Respectful Insolence

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgVacation time! While Orac is gone recharging his circuits and contemplating the linguistic tricks of limericks and jokes or the glory of black holes, he’s rerunning some old stuff from his original Blogspot blog. This particular post first appeared on June 23, 2005 and is the fourth ever Hitler Zombie post. Although the Undead Fuhrer himself has not yet made an appearance, the concept is there, and this forms the basis for what the monster became. Enjoy!

It would be no fun at all to write this blog if everyone always agreed with me. (Of course, it would be even less fun if everyone violently disagreed with me and, as some of the antivaxers did, angrily and gleefully wished that I should have an autistic child, but that’s another issue.) In any case, every so often I’ll post something that produces a reaction that surprises me. So it was as I was looking over some of the comments on yesterday’s post about Dick Durbin’s recent use of the Nazi analogy. Given my history of going after such analogies, I thought it might be a nice diversion from vaccines to comment on it. Silly me. I had expected a more mixed response, but that’s not what I got. Instead, the response was overwhelmingly negative. Consequently, I thought this would be a good time to do an “aggregate” response to the commentary. At the risk of angering a few loyal readers, I’ll share two thoughts that came to mind:

  1. A few people didn’t read what I actually wrote or read it through the prism of their biases.
  2. In my haste to get the article posted, I didn’t make my point as cogently as I’m normally capable of doing, leading to an impression I hadn’t planned on making.

In reality, I think it was a combination of #1 and #2. You can decide for yourself which of the two predominates. Personally, I like to think it was more #1, but then, hard as it is to believe sometimes, actual humility overtakes me and I have to admit that it could well be #2. On the other hand, it could also be that I’ve become enamored of the concept of a Hitler zombie eating people’s brains a little too much, so much so that I like to bring out the shambling corpse with the Swastika and the Charlie Chaplin mustache a little more often than he’s needed. Who knows? (Come on, admit it, though. Don’t you think that the Hitler zombie is a really cool writing device to use to take down idiots who make such silly Nazi/Hitler analogies, like Rick Santorum and Charlie Rangel?)

I was puzzled by the reaction because what was being said was not that far off from what I said in my post. I agree 100% that the main problem is the way that Durbin’s remarks have been reported and spun throughout the right wing blogosphere and talk radio. Indeed, I characterized the response as “way out of proportion to the actual offense” and described the right wing as “really out for blood.” I even provided a link to an article by a conservative who was critical of the right wing nutcases who were out for Durbin’s blood and a direct link to the text of Durbin’s remarks, so that people could judge for themselves. As for the comment that Durbin never actually compared anyone to Hitler, I respond that that’s a distinction without a meaningful difference. Whenever you invoke the Nazi regime, you invoke Hitler. Hitler, the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, they’re all part of the same vile package. There’s no easy way around it, because Hitler was the absolute dictator of the regime and no major policy the Nazi regime undertook happened without his order or at least tacit approval. Indeed, the equivalence of references to Hitler and the Nazis in practical terms, as far as rhetoric goes, is implicitly understood, which is why Godwin’s Law is about Hitler and the Nazis, not just Hitler.

However, the intentionally overblown reaction of pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Mark Levin, and opportunistic right wingers like Newt Gingrich does not excuse Durbin. Durbin’s a big boy, and the reaction should not have come as a surprise to him. As a seasoned politician who’s been in a few nasty campaigns himself, Durbin should have been able to predict what the right wing echo chamber’s reaction to his comparison of our excesses at Guantanamo to those of totalitarian regimes like the Nazis or Pol Pot would be. In fact, part of what angers me about Durbin’s use of the Nazi analogy is that he was making such good points up until then. His comparison of our policies to the mistake of interning Japanese-Americans during World War II was particularly effective, as was his emphasis that we do not have to sacrifice our American ideals to win the war on terror. He didn’t need to drop the H-bomb (much less add the Stalin-bomb and Pol Pot bombs) to be effective in making his point. He really didn’t. But drop it he did, and by dropping it he foolishly gave the right wing an easy opening to drown out the substance of his criticisms of how the U.S. has been conducting the war on terror in general (and how it has been running Guantanamo Bay in particular) with hyperbolic distortions, false claims of treachery, and comparing Guantanamo Bay to a death camp. Now he’s been forced to apologize, and the neocons will count it as a “victory.”

