Everything Tastes Like Chicken, Everyone Looks Like Hitler
Only Hitler was Hitler. Adolf Hitler and his NSDP had some things in common with other organized expressions of human wickedness. However, he’s become a byword for evil because of his unique, hard-to-explain twisted achievement. He turned a civilized society into a homicidally psychotic one.
Seventy years later, the secular West, he’s actually replaced the Devil as evil personified. Indeed, devil worshippers get better press than Hitler admirers.
The Internet’s Hitler
To read the internet, though, you’d think Hitler’s flavor of evil is all around us. Just as “everything tastes like chicken,” everyone looks like Hitler. Calling someone Hitler helps fundraisers, click-seekers, and anyone else who wants to quickly engage emotions. It also tempting helps people win arguments, because it’s the one historical comparison readers will definitely recognize.
The Hitler metaphor is nearly useless in serious political criticism, for the same reasons. “Godwin’s Law” says that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” That law exists because people so often use comparisons to Hitler to set logic aside. It’s sometimes called the “Reductio ad Hitlerum” or the “Argumentum ad Hitlerum.”
Having done that, you can proceed from debate to abuse. Declaring your opponent “Hitler” makes arguing with him worse than useless. How can you argue with Hitler? Hitler must be destroyed!
Not only does the Hitler comparison short-circuit debate, it keeps us from asking one of the most important questions we should ask when applying the lessons of history. Practical comparisons ought to focus on “what result ought we to expect from a decision like this?” What did the historical leader do correctly, to attain his goals, and where did he blunder? And in some cases, like Hitler’s, why was he so evil?
But we don’t ask “Where did Hitler blunder?” or “Why was he so evil?” We ask, “Why wasn’t Hitler stopped earlier?” It’s a good question. Unfortunately, many seem to answer, “Because no one crushed him while he was still harmless.” And then they say: “My political opponents are Hitler. We must rally the mob to crush them while we can!”
Time for the OTHMs
Yes, we do see parallels between our opponents and the Nazis at times, because organized expressions of human wickedness have elements in common. But discussing those specific parallels has lost most of its effect unless you actually want a “no, you’re the Nazi!” shouting match.
Here’s my suggestion: End that fruitless exchange. Just say no to calling people “Hitler.” Do you want to really understand what’s wrong with your opponents? Begin to deploy the OTHMs: the Other Than Hitler Metaphors.
Don’t compare gun control efforts to Nazi regulations. Compare them to the counterproductive Temperance activists and their Volstead Act. Why discuss internments as parallels to Himmler’s policies instead of FDR’s?
That doesn’t mean you can’t criticize them. It allows you to criticize them in a way which might provoke actual thought. Take the first example. How well did Prohibition work? Did “liquor control” suppress the abuse of alcohol or make it worse? Did it have mixed results, some good, some bad? What unexpected consequences did it have? What other evils did it cause?
To put it simply: Don’t yell “Hitler!” Cry “Carrie Nation!”
Be bold, writers and commentators and internet scrappers. Use Other Than Hitler Metaphors! If your reader doesn’t recognize Pancho Villa or the Dowager Empress, Gustav Mannerheim or Huey Long, he has the internet at his fingertips.
And that has another advantage. We can learn more from a comparison which does take a bit of research, than from one we only think we understand.