Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Use and Abuse of the Hitler Label

A good rule of thumb for responsible public officials and educated people is to limit words like Hitler and Nazi to only Hitler and the Nazis. Unfortunately polemicists will taint opponents by likening their behavior, actions, or policies to the most evil regime in modern history. It’s bad enough when an individual makes these kinds of comparisons in private, casual conversation. A few years ago the German Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, to the embarrassment of her prime minister, stated that President Bush used the same diversionary tactics as did the Nazi dictator. The former prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, heckled a member of the European Parliament by calling him a Kapo, that is, a concentration camp guard. Politicians in Western Europe should know better.

In our own country I have heard conservative radio talk show hosts and have read left-wing bloggers employing the Hitler label for their respective partisan purposes. One thinks of some self-styled Tea Party Patriots who this past year brandished images of President Obama as Hitler; likewise, some environmentalists or anti-capitalists or cause-du-jure protestors carried signs of President Bush with the same association a few years earlier.  In fact I've seen footage of anti-Bush protests with so many swastikas that I thought I was watching Triumph of the Will in color.  Worst of all is that crackpot university professor who called the victims in the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns” who, he believed, deserved their fate for sustaining the American imperium. Too many of us are so partisan in our heart of heart that we look askance at those who “Nazify” our candidate, while we overlook, if not affirm wholeheartedly, the alleged parallels that our side ascribes to the political enemy. The moral of this story, however, is not that one should be consistent; rather, we should cease and desist.

The problem with using the Hitler label is twofold. First, in describing the personality or policies of a public figure as Nazi-like, one inevitably conflates past atrocities and current events into one indistinguishable veil of unanalyzed actions. Second, and more alarmingly, such ill-chosen and frankly hateful comparisons essentially denigrate the suffering of millions of Jews and other victims of Nazi aggression. Do we really want to equate the policies of a U.S. president or Israeli prime minister with the Nazi regime? Sadly, Arab leaders, Islamist rabble-rousers, and even Western European politicians have made such references in no uncertain terms. One can legitimately criticize and debate Israeli policy and not be an antisemite. However, when enemies liken Israelis or Jews more broadly to Nazis, and the prime minister to Hitler, they reveal their antisemitic underbelly. These comments undoubtedly have polemic value and they perhaps satisfy the irrational dictates of anger, frustration, and hate; but they appeal merely to one’s base and stir up the darker passions. Let’s play it safe and avoid such incendiary language altogether.