The forbidden analogy.

According to Godwin’s law and its corollaries, Hitler and Nazi analogies are almost always a bad idea. They are more likely to derail a conversation than add to it.

If you’re trying to convince someone of something, comparing them to Hitler and the Nazis is probably the wrong way to get them to listen to you. It also leaves room for one objection. If someone is so like the Nazis that the comparison is apt, they might not amendable to argument anyway. (Actually, I’m not so sure. I see some moral distance between the German who didn’t approve of but who acquiesced to Nazi rule and high-ranking leaders of the party. This might be offensive, but most citizens of the United States acquiesce to some pretty brutal policies who if asked would claim not to approve. Not saying that’s the same thing….which is one of the problems with Nazi analogies in the first place.)

The analogy is distracting. If someone is to be opposed because he is “a lot like Hitler,” then it shouldn’t be too hard to point out the ways he is objectionable without saying “and this is what the Nazis did, too.” If someone really wishes to single out an ethno-religious groups for “special treatment,” or if he endorses politically motivated violence, or if he threatens to revive something like the Palmer raids, then it shouldn’t be too hard to argue that that person is proposing something wrong. If it is hard, then your problem is different from mere analogizing.

Finally–and I’m not sure I’ve heard this objection raised before–the analogy can normalize Nazism. For the purposes of naming things as they are, of course, Nazis should be called Nazis. Neo-Nazis should also be called Nazis. The “alt right”….maybe call them Nazis, I guess, depending on who we’re talking about and what they advocate.

I’m not sure how far down the ladder it’s okay to go, though. If someone is in principle persuadable to your view, or if they supported the “unsupportable” for non-Nazi’ish reasons, then it’s possible overusing the word “Nazi” in describing that person might make less illegitimate a term that heretofore has been an automatic insult.

In a sense, overuse of the word grants Nazis “official opposition” status. If that’s how things are, then that’s how they are. But we shouldn’t overdetermine the result.

Please don’t misunderstand me. If someone comes to think the term “Nazi” is now “less illegitimate” than it was before, the fault lies primarily with that person. People sometimes choose evil, and if we make it easy for them to do so, we share some of the blame. But the principal responsibility lies with the chooser.

The analogy revived.

In two fairly recent posts Over There, I’ve seen something like that analogy used for our present situation.Before I discuss them, I’d like to point out that I am citing only the parts that speak to the issue of Nazi analogies. Each post makes more complex arguments and should not be judged solely by what I excerpt here. So read the whole thing(s).

The first post is Saul De Graw’s reflections on how bad the new presidential administration might be:

We also like to think that our laws and Constitution will protect us from the worse from happening but laws and Constitution are only as strong as the people themselves. A friend of mine posted another story on Facebook. The author of the post’s grandmother was a Jewish elementary school student in Hitler’s Germany. She needed surgery in 1932 and 1933. In 1932, all of the girl’s classmates and teachers came to visit her in the hospital. In 1933, no one did.

This story might seem hyperbolic (and it does raise Godwin’s Law) but it demonstrates that the norms of bigotry can change rapidly and seemingly overnight. Maybe the girl’s classmates and teachers did not become more anti-Semitic, but they knew it would be a serious social cost and possibly a physical cost to visit their Jewish classmate in the hospital. Most people are go along and get along types. You don’t need a nation of willing executioners. You just need enough people willing to commit acts of violence with the consent of government, and most of the rest of the people will just put their heads down to save themselves and their families.

The second is Mike Schilling’s takedown of the argument that liberals’ alleged smugness played a role in the president-elect’s victory. (In my opinion, the Nazi analogy lurks in the background, although Mike himself makes no explicit reference to it and the person he’s referring to is a post-World War II “scholar.”):

In case you’re not familiar with the work of Kevin Macdonald, let me summarize. In analyzing the recurrence of anti-Semitism through history, he found the usual explanations wanting, and hit upon one that, while not new, had been oddly absent from almost all recent academic discussions: they deserve it. Jews really are awful, he observed: clannish, avaricious, and amoral, with disdain for societal norms and non-Jews in general that makes them a cancer on any society foolish enough to admit them. Anti-semitism is an entirely natural response, in effect the immune system working to fight an infection.

