‘Reductio ad Hitlerum’

‘Reductio ad Hitlerum’

Keeping track of inappropriate Holocaust analogies has become a full-time job. Whether the target is health-care overhaul or the Tea Party movement, the Left and the Right are playing the Nazi card as never before. You only wish there was this much consensus on the evils of Nazism when it counted — say, in 1939.

So what do we learn from the latest flurry of icky comparisons and false alarms? Below is a list of no-nos:

Don’t sniff out Holocaust comparisons where they don’t exist.

There is no love lost between Gov. Chris Christie and the New Jersey Education Association. Christie wants to cap annual raises for teachers; the teachers’ union accuses Christie of an “attack on the very future of public education.”

But the NJEA wildly overstepped when a spokesman blasted Christie for using the term “final solution.” Here’s Christie’s quote, from a speech supporting school vouchers: “Because the Educational Opportunity Scholarship Act is not the final solution to [failing public schools], it is the first step in the solution to that problem….”

A NJEA rep said Christie used “very charged words” that invoke the Holocaust. Reasonable outsiders said, “You’re kidding, right?” In the context of Christie’s talk, “final solution” no more invokes the Holocaust than “first step” recalls the moon landing. Instead of shaming Christie, the NJEA looked cynical and captious.

Don’t make Holocaust comparisons that can then be used against you.

The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot created a stir this week when it reported on Judge Richard Goldstone’s career as a jurist in apartheid South Africa. During that time he sentenced 28 blacks to hang for criminal offenses. Yediot charges that Goldstone — the author of the skewed UN report accusing Israel of war crimes in the Gaza war — “sided through and through with the racist policies of the Apartheid regime.”

The Holocaust came into play thanks to Danny Ayalon, Israel’s talented but sometimes loose-tongued deputy foreign minister. After hearing Goldstone’s statements suggesting that he aimed to end apartheid by working within the system, Ayalon responded, “I don’t want to exaggerate, but these are the same explanations we heard in Nazi Germany after World War II. That is not an explanation that justifies his actions.”

Unfortunately, as JTA’s Ron Kampeas quickly pointed out, it’s unwise for an Israeli official to invoke the Nazis in talking about apartheid South Africa and those who cooperated with it. During the darkest days of apartheid, Israel traded arms and other goods with South Africa, justifying its own actions by saying it didn’t have the luxury of choosing its friends. True enough, but, as odious as Goldstone’s behavior might have been, the last thing Israel needs is a reminder of that uncomfortable era — especially when its enemies are so quick to pounce on Israel’s flaws, real or imagined.

Don’t invoke the Holocaust unless you are prepared to talk about genocide.

Activists and comedians had a field day with Arizona’s draconian immigration law. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane cracked, “Nobody but the Nazis ever asked anybody for their papers.” U.S. Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) said the law “is reminiscent of a time during World War II when the Gestapo in Germany stopped people on the street and asked for their papers without probable cause.”

Reminiscent, maybe. But anyone using a Holocaust analogy must be willing to extend their argument to its logical limit. Are MacFarlane or Mack saying that Arizona is on the slippery slope to genocide? I doubt it. At the moment when “Gestapo” becomes shorthand for “things I don’t like,” it’s time to ratchet back the rhetoric.

I understand the cautionary impulse behind Holocaust comparisons. People use them to suggest that some policies short of genocide — including censorship, mystical nationalism, and institutionalized xenophobia — bear the stench of Nazism. All too often, however, Nazi comparisons fall into the logical trap that the philosopher Leo Strauss called reductio ad Hitlerum. As Strauss explained, “A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler.” Eugenics and vegetarianism are not twin evils, even though Hitler is said to have embraced both.

Nazi comparisons also derail any argument, whether it’s over immigration or health care or Duke University basketball (see Glee, episode 16). Instead of seriously debating the issue, we argue over its resemblance to Nazism.

Don’t make any comparison that you wouldn’t make in the presence of a Holocaust survivor.

Last year a writer for Huffington Post compared the Amazon Kindle to a crematorium. According to the essay’s tortuous and torturous logic, just as the Nazis labeled Jews “outmoded, useless,” so too do the makers of Kindle regard books as an “inferior form that society would be better off without.” I think his point, to paraphrase Heine, is that when societies begin downloading books, they will end in burning human beings. Or something.

What would a Holocaust survivor make of this trivialization of human tragedy? The Shoa didn’t teach us to fight e-books. It taught us to fight genocide.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t fight for free speech, civil rights, an unbiased United Nations, and the printed word — only when you do, please keep the Holocaust out of it.

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