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(The following is a response to a letter in the December 31, 2011 Denver Post regarding the error of making comparisons to Nazism:

1) The aspect of Nazism most reviled, and the reason why it is held in boundless contempt, is the Holocaust, which was an exercise of ultra-nationalist violence against a perceived “foreigner within” (accompanied by a similar ulta-nationalist violence against perceived inferior peoples without, in the name of “Lebensraum”). It is the expression of, and political implementation of, an extreme in-group/out-group bias that is the defining characteristic of the horror that was Nazism. (This in-group/out-group bias was not just directed against Jews, but also Gypsies, Slavs, Serbs, Homosexuals, the poor, trade unionists, and Communists and Leftists, explicitly and repeatedly, which should settle the non-issue of where on the ideological spectrum Nazism fell.)

2) The aspect of Nazism that falls on a spectrum with a mixed historical record is that of “corporatism,” not in the modern sense of power concentrated in large private corporations, but in the sense of the nation as corporation. Japan had enormous post-WWII aggregate economic success with this model, and the social democracies of Northwestern Europe have had enormous human welfare success with a more moderate version of it. Conversely, the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and other failed Totalitarian experiments point to the ways in which it can be a horrible and tragic failure. The challenge is not to paint with overly-broad brush strokes when discussing these lessons of history, but rather to look at details and nuances, and to use our disciplines for studying and understanding the systems involved to inform our analyses and comparisons.

3) When making comparisons with Nazism (generally, really, with the Holocaust), it is certainly important to emphasize the scope and relevance of the comparison being made. Nothing in America, at least since the genocide of the indigenous population, compares in degree, and any comparison should emphasize that fact. But if there are legitimate specific similarities to be pointed out, making the comparisons not with a broad brushstroke but rather with a finely focused analysis, and making it not merely to wield a crude rhetorical weapon, but rather to suggest that there are legitimate areas of concern that should be setting off the alarms that the lessons of history offer, then comparison is not only appropriate, but really quite essential.

4) Mike Godwin himself, the author of “Godwin’s Law,” which predicts that the longer a political debate continues, the more certain it is that a comparison to Nazism will be made, emphasized that his point was not that no such comparisons are ever legitimate or useful, but rather that their overuse blunts their effectiveness when truly appropriate by desensitizing people to the possibility of valid comparisons.

5) Nazism is not unique in the history of the world, but is rather our archetypal example of something that happens in varying degrees and forms repeatedly (and not infrequently) around the world and throughout history. To pretend that this powerful lesson of history about one constant threat-from-within to any society, and to humanity, must be deemed forever irrelevant and off-limits, would be a victory for ignorance and a blow against the growth of human consciousness in service to human liberty and welfare.

6) There are indeed some very potent political ideological trends in America today that bear comparison to Nazism, not in degree (not even close), but in kind. Nazism did not emerge onto the world stage as an agent of genocide, but rather as a more modest expression of xenophobic and bigoted reactions to events which undermined national pride and economic security (the loss in WWI and subsequent economic collapse in pre-WWII Germany paralleled by 9/11 and the Great Recession in America today), and gradually, imperceptibly to many, grew into the horror that we now know it to have been.

We must not blind ourselves to its lessons by refusing to heed them unless and until millions are brutally killed; we must instead be mindful of the real lesson of Nazism: That humanity must come before nationalism, that “foreigners” both within and without must not be reviled for being “foreigners,” and that our best hope for the future is to become less chauvinistic, less bigoted, less xeno-homo-islamo-hispano-phobic, more inclusive and accommodating, more committed to reason and universal goodwill, more aware that the welfare of America and Americans is inextricably linked to the welfare of all people and of the planet itself, and, in short, more sane, more conscious, more compassionate, and more rational.

7) I’ve written some essays drawing these comparisons: Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding and “Sharianity”, to name a couple. It’s up to those among my neighbors and fellow countrymen (and countrywomen) lost to these bigotries and hatreds whether they want to continue down that horrible road, or whether they want to choose to be, instead, the kind of people that never have cause to be reviled around the world and in historical hindsight for any lack of enlightenment or humanity.

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  • sblecher:

    Interesting: just this morning I made a comment on that exact letter, saying that people should agree to refrain from using the term “Nazi” unless they are referring directly to the Nazi regime in Germany. Unfortunately people have too little respect for the English language, and their vocabulary is too limited to let them express their ideas in a more precise manner. They immediately resort the strongest language they know, and it soon loses its shock value. I don’t think this situation will improve, because written communication is mostly in the form of texting. What a pity: English is such an interesting language.

  • For some reason, the comment that led to this post, and my response to your comment as well, did not show up. It’s hard for me to believe that the censor would have intentionally made that choice, on some basis that defies reason (but who knows)? (They’ve both shown up now, at least one version of each.)

    Here’s my second try at responding to your comment, which may or may not appear on the DP comment board as well:

    I agree that the Nazi reference is grossly overused, that doing so deteriorates discourse, that it is almost always invoked as a cheap (and offensive) rhetorical ploy, BUT…, I think that we cannot create a norm of absolute prohibition of any comparisons to Nazism, precisely because the whole point of learning from history is recalling it and invoking it WHEN APPROPRIATE. Nazism and the Holocaust did not emerge full-blown on the historical stage, but were rather the culmination of a progression, the early stages of which would have been seen by many adherents as completely acceptable points of view. Public discourse can benefit from showing how notions that many today consider perfectly acceptable resemble too closely those same preludes to the more horrific events later associated with Nazism. To fail to do so would be to surrender the narrative to those who may be in the process of cultivating an ideology that, while far from identical to Nazism, may bear enough similarities raise legitimate concerns, and to wake up some who could otherwise continue stumbling down that path.

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