Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Learning from the Other N-Word

Mark Leibovich of the Washington Post recounts the perils of using the other N-word in political comparisons — as Sen. Dick Durbin seemed to do after reading an FBI report on interrogation practices at Guantanamo. Equating anything to Hitler and the Nazis is verboten.

Discourse gets more heated and rhetorically inflated as people become frustrated with the other side's refusal to listen. It becomes tempting to use inflammatory language in the attempt to command attention. Unfortunately, certain images just give ammunition to the other side. Using the N-word enables them to change the subject, from the real substance of the matter to how shocking and reprehensible the metaphor was.

Durbin's comment was actually quite indirect, rhetorically speaking, placing the comparison in the mind of the beholder: "If I read this to you and did not tell you it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime — Pol Pot or others — that had no concern for human beings."

Actually, wouldn't we hope Americans would think what Durbin suggests, rather than imagining, "that's got to be the work of New York cops, the US Marines, or the local Scoutmasters"?

No matter. Nazism has been elevated to such a mytho-horrific level, that it must never be invoked for anything less than the death of 7 million innocent people. The Soviet Gulags set the bar of prison abuse too high to merit legitimate comparison. Pol Pot's Killing Fields? It can't happen here. We don't actually execute our intellectuals.

Yet atrocities don't simply spring forth fully armored. Hitler didn't start out with death camps. He started by passing a law to serve his ends, as Sen. Robert Byrd explained in the speech that also earned him knee-jerk opprobrium.

Reserving the Hitler comparison for certified mass murderers may be better than bankrupting it through over-use. But doing so reduces Nazism to the Holocaust, and that is a terrible simplification of evil and social dysfunction. Anyone can recognize a tyrant once he's in power and the bodies are piling up. It's much more important for societies to distinguish the seemingly benign varieties of 1934 Hitlerism in their midst, when there is still time.

We learn nothing about how to avoid repeating the past once we have turned an enemy into a monster caricature.


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