Monday, 5 January, 2004
Weapons of Mass Rhetoric
(This post has basically nothing to do with Hitler or the Nazis, and focuses almost exclusively on the use of comparisons of present events and circumstances to those two things. As such, I am suspending the poorly understood and even more poorly applied Godwin's Law for the duration of this post, and furthermore request that if you can't see the difference between the thing use of the thing as a rhetorical technique, you go somewhere else.)

The Bush in 30 Seconds finalists are up, and some of them are ridiculously brilliant ("Desktop" is probably my favorite). The whole concept is brilliant, actually, and it's the sort of thing that you could only ever pull off in 2004 thanks to the confluence of digital video and actual functional editing software. No doubt there will be those who argue (perhaps with some degree of validity) that MoveOn is nothing but a bunch of partisan hacks; no doubt there will be those who argue (with a lot less conviction) that MoveOn is responsible for the content of the ads, rather than a random collection of filmmakers from all over the place.

You can't do anything on the net without attracting some degree of controversy, and so the big "debate" right now is over whether someone crossed a line in comparing Leader X to Hitler. The tactic is stupid -- it's the rhetorical equivalent of going nuclear -- but the counter-reaction is almost as bad, if not worse, because it is guaranteed to be hyperbolic, and I can't get worked up over Republicans complaining that Democrats are playing dirty pool. There's something about that claim that makes me want to laugh every time I hear it.

One problem, though: What if the comparison isn't unwarranted? I mean, it's clearly appropriate to compare Robert Mugabe to Hitler; the bastard even does that for us. But speaking generally, have we become so inured to the use of that particular rhetorical device, so accustomed to immediately dismissing the claim(s) out of hand, that we don't look at what's actually happening? You don't have to look too hard to find someone who is happy to draw an analogy between World War II and the current times -- Bush as Churchill, Osama as Hitler, Saddam as Mussolini, or the two reversed, or whatever (I can't keep them straight in my head anymore) -- but try to find someone who is thinking about how Hitler got into a position to threaten the world and attempt an extermination, and.. well, you have to look a lot harder. I only know of one, and he's been writing about the rise of the "new fascism" (and being mocked for doing so) for a while now. I don't know whether this is willful or accidental blindness -- I suspect it just doesn't get as much play, which is odd, because while the dead horrify me, what frightens me is the passivity of an entire country in the face of that kind of terrible truth. Obviously it must have become evident, at some point, that horrible things were happening and that a distastrous course had been set, but where was it, and why didn't people recognize it for what it was?

You could argue, with varying degrees of conviction, that Germany lacked a historical precedent -- there was simply no reason to expect that something like that might happen. Fair enough. But that's not true now, and obviously it's stupid to ignore something like that as a warning. You could argue the media played different roles then and now, and that might be true, but I get worried when I discover acres of print on non-existent biological and chemical weapons on the other side of the planet and virtually nothing on sodium cyanide in Texas. This was a recurrent theme of J. Michael Straczynski's and shouldn't be unfamiliar to anyone who watched Babylon 5 -- if you're not super-careful, you too can end up in an Orwellian nightmare. Mmore succinctly: "Eternal vigilance is the price of cliches," or something like that. I worry that our vigilance has a bit of a blind spot, thanks to people who like to employ the rhetorical weapon of mass destruction.

There is a comment in this thread that I think is particularly relevant:

"We need a more sophisicated, nuanced reading of Nazi Germany. Not every analogy to it is meant to refer to the end game. Most are not. All of what I wrote above applies to both Hitler and Bush, and yet I truly do not expect to see genocide in America in my lifetime. So I don't expect to see a repeat of Nazi Germany here, and yet I do see some early parallels, and I believe in looking ahead and calling out warnings before it is too late. No one wants to go very far down THAT road, and yet if the early warnings are shot down with ``Godwin's Law! Godwin's Law!'' there won't be any early warnings."

That strikes me as more than fair.

Epilogue: Who would have thought that things could or would get so much worse? I didn't. Jesus, where's my heroin?