a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Contra Godwin

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 30th, 2006

Writing in Slate, Diane McWhorter discusses the causes and effects of our curious and frankly dangerous reluctance to even consider the worst historical parallel there could be to our own state of affairs:

The taboo is itself a precept of the propaganda state. Usually its enforcers profess a politically correct motive: the exceptionalism of genocidal Jewish victimhood. Thus, poor Sen. Richard Durbin, the Democrat from Illinois, found himself apologizing to the Anti-Defamation League after Republicans jumped all over him for invoking Nazi Germany to describe the conditions at Guantanamo. And so by allowing the issue to be defined by the unique suffering of the Jews, we ignore the Holocaust’s more universal hallmark: the banal ordinariness of the citizens who perpetrated it. The relevance of Third Reich Germany to today’s America is not that Bush equals Hitler or that the United States government is a death machine. It’s that it provides a rather spectacular example of the insidious process by which decent people come to regard the unthinkable as not only thinkable but doable, justifiable. Of the way freethinkers and speakers become compliant and self-censoring. Of the mechanism by which moral or humanistic categories are converted into bureaucratic ones. And finally, of the willingness with which we hand control over to the state and convince ourselves that we are the masters of our destiny.

The analogies between then and now don’t need to be exact to have been and continue to be deeply troubling — see McWhorter for a detailed listing if you need it. As the Israeli historian Avi Schlaim once put it, the question is not whether we’re the same as Nazis; it’s whether we’re different enough.

If you tape over half your rear view mirror, you’re going to be missing a lot of traffic behind you, closing fast.

Via Jim Henley.

EDIT, 12/4: italics shifted from “whether” to “same.” The precise quote: “The issue isn’t whether or not we are the same as the Nazis, the issue is that we aren’t different enough.”
UPDATE, 12/12: Welcome, Sideshow visitors! Comments are always welcome.

2 Responses to “Contra Godwin”

  1. eRobin Says:

    Watching Durbin go through that period was one of the most painful failings of blogtopia that I’ve witnessed.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    That was a good post you wrote. I stuck up for Durbin early on, but then joined the disappointed crowd when he back-pedaled. The “enough” link in this post — “Look pretty similar to me” — was my reaction to the whole thing; it’s one of the posts I’m still fairly satisfied with.
    I think (or hope) that re-examining “Godwin’s Law” is part of preparing the ground for future debates like the one Durbin started in the summer of ’05. (Henley’s posts often touch on this in that economical way of his.) Maybe we’ll all do better next time.

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