by Butler Shaffer
"When I use a word, "Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Democratic Senator Richard Durbin committed one of the cardinal sins of modern political discourse: he used the Hitler metaphor beyond the boundaries licensed by the gatekeepers of "politically correct" rhetoric. Referring to an e-mail from an FBI agent describing his visit to the Guantanamo Bay prison, Durbin declared that had he not identified what Americans had been doing to prisoners, "you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or . . . Pol Pot or others."
To politicians accustomed to playing bipartisan pat-a-cake games with their "esteemed gentlemen" colleagues, or media voices who regard the results of an opinion poll as a meaningful debate, Durbin's remarks were shocking. Newt Gingrich — who established his credentials as an abuser of metaphors when he spoke of coercively imposed GOP policies as a "contract with America" — called upon the Senate to censure Durbin for his remarks, which he said demeaned the "dignity" and "honor" of America. Mr. Gingrich apparently does not regard the lies, deceit, and forgeries that have thus far produced the deaths of over 100,000 persons in Iraq, as a stain upon American "dignity" and "honor."
Gingrich's reaction — typical of many defenders of the political order — reflects the Shakespearian sentiment that "the lady doth protest too much." It's not that this crowd resents those who take liberties with the Hitler analogy: you will recall that George Bush I compared Saddam Hussein to der Führer as a justification for his Gulf War. I suspect that members of the establishment get angry over such comparisons not because they are wrong, but because they know they are too close to the truth. The ominous parallels between current political thinking and many of Hitler's policies were developed in an earlier article of mine.
While it is quite easy for critics to overuse comparisons to Hitler, one must understand how and why this occurs. Following World War II, Nazi Germany and Hitler became the standard by which "tyranny" was to be defined. Other regimes were just as vicious and murderous as Hitler's (e.g., Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot), but their wrongs received little attention from the establishment mind-setters. If you doubt this, go to any library or bookstore and count the number of books written about (a) the Nazi Holocaust, and (b) Stalinist despotism. How many movies have been made about the evils perpetrated by Hitler, and how many about Stalin? So continuous has been the effort to single out Nazism that television's The History Channel is often referred to as The Hitler Channel, for its frequent showing of films and programs concerning this period.
My point is not to minimize the heinous nature of the Nazi regime. Quite the contrary! Hitler was a butcherous tyrant whose "jack-booted Gestapo" agents, concentration camps, "storm-troopers," and "SS" functionaries, help to define what we think of as a police-state. But Hitler was not the inventor of vicious, totalitarian rule, nor did he monopolize such practices during his lifetime. If the numbers of victims impress you, Stalin was a far deadlier thug.
But Adolf Hitler and Nazism were concepts to be segregated within the human consciousness; quarantined behind locked doors of the mind as a sui generis aberration fostered by peculiar circumstances. In an age in which the powerfully ambitious pursued their own brands of political hegemony, Nazism was not to be thought of as a symptom of a disease intrinsic to all species of statism. Hitler and his movement were to be wrapped in a cocoon — or, a more apt metaphor, buried in concrete as was done with vampire-like monsters in horror films — to keep them from ever again threatening the common folk. Holocaust museums were constructed, helping to reinforce the idea that Nazism was a brutal relic of the past, from which modern humanity learned a lesson that will never be repeated.
Whatever may have been the motivations of those who helped to create Hitler as an historic singularity, they have unwittingly marginalized the human costs of tyrannical systems. We are asked to condemn — as we should — the concentration camp deaths of millions of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals; but only scant reference is ever made of the millions of Ukrainians intentionally starved to death by Stalin. Hitler's wrong was that he systematically murdered people, not just Jewish people! Would his crimes have been more acceptable had he slaughtered without regard to race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual preference? Are we so detached from the suffering generated by political systems that we insist upon such distinctions?
Such "politically correct" definitions of wrongs to other people have been responsible for the creation of that legalistic monstrosity: the "hate crime." We are now expected to more strongly condemn violence against members of certain selected groups than others, provided one was motivated to inflict such injury. It is but another manifestation of the Orwellian proposition that while all persons are equal, some are more equal than others. This kind of twisted thinking also helps to sanitize war: as long as you don't "hate" the people you are slaughtering, their deaths can be dismissed as "collateral damage," with no moral repercussions!
