In correctly diagnosing the Obama Administration’s and the Democratic Party’s continued use of the misleading “77 cents” statistic, I rejected the application of Godwin’s Law as a bar to the evocation of the Big Lie’s most accomplished practitioners and champions, Hitler and Goebbels. I want to expand a bit on what I wrote explaining why.
Godwin’s Law, to begin with, began as a joke. An early Usenet moderator (and attorney) named Mike Godwin coined the “rule” in 1990 as a tongue-in-cheek method to detect when internet debates had gone on too long, stating that “if you mention Adolf Hitler or Nazis within a discussion thread, you’ve automatically ended whatever discussion you were taking part in.” The Wikipedia entry, based on the original “law” posted by Godwin, says that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches — that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism.”
In the ensuing years, Godwin’s Law has been cited, but seriously, as a genuine discourse limitation; that it is somehow taboo to raise the Nazis or Hitler as comparisons or references in any serious debate, online or off. It is even cited as an absolute, frequently by people who haven’t given a second’s thought to why there should be such a “law.” This, of course, is classic morality reasoning. You can’t mention Hitler because an authority, “Godwin,” has decreed otherwise, and you blindly follow because, well, he says it’s right, so it is. I have wondered if anyone would take Godwin’s Law seriously if his name had been Mike Snotwelder, or something similar.
One reason Godwin’s Law has expanded in scope and application is that there is some legitimate truth in it that goes beyond the web: comparing conduct to the ultimate evil is ripe for abuse, tempting to demagogues, and often a cheap and unfair tactic. Such comparisons employ the power of cognitive dissonance by linking someone or some policy to the ultimate evil, creating an emotional revulsion at the individual or conduct that often is out of proportion to what is actually being discussed. The problem here is not comparing someone or something to Hitler or the Nazis (or the Holocaust), but unfair, historically inaccurate, hysterical, mean or just stupid comparisons. Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin pointing out that Hitler’s party micro-managed health care and using that factoid to suggest that Obama and the Democrats are bent on destroying U.S. democracy isn’t wrong because of Godwin’s Law, it’s wrong because it’s a dumb argument, aimed at dumb listeners. Both Obama and Hitler brushed their teeth, too.
Nonetheless, there are instances where historical parallels with Hitler and the Nazis are useful, legitimate, responsible and fair. In those situations, it is common to see Godwin’s Law, by name or otherwise, used to shout down and condemn such comparisons by those who would prefer that a powerful and telling comparison never reach the public. We are seeing such an example now, as Russia’s designs on the Ukraine become more obvious, and the response of the West, and particularly our President, evoke memories of Hitler’s relentless hunger for Germany’s neighbors and Neville Chamberlain’s naive appeasement. Whether the situations are sufficiently parallel are legitimate reasons for debate, but the largely historically ignorant American public, especially the younger Americans who have been the President’s most loyal supporters, need to be aware of the epic mistakes of the past whether they involved Nazis or not.
Yet I see the reticence to use an appropriate historical reference involving Nazis even in the mainstream media. Ruth Marcus, a reliably liberal, Obama-enabling member of the Washington Post editorial staff, broke ranks with a searing condemnation of the Democratic “gender equality” scheme, calling it “revolting demagoguery.” It certainly is that, but using the oft-used description of demagoguery is insufficient to describe what the repeated use of the “77 cents” statistic really is.
The public, not surprisingly, shrugs off “demagoguery,” because it is virtually non-stop now, on television, on the radio, on the internet, and from both political parties. Indeed, the Big Lie is a tool of some demagogues, but it is an especially terrible and significant tool. Sensitive liberals like Marcus recoil from pointing out that a fellow progressive politician like Obama wields it, and that is, in a significant way, misleading her readers. It is important to point out what this tactic is, why it is reprehensible, and the kind of leaders who have traditionally employed it, and journalists have a duty not to blur unpleasant truths. Leaders who adopt the Big Lie are those who have no respect for their nation’s citizens, their right to self-determination, or the duty to be fair and honest. Those who favor the Big Lie are leaders who are willing to mislead and rule by disinformation, and associating the tactic with the worst of history’s despots is instructive, educational, fair and true. NOT pointing out the historical company a leader is traveling in when he or she uses the Big Lie is minimizing the betrayal inherent in the conduct, and giving it cover.
That is why the excessive and inappropriate use of Godwin’s Law to suppress comparisons with Hitler and the Nazis is dangerous. Sometimes such comparisons are necessary and valid. This is one of those times. Such a comparison does not mean nor should it suggest that those who use the Big Lie are intending or engaging in evil on a scale with the Nazis, or evil of any kind. It serves however, to make a vital point. Leaders who use such devices cannot be trusted, or have not given sufficient consideration to the implications of endorsing the methods of the worst leaders civilization has ever endured.