Much of the reaction to the recent election has included a similar insight, which, much like Dr. Macdonald’s, is moving beyond the area that once hosted it. [The president-elect’s] popularity among voters is explained by the fact that liberals are smug. Of course voters dislikes liberals: who wouldn’t? They’re whiny losers, overeducated but lacking any sense, haters of patriotism, religion, and everything genuinely American, nanny-staters, Godless socialists, baby-killers, special snowflakes who need safe spaces. And worst of all, smug. No wonder their political fortunes are slipping; no one can stand them. (Even worse for fans of Dr. Macdonald, liberals are often… Well, you know.)

What surprised me wasn’t so much that the analogy was used (or in Mike’s case, implied). That’s to be expected on a liberal-leaning blog in which almost all authors and contributors opposed the president-elect and believed his campaign represented an unacceptably racist, xenophobic, or authoritarian turn in US politics.

What surprised me slightly more was that no one, as far as I can tell, actually complained about Godwin’s law. The closest was one comment to Mike’s post, which complained that “[i]t seems like the point of this article was to stack the concepts of liberalism, smugness, and anti-Semitism on top of each other in so many combinations that it will seem like anyone who accuses liberals of smugness is anti-Semitic.”

A lot of things could explain the unwillingness to call out Godwin’s law.  It is a liberal-leaning blog, after all. And for each OP, the main point wasn’t the Nazi analogy but some other thing. In Saul’s case, he forthrightly admits the dangers of “Godwin’s law” and in Mike’s case, as I’ve said, the analogy was only implicit. And maybe those posts just happen to show up on the right day/time so that no one chose to discuss the analogy’s aptness.

Directing the analogy inward.

I’m not inclined to call Godwin’s law, either. Whatever differences I might have with Saul’s post, I have no standing whatsoever to tell him that he doesn’t really fear what he says he fears. I’d go even further and say his”…and most of the rest of the people will just put their heads down to save themselves and their families” is too charitable.It’s far from clear that the question was always saving oneself and one’s family. It might have been more like “saving oneself the inconvenience and opportunity cost” of raising even a token opposition.

For Mike’s post, a more charitable reading of his analogy is that he’s identifying a prior instance of fallacious reasoning and noting how in his opinion current commentary succumbs to similar reasoning. I’m not sure I agree completely–and I see more disanalogy than analogy–but I can’t say he’s wholly wrong, either.

In fact, looking to myself, the chance that the analogy might have some teeth haunts me in our present situation. My insistence on “understanding the voters, my own “gut” preference for the president-elect, and my perhaps too cheerful optimism that (to use what seems to be our newest cliche) “our institutions can survive the stress test”–these all suggest to me something similar to the German citizen who silently disagreed with the Nazis’ racial policies or who complacently believed Hitler might not be so bad or that his ministers and the institutions of civil society could control him.

The dangerous thing is that I could probably get away with complacency. I’m not a member of the demographics most likely to be targeted, although some of my loved ones are. And Saul said, who’s targeted and who’s not targeted can change, sometimes very quickly.

I really want to agree with Scott Alexander. He has written that as bad as the president-elect is likely to be, he’s not the white nationalist wolf some people are crying. And on paper, Mr. Alexander is right. As far as I can tell, the last president who indulged in overt racism and white nationalism was Woodrow Wilson, and the next president ain’t no Wilson. That’s probably both a good thing and a bad thing. But I also fear the new guy is as much of a wolf as he can be.

More to the point, I do realize that the way things happen in the US are different from how they happen in Europe. Not “exceptional,” just different. Our persecutions and oppressions tend to be more decentralized, though no more benign for that. And I must keep things in historical perspective. Maybe a few months from now I’ll find the new president is just a regular politician with a populist streak, of the sort we’ve had before and have survived.


Even flirting with the Hitler analogy by implication compares those of my family, friends, or readers who voted for the president-elect to Germans who voted for national socialism in the 1930s. I ask only that they realize I’m directing this analogy to myself and my own complacency. I disagree strongly with their decision, but I refuse to direct the analogy to them. As an analogy, it works best for removing the beams in the eye of those who use it. Motes in others’ eyes require a more precise instrument.

