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Commentary | JONATHAN CHAIT

The Irresistible 'Nazi' Taboo

What's the value in having the greatest bad example of all time if you can never use it?

May 27, 2005|JONATHAN CHAIT

Last week Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania violated a major taboo. He was trying to argue that the Democrats had no grounds to complain that the Republicans were breaking Senate rules in their effort to ban judicial filibusters. His argument was that the Democrats themselves had broken the rules by filibustering judges in the first place.

Here's how Santorum put it: "The audacity of some members to stand up and say, 'How dare you break this rule.' It's the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying, 'I'm in Paris. How dare you invade me. How dare you bomb my city? It's mine.' This is no more the rule of the Senate than it was the rule of the Senate before not to filibuster."

The result was predictable. The media flayed Santorum for "comparing Democrats to Hitler," and cited his comment as an example of fraying civility in the Senate. Santorum quickly apologized. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, scolded, "Once again, Nazi imagery was used in a political debate, where it has no place."

But why should Nazi analogies be verboten? If we thought about it sensibly, we'd realize that Nazi analogies have their place. If anything, our public discourse could use more Nazi analogies.

The main complaint against Hitler analogies in American political discourse is that they're inherently hysterical, comparing run-of-the-mill conservatives or liberals with the most evil force in human history. And of course, it's crazy to compare one's political opponents to Nazis, unless they happen to be genocidal totalitarians, a category that's fortunately very small in American politics.

But when Nazis are invoked, it's often not to make a moral comparison but to establish a logical principle. That's the main mistake made by those who decry Nazi allusions. They ignore, or fail to grasp, the distinction between comparing someone to Hitler and using a historical analogy that draws on the Nazi era.

The latter is what Santorum did. He was trying to make the point that Democrats had broken the rules (by filibustering judges) and then were complaining when Republicans merely tried to restore them.

To be sure, Santorum's point (like most of Santorum's points) was wrong. Democrats did not break the rules by filibustering a judicial nominee. The practice is well established, and Republican senators such as Majority Leader Bill Frist have participated in such filibusters themselves. Nonetheless, Santorum was clearly not trying to argue that filibustering judges is as bad as invading France.

Nazi analogies are irresistible, for two reasons. First, the history of World War II is widely known. Sure, it would have been just as logically sound for Santorum to invoke Ottoman Sultan Murad I's invasion of Bulgaria, but it would have left a lot of his listeners scratching their heads.

And second, everybody can agree the Nazis were evil. Analogies don't work unless everybody agrees on their meaning. Suppose somebody compared the Democrats' position on the filibuster to, say, the U.S.-Mexican War of 1848. You wouldn't know if they meant the war as an act of American aggression, wise territorial acquisition, or what. Nazi analogies neatly avoid this muddying moral ambiguity.

Obviously, there's no such thing as being too anti-Nazi. But there is such a thing as being too paranoid about the way people discuss Nazism. Case in point: In the late 1990s, the ADL objected to the use of the term "Nazi" to describe control freaks. Foxman insisted such usage "lend[s] a helping hand to those whose aim is to prove that the Nazis were really not such terrible people. If someone can be a 'soup Nazi' or a 'traffic Nazi,' how bad could the real Nazis have been?"

Well, pretty bad, I'd say. I don't think many people have been lulled into thinking that we landed tens of thousands of troops on Normandy in order to liberate Europe from obsessive-compulsives.

In fact, maybe there should be a term for control freaks who insist on dictating other people's use of this term: Nazi Nazis.

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