Most participants in online debates are familiar with Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” The implicit corollary, of course, is that the first person to descend to such a comparison automatically forfeits the debate. Oddly enough, though, I don’t remember electing anyone named Godwin to legislate for me. And more importantly, that corollary is — or can be — quite stupid.
Godwin’s Law, by treating Nazi Germany as some sort of unique, metaphysical evil in human history, essentially nullifies its practical lessons for people in other times and places. Although Nazi precedents are now used as symbols of ultimate evil — just look at Darth Vader — they didn’t seem anywhere so dramatic to the German people at the time they were happening.
Nazi repression came about incrementally, in the background, as people lived their ordinary daily lives. Each new upward ratcheting of the security state was justified as something not all that novel or unprecedented, just a common sense measure undertaken from practical concerns for “security.”
After all, the bulk of Hitler’s emergency powers were granted by the Reichstag after a terrorist attack (blamed at the time on communists), a fire which destroyed the seat of Germany’s parliament. Any parallels to 9/11 and USA PATRIOT are, of course, purely accidental. Each new security clampdown, after an initial flurry of discussion, was quickly accepted as normal because it didn’t affect the daily lives of most ordinary people. And of course, those ordinary people had nothing to fear, because they’d done nothing wrong!
The “American Exceptionalism” that people like Sarah Palin appeal to is just the converse of the Nazi Exceptionalism implied by Godwin’s law. “American Exceptionalism” is a stupid ideology. It demands from its adherents a belief that the American people — and the American government — represent some special race of creatures who couldn’t possibly behave the same way normal, run-of-the-mill human beings have behaved throughout history.
The American response to the post-9/11 security state really isn’t all that different from that of the German people in the 1930s. Every expansion of the surveillance state meets widespread responses like “I have nothing to hide.” The TSA’s de facto internal passport system for air travel is defended by many people in these words: “If you don’t like it, don’t fly. If it saves one life, the inconvenience is worth it.”
A friend recently told me of being asked by a fairly “liberal” family member, in response to her complaints about the NDAA’s provisions for indefinite detention of “terror suspects” without criminal charges: “Why should someone like me who’s not doing anything wrong be afraid of it?” The common response, just as with the Nazis, is to take the government’s justifications at face value and accept that they mean well. Take off your tinfoil hat — after all, we were attacked!
The American people, like the Germans, generally also take at face value the “defensive” nature of the American state’s foreign policy. I remember seeing a Democratic Congressman on C-SPAN, defending Clinton’s Balkan adventures in the ’90s, say “I was taught in school that America has never gone to war for a square foot of land or a dollar of treasure.” Using Chomsky’s “person from Mars” thought experiment — looking at the role of the United States in the world as an alien would, judging the actions of the United States by the same standards one would use to judge comparable actions by any other country — is labeled “Blame America First.”
The tenor of CNN’s coverage of Russia’s “aggression” against Georgia in August 2008 was hardly different from that of the German press in response to Poland’s alleged aggression against ethnic Germans in Danzig in 1939. And if the United States attacks Iran based on a recycled version of the Iraqi WMD lies of nine years ago, you can be absolutely certain the major news networks will dust off the red-white-and-blue bunting and the Wall of Heroes, reporting America’s “defensive” action against the “Iranian threat” as straight news. After all, things like the Diem overthrow and the Tonkin Gulf Incident have nothing at all in common with the SS black flag operation in Danzig.
People are people, and the lessons of history apply to all of us. If you kid yourself otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for a fall.
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