall not forget it now. Thanks for the education.

3. Brilliant work as always.