We seem to have a love affair with comparisons to Nazis and Hitler these days, at least when it comes to finding analogies for those with whom we disagree. Some cause or policy we oppose? Compare it to Nazism. Some people whose actions disturb us? Compare them to Hitler. An event that appalls us? It’s a Holocaust.
This practice of comparing people and things to Nazis and the Holocaust has been especially noticeable in the controversy surrounding the mosque/community center being planned for the area near the site of the former World Trade Center. Most recently, Newt Gingrich compared the project’s backers to Nazis when he declared that they should be blocked from putting up the building, just as Nazis would be barred from “putting up a sign” next to the United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial in the nation’s capitol.
The making of such comparisons, however, is not limited to famous and powerful people, who use it for effect in the news. Comparisons to Nazis are tossed off by regular folks just as easily. Witness the recent community meeting on New York’s Staten Island – a meeting also devoted to the construction of a mosque, this one on the grounds of a former Catholic church.
Some in attendance at the meeting referred to the need to resist the building of the proposed Islamic center because, “this was the community’s D-Day”. We all know who the opposition was in the epic battle and once again, comparing those with whom someone diagrees to Nazis was the popular way to go. But such comparisons are not limited to a single issue or party, and they are not a particularly recent phenomenon either.
Last fall, Florida Democrat, Congressman Alan Grayson described the American health care system as a Holocaust. Apparently the congressman failed to distinguish between what many think of as a fatally flawed system for providing medical care and one of the most efficiently run systems, carefully implemented, for the total destruction of entire groups of human beings.
Not to be outdone, Republicans answered back some weeks later with a video in which Adolph Hitler was shown declaring, through creative dubbing, the pleasure he takes in Nancy Pelosi being on his side. I guess the Republicans were not distressed by callous and casual comparisons to the Holocaust and Nazis, as they originally claimed, but simply by who was being compared to them.
My response? We should simply say a pox on both your houses. We are done listening to anyone who makes these ugly and inaccurate comparisons, regardless of whether or not we happen to agree with the policy positions of those who make them.
Simply decrying the use of Nazi, Hitler and Holocaust analogies will do nothing to reduce such use. Each side will go on decrying the use by the other side — whatever the debate and whatever the sides. Instead of bemoaning the situation, we should hold accountable, any and all people, famous and otherwise, who demean public discourse with such analogies. Let them know that as long as they bolster their arguments with such ugly comparisons, we will no longer give any weight to their words.
As a nation, we can almost certainly withstand reaching the wrong conclusion on any single issue, regardless of how big or divisive. What we cannot withstand is the further debasement of the public discourse which sustains our democracy.
We cannot stop all people from using ugly and inaccurate analogies to frame our most important public debates, but we can stop rewarding them for doing so. We have the power to shape this nation by bending the demand curve for outrageous speech and it’s high time we do so.