11 February 2014

Nazism as Metaphor

Godwin's Law of digital-age discourse predicts that Hitler is increasingly likely to be invoked the longer a debate on practically any controversial subject continues. The law is usually interpreted as defining the point where a debate has deteriorated into hysteria, with the person invoking Hitler being deemed the loser by default. While Godwin's Law appears to identify a kind of intellectual bankruptcy, the invocation of Hitler or Nazism in debates offends many people simply as a supposed trivialization of the Holocaust. Such people were offended recently by a letter to the Wall Street Journal in which businessman Tom Perkins warned that "a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent" could result in an American Kristallnacht, i.e. an equivalent to Germany's 1938 anti-semitic pogrom for which class-baiting "progressives" would be to blame. Self-styled progressives responded as if Perkins had declared himself a Nazi. For many critics Perkins was just another right-wing jerk. For others (try this for an example) he had violated the historic singularity of Nazi evil. In the example cited, Jeffrey Weiss argues that Nazi anti-semitism was a unique, incomparable and uncategorizable evil because it was dedicated, uniquely in history, to the systematic extermination of an entire people. His ruling is that "Cavalier Nazi comparisons disrespect the actual victims of the Nazis by suggesting that any perceived wrong is like the Holocaust."

I have no sympathy or respect for Tom Perkins's views, but this little controversy suggests that some of us have gone too far, however informally, toward restricting the rhetorical or metaphorical use of Nazism in political argument. Just to keep things literal, Perkins warned not of a "progressive Holocaust" but a "progressive Kristallnacht." While any analogy with Nazi Germany may lead readers to infer that Perkins had predicted a campaign of systematic extermination against the 1%, he explicitly warns only of pogrom-like violence, bad enough as that may be.

In the larger context, we have to argue for the existence of larger contexts for the discussion of Nazism. We should reject the notion that neither Nazism nor the Holocaust can be categorized in ways that relate or compare them with other beliefs or crimes. It simply doesn't follow that as an ideology Nazism is incomparable with anything else -- and it can be argued that Hitler only committed to exterminating the Jewish people late in the game, that until the war he at least toyed with ideas of pushing them deep into Russia or exiling them to Africa. In any event, his ultimate plans for the Jews do not disqualify Nazism from consideration or definition as a subset of another category to which one can imagine the Occupy movement belonging. While Hitler lived and ruled, Nazism was widely recognized -- and I believe Perkins still recognizes it -- as a form of demagoguery. Nazism is a kind of demagoguery that, like others, seeks to win power by stoking fear and hatred of a supposedly-powerful and malevolent minority -- in this case, the Jews. From Perkins's perspective, the Occupy movement has done the same thing, only appealing to class hatred of the "1%" instead of race or religion. It should not be beyond the pale to compare any demagogic movement driven by scapegoating with Nazism, for Nazism, whatever else it did, was just such a movement.

Of course, it would make more sense for a businessman writing in the Wall Street Journal to compare Occupy demagoguery to Bolshevism, or maybe even to Jacobinism. Perkins's choice of a Nazi metaphor may only show how little rhetorical force invocations of Communist evils retain today, while a reference to Jacobinism might simply fly over most people's heads. But I suppose his was an appropriately stupid response to a stupid movement. As I've argued before, Occupy's scapegoating of the 1% largely misses their real target by focusing too narrowly. There may well be more sympathy for liberal and progressive policies within the actual 1% than there is within the 10% or the 20%. If there's a class struggle in the U.S., it doesn't pit the richest against everyone else, unless you assume simplistically that they're where you're going to get the money from. The problem isn't necessarily with wealth itself but with a mentality more likely associated with those still climbing socially, those growing wealthier but not yet the wealthiest, who feel entitled to keep all they earn, obligated to no one, and resentful of any perceived restraint on their further enrichment. So I suppose that if I took Occupy more seriously I'd be more offended on their behalf over Perkins's letter. Instead, Godwin would seem to be right if he meant to say that by the time someone invokes Hitler the debate has already gotten stupid enough.


Anonymous said...

"... Tom Perkins warned that "a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent" could result in an American Kristallnacht, i.e. an equivalent to Germany's 1938 anti-semitic pogrom for which class-baiting "progressives" would be to blame."Well, actually, if such an even occurs, it will be the fault of the successful one percent for being unethical and amoral enough to exploit the rest of us to gain that wealth in the first place.

Samuel Wilson said...

Depends on what you mean by "fault." Since the exploitation you describe has been a constant, the immediate cause of the theoretical violence would be -- many would say -- the "hateful" rabble-rousing of Occupy types. Not that I've heard Occupy people call for violence against the rich, or anyone else, very much, but this is all theoretical so far. And I still say that once we deal with Republicans, the 1% will most likely go along to get along.

Anonymous said...

If you oppress someone should you accept blame when they rise up against you? The "one percent" got their wealth by exploiting the rest of us.

According to a study as reported by a recent newscast on Young Turks, the average income for the top 20% in this nation has continued to rise since 1968. Then next 20% have pretty much remained the same. The income for the bottom 60% has continued to DROP. Whose fault is that? It certainly isn't the fault of the bottom 60%.

The quality of life for the average working class/middle class person/family in this nation continues to plummet so that the top 1% (who already have a very plush and lavish quality of life) can get even posher. Who's fault is that?

I suppose you could argue it is the fault of the working class for not standing up for ourselves and taking the profit WE create. But, for the most part, we attempt to play by the rules; to behave in an ethical and moral manner. Eventually that will have to end, or we will have to settle for corporate serfdom. I, for one, will not do so without a fight.

Anonymous said...

"...And I still say that once we deal with Republicans, the 1% will most likely go along to get along."

1) I'd say the 1% pretty much runs the Republican party. So in order to "deal" with Repugnicans, you'll have to deal with the 1% to begin with.

2) The 1% will, in all likelihood, never "go along to get along". Very rarely in history do those who control give up that control peacefully.

Samuel Wilson said...

"I'd say the 1% pretty much runs the Republican party." But I remain skeptical. Sure, there are people among the 1% who have great influence (e.g. the Kochs) but much of the intolerant nativist and Christian-right attitude in the GOP strikes me as more bourgeois than elitist. I'm not defending the super-rich or the ways they got rich, but I don't think the 1% as a class are the main obstacle to progressive politics. In any even, the 1% is self-evidently part of the 20% -- I just wish that groups like Occupy would be more honest (or brave?) in acknowledging that the problem is more than 1%. But somehow "We are the Eighty Percent" isn't as cool a slogan.