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Bush, Hitler & Godwin’s Law

Posted by Rick · December 21st, 2004 · 1 Comment

The Slant Point, which lives up to its motto of being biased media (supposedly from the heart of NYC), had a story the other day about Cuba’s retaliation against a U.S. Christmas display.

That article convinced me it’s time to discuss publicly something I’ve been discussing with others privately via email.

The issue has to do with the appropriateness or inappropriateness of comparisons between the Bush Regime and the Nazi Party. More specifically, so far, the discussion has involved preliminary discussions of Godwin’s Law.

Godwin’s Law, also known as Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies, isn’t a real law of any kind. At best, it’s a law of the same sort as Murphy’s Law. In a sense, they’re even related: Anything that can go wrong in a political discussion — including the tossing about of comparisons between one’s opponents and Hitler, Nazis, or the Holocaust — will.

Godwin’s Law developed during the days of USENET and states, basically,

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one. — Wikipedia, “Godwin’s Law” (Last visited December 21, 2004).

In theory, once Godwin’s Law is implicated in a discussion, this is evidence that the discussion has reached its end-point. No further rational discourse can occur because drawing analogies between X and the Nazis, or Hitler, or anything to do with them is ipso facto irrational.

Or, at least, that’s one view of how Godwin’s Law works. Actually, though, this interpretation of Godwin’s Law is contrary to the reasons (policy, if you will) that caused Mike Godwin to explicate his eponymous law in the first place. As Wikipedia notes,

Godwin’s standard answer to this objection [to the use of appropriate comparisons] is to note that Godwin’s Law does not dispute whether, in a particular instance, a reference or comparison to Hitler or the Nazis might be apt. It is precisely because such a reference or comparison may sometimes be appropriate, Godwin has argued, that hyperbolic overuse of the Hitler/Nazi comparison should be avoided. Avoiding such hyperbole, he argues, is a way of ensuring that when valid comparisons to Hitler or Nazis are made, such comparisons have the appropriate semantic impact. — Wikipedia, “Godwin’s Law” (Last visited December 21, 2004).


During the early 1990s, I was one of three original moderators for SCJH. This was a moderated “newsgroup” or forum for the discussion of things related to the Holocaust. The group was formed when several people became tired of the fact that discussions of the Holocaust could not be conducted in soc.culture.jewish without the group being inundated with revisionist rants. As I recall — and if somehow Daniel Aldrich or Bob Michael show up, they can correct me — I wrote the original charter, with which Daniel and Bob concurred. The procedure to create the group called for multiple postings of the charter (spaced out over a 30-day period, as I recall). Daniel posted the first copy and I posted the second. In April 1994, the group was officially created in the USENET hierarchy after a vote of 430/42. The original charter, along with the First Call For Votes and tally of “Yes” votes can be found here.

As a Jew, I don’t take comparisons to the Hitler and the Nazis lightly.

At the same time, I have, myself, been digging deeper into a study of 1930s Germany lately because there seem to be evolving parallels between the milieu surrounding the seizure of power in Germany by the Nazi Party and that surrounding the seizure of power in the United States by the Republican Party. (Or, to go further, the seizure of the Republican Party by the so-called Religious Right.)

Nevertheless, I have not held that equating the two is justified. There are definitely scary patterns emerging — even a rise in antisemitic comment from certain sectors. (Read all the hubbub over the failure of The Passion to receive any Oscar nominations. According to William Donahue, President of the Catholic League, this is supposedly because Jews “run Hollywood” and “hate” the movie.) Then, of course, there’s this whole “suppress/squash/silence” the Left thing….

Still, at the moment, I think the only thing we can definitely say that the U.S. government has in common with Nazis is that we’re moving towards having our own fascistic or dictatorial government with revived militaristic-imperialist tendencies.

And we have to ask, as one of my correspondents did,

How much is this just an elaboration of the seamier side of human nature? When someone with more powerlust than sense becomes head of state, when all the pieces break just right (wrong), are these not just the actions of the corrupt? Is this something unique to Hitler’s time and ours, or do Roman emperors, corporate presidents and schoolyard bullies do the same thing? Email from Abi Sutherland, Sunpig.com, to Rick Horowitz, Chief Writer & Editor, Unspun™ (13 Dec 2004 10:18:25 -0800) (on file with author; posted with permission).

