Godwin’s Law, Hitler comparisons, and Stop!
October 25, 2010 1 Comment
My friend Mike Godwin — yet another University of Texas Daily Texan editor who acquitted himself very well in that position and thereafter — formulated two decades ago what has become widely known as Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” In other words, virtually any internet discussion, given enough time, ends in pernicious comparisons to Hitler and Nazis.
It is elegant precisely because it does not pre-judge, simply predict. Though Mike himself may legitimately lament that overwrought comparisons to Hitler trivialize the Holocaust, his Law says only that such comparisons invariably happen.
One might imagine that the predictive force of Godwin’s Law would decline precisely as it became better known — that is, as more and more people came to understand the profound silliness of Hitler comparisons, such comparisons would become rarer. Who wishes to invite the most obvious ridicule imaginable?
Alas, Godwin’s Law remains robust.
Godwin’s Law applies specifically to the internet, where anonymity routinely brings out the repugnant in people. I’m guessing that an email or public speech or face-to-face salon version of Godwin’s Law would have little predictive force.
And in a way, that’s what makes the persistence of a form of Godwin’s Law he would never have articulated so puzzling. Why has the left become so profligate with Hitler and Nazi comparisons — in public?
I hasten to add, Hitler and Nazi comparisons frankly make less sense on the right. Hitler’s Nazi party was the most abominable scourge the right has ever produced. A little humility on the right is appropriate. Not to minimize Stalin’s or Mao’s contemporaneous genocidal slaughters from the left — just to say I’d be a bit less tolerant of spurious Hitler and Nazi comparisons coming from the right.
Not to start with Hollywood, but, well… it’s easy. Richard Dreyfuss plays Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone’s “W,” and tells Joy Behar that playing “the villainy” of Dick Cheney simply involved getting in touch with his inner Hitler. (Which, as he’s “always said to kids,” we all have, along with Jesus.) Among the multiple layers of irony here is Richard Dreyfuss getting in touch with his inner Hitler while his director, Oliver Stone, told the Sunday Times back in July that the Americans and the British supported Hitler, that Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jews, and that the Holocaust is overplayed because of “Jewish domination of the media.”
Then Rob Reiner huffs to great applause on Bill Maher’s show that his “fear is that the Tea Party gets a charismatic leader, because all they’re selling is fear and anger and that’s all Hitler sold. ‘I’m angry and I’m frightened and you should hate that guy over there.'”
The Tea Party has come in for a rather unseemly amount of Nazi comparison. When they were fairly new, and making town hall meetings by complacent Democrats a bit uncomfortable, liberal commentator Bill Press complained about tea party protesters because, “taking a page right out of a Nazi playbook,” they were bussed in. “Rule by the mob,” he declared.
No! Not bussed in! Like Oprah Winfrey offering to send people to Jon Stewart’s upcoming rally in Washington DC? Bill Press thinks Oprah is a Nazi??! Who knew?
No, Bill Press doesn’t think Oprah Winfrey is a Nazi, and no, he doesn’t think tea party members are Nazis. He just used a much-too-convenient trope.
And much too convenient it has indeed been. The thousands of ugly comparisons of Bush to Hitler dwarf the comparisons of Obama to Hitler. All of these people, on both sides, should be ashamed. There is not a single whispered syllable of dialogue — only smallness and hate, only the shamefully public denunciation of dialogue itself — from stupid comparisons of any American public figure with Hitler and Nazis.
Republicans should be especially careful. Hitler was the ultimate right-winger. No left-wing politician in America bears the remotest political resemblance to Hitler. Do not be stupid. Democrats play this game at their peril because no one buys it. It may appear easy, but no Republican politician in America bears the slightest resemblance to Hitler. The charge is equally baseless and stupid.
And speaking of stupid, Americans get it. If they’re swayed at all by Nazi comparisons, it’s in the opposite direction.