A lot of people consider that nearly any time a person brings up any sort of Hitler comparison, it invalidates the argument.
Just as an example, we had a series of comments on this blog the other day that occurred in the “basket of deplorables” thread. There was a discussion of the nature of the far fringes of the alt-right (the racist, white supremacist, neo-Nazi segment) and its intentions. Commenter Matt_SE wrote:
“Is there anyone in the “alt-right” with anywhere near the prominence and stature of Al Sharpton?”
Hitler was nobody before he wasn’t.
As a relatively new movement (wiki dates the term “alt-right” to 2008), it hasn’t had time to develop infamous leaders yet. I’m not sure if Trump is deep enough in the movement to count as one of its leaders.
Then FOAF (who had made the original remark about the alt-right and Sharpton) replied with this reaction to Matt_SE’s comment:
“Hitler was nobody before he wasn’t.”
*Yawn* I was expecting that.
This appears to be sarcasm; note the “yawn.” Hitler comparisons are so cliched and overdone, right?
I’ve noticed this type of thing many times online in many venues. But if people can’t make comparison to the Nazis, or to some aspect of the Nazis (in this case, how well and how early their rise foretold their final goals), then we may as well throw history away and learn nothing from it. There’s a famous saying of George Santayana’s that those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. That’s often true (alas), as far as it goes. But I would expand the saying to add that those who can remember the past and who refuse to engage substantively with arguments that offer analogies of the past to the present may be inadvertantly condemning themselves and others to repeat it.
Note that I’m not saying Matt_SE is correct in his analogy, nor am I saying he’s incorrect. I’m not even getting into the substantive argument in this post, except to say that I think he made a possibly valid and definitely interesting point that would benefit from debate.
And FOAF, please don’t think I’m picking on you, although it may seem that way. But that yawn stands for the way many many arguments I’ve seen online and in person often go, and it’s an approach that has become accepted and common and threatens to scotch discussion of an important part of human history: how can we recognize evil when it occurs, separate out the important from the unimportant, and know how and when to respond to it? This is the opposite of a trivial question; it’s a vital one. It’s not really about Hitler, and to have the discussion it is not required that a person or a group be exactly like Hitler or even mostly like Hitler, the comparison is usually about some aspect of Hitler or the Nazis. In this case, it’s about our ability to recognize dangerousness.
I wrote a post some years ago that gets into that issue:
Our wish for the mark of Cain, or cloven hooves, or some other clear sign of evil originates in the fact that it is only by their works that we know them, and by then it can be too late…
But one of the most fundamental errors people make when judging evil is to think we understand it, when we don’t. The fact that Hitler was most definitely a human being leads us to think that if we knew enough facts about him, we could explain the etiology of his evil.
But Hitler’s evil seems to have been much more than the sum of his parts—the illegitimacy, the lousy childhood, the failed art career, the anger at Germany’s WWI defeat. Try as one might—and many have tried—Hitler’s evil can be described and detailed but never understood nor, ultimately, explained…
The other fundamental error people make when judging evil is thinking it is less evil than it actually is, and more amenable to persuasion, argument, or kindness. Because those who do evil are human, we think they are subject to the same fears and doubts, loves and anxieties, concerns and scruples, as the rest of us. Perhaps when they were children they were, although in the cases of sociopaths and psychopaths the notion is that they were born lacking something we tend to call a conscience. At any rate, by the time we know about them, something quite unusual seems to be going on in their psyches.
I think of the example of Stalin who said, on hearing that his son had tried to commit suicide but had only managed to shoot himself in the stomach and live, “He can’t even shoot straight.”
People such as Stalin or Hitler or Ahmadinejad or Saddam Hussein are about power. That is the coin of their realm, and power is their mother tongue, even though they can learn to speak secondary languages in order to give the appearance of reasonableness. Do not forget that it is a facade, and do not believe that you know them…
Shakespeare, who may have understood human nature as well as anyone on earth and could speak about it better than anyone on earth, had something to say about all of this, of course. And so I’ll close with his words:
One can smile and smile and be a villain.
[NOTE: Binging up Godwin’s law is another way in which people try to stop or to ridicule discussions that bring up Hitler or the Nazis. But Godwin’s law is widely misunderstood. It actually states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1.” The Wiki article on Godwin’s law goes on to add:
…[T]here is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress. This principle is itself frequently referred to as Godwin’s law.
Godwin’s law itself can be abused as a distraction, diversion or even as censorship, fallaciously miscasting an opponent’s argument as hyperbole when the comparisons made by the argument are actually appropriate.
That’s pretty much in line with what I’m saying in this post.]