Having enshrined Hitler as the epitome of modern tyranny, should we be surprised to find polemic speech employing such a standard? Would one reasonably expect a critic of George W. Bush to condemn his policies as "akin to Charles de Gaulle"? While, as I stated earlier, I find some very disturbing comparisons between the mindset of people in 1930s Germany and modern America, I do not find the comparison of George Bush to Hitler all that convincing. I find Bush's counterpart more in Benito Mussolini: the strutting mountebank, hands on hips, with the sneering smile that accompanies the arrogance of power. Bush is too transparent, more like Charlie Chaplin's comic buffoon in The Great Dictator.
What may be most troublesome to members of the political establishment in bringing the Hitler analogy to bear upon American political behavior relates to the dynamics of mass-mindedness upon which Nazism fed. I have written, frequently, of the "dark side" forces within each of us which, when mobilized, can cause us to become eager participants in the brutalization of others. While most people prefer to think of Hitler as a "madman" who, somehow or other, "seized power," the reality is much different.
Our lives are haunted by "dark side" influences within our collective unconscious that cause us more anguish than do "terrorists" from the external world. Such inner "shadow" forces represent all the shortcomings, doubts, fears, temptations, anger, and other discomforting qualities we have about ourselves; but about which we may be induced to part by projecting such traits onto others. Political systems thrive on the unresolved conflicts we have within ourselves, by convincing us that our inner turmoil is really the fault of others; others who need to be punished and/or controlled in order to make our lives more orderly. Those selected as recipients of our projections (i.e., the "scapegoats") can be comprised of any number of interchangeable persons or groups. Depending upon circumstances, the "scapegoat" can be either "Jewish" or "Palestinian," "secularist" or "evangelical," "manufacturer" or "consumer," or any seemingly endless mix useful for the moment. The statists need only concoct a plausible foe that enough people will accept as an explanation for their difficulties, and then begin the task of mobilizing opinion against the "scapegoat."
Hitler knew that "[a]ll propaganda has to be popular and has to adapt its spiritual level to the perception of the least intelligent of those towards whom it intends to direct itself." His propaganda specialist, Joseph Goebbels, noted that "[i]f you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." Goebbels then stated what has become a truism for all modern political systems: "[i]t is the absolute right of the State to supervise the formation of public opinion," urging underlings to "[t]hink of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play."
Who can read these admonitions and not find in them a reflection of how modern politics is played out upon the minds of the "least intelligent" who will "come to believe" a "big enough" lie, particularly if you "keep repeating it?" Consider how "the press" has allowed itself to become "a great keyboard on which the government can play" in its efforts "to supervise the formation of public opinion."
If the dynamics by which the state manipulates public opinion in furtherance of destructive, power-enhancing ends are comparable to similar processes employed by earlier totalitarian regimes, such analogies ought to be taken seriously. Those who make such well-reasoned comparisons are performing a genuine service to all of humanity by discovering, from the past, the consequences that are implicit in current behavior.
Since political systems depend upon the actuating of "dark side" forces, the state will not want such processes explored. It will appeal to concrete-bound minds to eschew what is merely analogous, and to insist upon precise replications. If there are no concentration camps with gas chambers, then comparisons to Hitler are wild hyperbole.
But as long as the "dark side" of humanity is being exploited for political ends, the same deadly games will continue; the political show will go on. The costumes may change — no more brown-shirts, knee-high black boots, or swagger sticks; and no martial music to accompany a goose-stepping choreography. Plastic-encased ID cards will replace swastika armbands as indicia of authority, while "ATF" jacket insignias will take the place of "SS" lapel pins.
The motion picture, The Usual Suspects, has a wonderful closing line: "the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn't exist." I don't believe in devils, other than those "dark side" specters that reside within each of us: frightful visions which we prefer to deflect onto others. The Hitlers, Stalins, Pol Pots — yes, and the George Bushes — are all products of our minds. Such men — and the tyrants who preceded them over the course of history — are both the fomenters and beneficiaries of psychic forces which, once unleashed, work their destructive powers upon humanity. Like small children, we cannot pretend these forces out of existence by closing our eyes and pulling the blankets up over our heads.
June 21, 2005
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.
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