What’s happening right now in the United States doesn’t necessarily make Bush any more like Hitler than it makes him like Pol Pot or Stalin or Mao Zedong. And it doesn’t make the developing U.S. “security apparatus” or increasingly-internally-aimed intelligence community any more like the Brown Shirts than like the Khmer Rouge, KGB or the PRC’s Central Military Commission.

Again, my correspondent states,

Frankly, with the control of information and the alternate worldview promoted by the mass-market television, I find the US more reminiscent of North Korea than anywhere else (outside of fiction, but the 1984 parallels are being drawn pretty widely already). Particularly with the amount of personal faith in Bush that many Republican voters show – it reminds me of the leader-worship that Pyonyang encourages. It’s like the US slipped into an alternate universe on September 11, and hasn’t found its way back to reality. Email from Abi Sutherland, Sunpig.com, to Rick Horowitz, Chief Writer & Editor, Unspun™ (13 Dec 2004 10:18:25 -0800) (on file with author; posted with permission).

And after giving it a lot of thought and doing some preliminary reading of other people’s views of the matter, I have to agree. Even though Unspun™ has lately blasted the heck out of the so-called Religious Right, I think we have to concur with the sentiment expressed by the Jewish World Review:

[W]hat we should be doing is debating these issues fairly. We should not allow disparaging stereotypes about evangelicals to characterize our interaction with them. — Jonathan Tobin, “A pro-Israel group teaches us a lesson about Evangelicals and ourselves” (November 30, 2004) Jewish World Review.

Occasionally, even the right-wing JWR gets something right.

While the Bush Administration’s moves are scary and require us to stay alert (and lawfully resist, where possible), it is — to say the least — a bit premature to start drawing comparisons between Bush and Hitler, or the Nazis and the Religious Right. To the extent that we — including me — have been tempted to do this, that is a mistake.

That does not, however, mean that we back off from voicing our appropriate concerns in an appropriate manner. Even the Jewish World Review‘s Tobin realizes this,

Nobody is saying that Jews who disagree with evangelicals on a host of domestic issues should stop advocating for what they believe to be right.

Nor should we lower our guard on the separation of religion and state. Even those of us who are less extreme on separation issues (such as supporters of much-needed school-choice initiatives) cannot share the blithe dismissal of separation that is often heard on the right. — Jonathan Tobin, “A pro-Israel group teaches us a lesson about Evangelicals and ourselves” (November 30, 2004) Jewish World Review.

There are significant points of tension and serious concerns that must not be ignored. And while Godwin’s Law does not preclude an appropriate drawing of analogies between Hitler (or the Nazis, or any related issues) and other individuals or groups, we should exercise great care not only because of the possibility of the inappropriateness of hastily-drawn and poorly-considered comparisons, but because, as Mike Godwin knew, doing otherwise can be a conversation killer.

And a conversation is very much what Americans need right now.

Special thanks to Jeff Budwig for first bringing the Jewish World Review to my attention and to Bob Marcotte for sending me the Tobin article.

Categories: The Bush Regime


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 GroundPounder // Dec 21, 2004 at 12:50 pm

    One of the things that I find so humorous is the similarity between the left and the right in their comparisons between each other and Germany in the pre-Nazi years. Bill and Hil and the Demorcrat controlled Congress were removing citizen rights as fast as they could. Government was becoming more and more intrusive. Cradle-to-grave socialism. Disarming the population. These things were all used to point out the differences between the us and them. Now it is the right wing that is accused of perpetuating the same crimes on the population of this great country. Both sides are very quick to point out that this was the way that Hitler and his goon squad were able to gain control of Germany.

    Godwin is correct. Any time that the comparison is made, discussion stops. That is the intention of the party making the comparison. Stop all discussion. After all, no one wants to be compared to a Nazi.

    There are far more dissimilarities between this country and it’s leadership, and Germany’s, than there are similarities. Making comparisons between the two is meant to incite and separate, not cause deep thought and discussion. This is only my opinion, and as such is worth only the paper on which it is written.

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