But the above complaints are matters of Durbin screwing up political tactics, a critique that I could have made even if I didn’t find his use of the Nazi analogy offensive and foolish. One commenter asked me what it was that I found offensive about Durbin’s use of the Nazi analogy. That’s a fair question, and perhaps my mistake is that I didn’t expand upon it in the original post. Basically, it’s a matter of degree. Yes, the Nazi regime (and the Stalin and the Pol Pot regimes) did things similar to what the FBI agent’s report said we did to prisoners, such as leaving them chained for 24 hours or more in the fetal position, or in excessively hot or cold conditions, and mentally abusing them. (They probably would indeed have subjected prisoners to loud rap music, had such music existed then.) But they also did so much more to their prisoners. The Nazis, for example, intentionally exterminated millions, systematically building up a machinery of death camps with gas chambers in the service of eliminating the Jews and those whom they considered their racial enemies. In their camps, they intentionally starved and worked their prisoners to death. They performed brutal medical experiments on them, all in the name of “racial hygeine” or “race science.” It is because their crimes were so great that they have become synonymous with more than just authoritarian regimes and thuggish interrogation techniques; they have become synonymous with evil. The Soviet regime ran a string of gulags in which millions died. Pol Pot’s regime used similar tactics, starving and working Cambodians until they died of malnutrition or malaria, as well as carrying out brutal purges:

Purge after purge of high and low Khmer Rouge followed. They increasingly filled the cells of the major security facility in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, with communist officials and cadre. Pol Pot’s gang had these people tortured until they fingered collaborators among higher-ups, who were then executed. Confessions were the aim of most torture, and the gang would even arrest, with all the lethal consequences, interrogators who were so crude as to kill their victims before getting a confession.

On the suffering of the tortured, one such interrogator reported. “I questioned this bitch who came back from France; my activity was that I set fire to her ass until it became a burned-out mess, then beat her to the point that she was so turned around I couldn’t get any answer out of her; the enemy then croaked, ending her answers…”

The sheer pile of confessions forced from tortured lips must have further stimulated paranoia at the top. The recorded number of prisoners admitted to Tuol Sleng was about 20,000, suggesting how many were tortured and made such confessions. Only fourteen of them survived this imprisonment–fourteen. And this was only one such torture/execution chamber, albeit the main one in the country.

I’m sorry, but even the worst abuses at Guantanamo Bay are similar to those of Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin only in the same way that a firecracker is similar to a thermonuclear device. Both are explosive devices, but they are so many orders of magnitude different in force that comparisons between the two should be undertaken with a great deal of care. Comparing Guantanamo Bay to such brutality not only grossly exaggerates how serious the abuses at Guantanamo Bay are beyond reason but also, as was suggested as one reason for my disgust, “waters down our collective memory about these horrors.” It’s also so inflammatory that it instantly incinerates whatever other points a speaker is trying to make, no matter how thoughtful or reasonable. As Marc at Spinning Clio has put it, “once the Führer enters the room, the debate has probably ‘Jumped-the-Shark.'” It certainly did in this case, as no one paid attention to the rest of what Durbin said, particulary this, which I agree with:

The issue debated in the press today misses the point. The issue is not about closing Guantanamo Bay. It is not a question of the address of these prisoners. It is a question of how we treat these prisoners. To close down Guantanamo and ship these prisoners off to undisclosed locations in other countries, beyond the reach of publicity, beyond the reach of any surveillance, is to give up on the most basic and fundamental commitment to justice and fairness, a commitment we made when we signed the Geneva Convention and said the United States accepts it as the law of the land, a commitment which we have made over and over again when it comes to the issue of torture. To criticize the rest of the world for using torture and to turn a blind eye to what we are doing in this war is wrong, and it is not American.

Too bad no one was listening anymore after he dropped the H-bomb. His opponents were sharpening their knives and firing up the attack machine, and those who might have been predisposed to agree with him heard only sound bites. If you’re going to make comparisons to Nazis, the bare minimum criteria should be that the crimes are at least somewhere on the same order of magnitude, unless you’re going to do a lot of careful qualification, something political speeches are quite unsuited for.

Is argumentum ad Nazium always a fallacy? No, but in most cases as used by most pundits, it is. But because it is so toxic, to avoid being a fallacy, it should be done with extreme care and only rarely, as I’ve explained before. David Neiwert has accomplished this in his two famous series (and here) but, unfortunately Dick Durbin did not. He came close but couldn’t quite manage it, and it would have been better for him and his message if he had not even tried. It just goes to show that no matter how fast on your feet (rhetorically speaking) you think you are or how thoughtful you think you are, you use the Hitler zombie at your own great peril. Just when you think you’ve successfully sent him against your opponent, you’ll turn around and find yourself staring into a rotting maw with a funny little mustache getting ready to take a bite out of your skull.