Category: Statehouse

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17 Responses to Reviving the forbidden analogy

  1. Jaybird says:

    Have you read Who Goes Nazi? lately?

    It reads differently in 2016 than it did in 2010, and it read differently in 2010 than it did in 2004.

    Let’s hope it reads differently again in 2022.

    • You know, I think I might have read it. Had you linked to it Over There a while back? I might want to read it again.

      • Jaybird says:

        Yeah, it’s like buying a copy of Catcher in the Rye.

        I get all anxious and then post it and then I feel better for a month or so.

      • Now that I’ve re-read it, I have a couple of observations.

        1. As I just wrote to Tod below, I’m probably most like Mr. G in Thompson’s taxonomy.

        2. I read Thompson to be making an implicit assumption that the “types” of people who “go Nazi” are either natural types or types so determined by circumstances that they can’t change. To the degree she is making that assumption, I disagree. I’ve known some people who meet Thompson’s criteria for “non-Nazi” types but nevertheless I can see how they might (sometimes do) support authoritarian and arbitrary government or specific regimes with those traits and do so not only out of a sense of “realist” acquiescence.

        3. That said, I realize she’s writing in a specific historical moment, where the types–and the choices the types must make–were starker and less theoretical than they seem to me now.

        • Jaybird says:

          It helps to be married to a Mrs. A, I’ve found.

        • SFG says:

          She seems to think most of it’s bitterness, and that real Americans don’t go Nazi. I think there were polemical purposes for this at the time of writing in 1941–the Nazis had some support in the Germanic-origins Midwest, though not an awful lot. (Note how the German guy is not a Nazi.)

          Also remember that there was some serious suppression of German-American culture during WW1, with German-speaking schools closed down and German-Americans attacked. So the article might be a little slanted against, somewhat ironically, possible anti-*German* prejudice in WW2.

          I obviously have no problem with convincing Americans that Nazis are bad or that German-Americans aren’t intrinisically evil, but there’s a local context that limits the reach of this article somewhat.

        • Gabriel Conroy says:

          That makes sense to me.

  2. Road Scholar says:

    “Nazi” is overblown. But you can make a good case for “fascist.”

    • Jaybird says:

      The second you’ve made a good case for “fascist”, you’ve made a good case for “antifascists”.

    • I think fascist is similar, but more complicated and nuanceful (if that’s even a word). While I think if we’ve demonstrated that something is “fascist” we have demonstrated that it’s bad (and therefore like Nazism in that way), fascism is also descriptive. It’s not neutral as a descriptor, but we (or at least I) can see historical patterns and see how they corresponded to or had traits that resembled something that could be called fascism. I think the New Deal, for example, had some traits that were consistent with fascism even though I wouldn’t call the New Deal “fascist.”

      • RTod says:

        I am not a fan of invoking fascist, nazi, communist, or socialist in mainstream politics. (Fringe groups such as the American Communist Party or a neo-Nazi splinter group are a different kettle of fish, obviously.) None of those tags is ever pulled out due to their accuracy or because they act as the best (or even good) descriptors. Each is used as a way to invoke such an emotion response on both sides as to shut down further thought and discussion.

        Each, as they are commonly used today, are specious, unserious, and lazy.

        • I do want to qualify out my agreement with you, though.

          First, I don’t think it’s necessarily specious to compare the New Deal with some contemporaneous fascist movements. I do believe that while there are some similarities, though, they’re much more different than similar. And I do think the New Deal was on balance good for the US.

          Second, I think it’s a different game if one applies the analogy to oneself. In my OP, I wasn’t saying I was a fascist. But I was saying that if I’m not careful, I might become a silent supporter or apologist, kind of like “Mr. G” in the article Jaybird cites above.

        • RTod says:

          I think it’s specious from the other direction. That is to say, the definition of socialism/communism/fascism/nazism is made so overly broad in order to make the insult stick that it invariably encompasses all government and all parties’ platforms.

  3. kirk says:

    I have to wonder how real, modern-day Nazis feel when they’re compared to, well, everyone.

    • SFG says:

      You could read the Daily Stormer. You’ll need a strong stomach.

      By and large they think everyone they’re getting compared to is a bunch of wimps or a Jewish catspaw–Bannon is ‘alt-lite’, for example.

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