Published March 10, 2011
The most recent example of our seemingly endless national appetite for Hitler comparisons has travelled from Madison, Wisconsin, to the floor of Congress. In both places, comparing Governor Scott Walker to Adolph Hitler and Walker’s stand against the public employees’ unions to Nazi public policy is apparently acceptable.
Protesters at the Wisconsin Capitol regularly carry placards depicting Walker’s face with a “Hitler mustache,” and some have portrayed the governor in Nazi uniform. Despite claiming that he did not intend to compare Hitler (not to mention Stalin) with Governor Walker, Congressman Sherrod Brown did exactly that when he pointed out that all three are distinguished by their attacks on unionized labor. This is sick, and it’s an illness against which we need to fight.
To be sure, this illness is not limited to those of one particular political persuasion. Comparisons have been made between President Obama and Hitler from the beginning of his candidacy and have continued to appear at protests against the President and his policies. Like most epidemics, our national obsession of comparing leaders we loathe with Hitler, and policies we oppose with Nazism, the sickness transcends the boundaries of politics, race, and ethnicity.
Clearly, the issue is not the politicians or the policies in question. No rational human being actually believes that either Scott Walker or Barack Obama want to exterminate entire ethnic or religious communities and take over the world. The comparison-making is also not a function of how people affiliate politically, as demonstrated by the presence of equally grotesque images across the political spectrum.
No, this is about something deeper -- it’s about us, about the death of proportionality in American culture, and even about the success of Holocaust education. Yes, success, albeit in an odd and unanticipated way.
A half century of effort to ensure that as many people as possible will never forget the Holocaust and Hitler have been remarkably successful. So successful, in fact, that Hitler and Nazis have become, for many Americans, synonymous with evil.
If one wants a universal symbol of all that decent people should find objectionable, show them a picture of Hitler. It’s actually a remarkable accomplishment that turned an historic enemy into a timeless symbol. But the fact that Hitler and Nazis have become symbols of all that people should oppose does not mean that all things we may oppose are equal to Hitler and Nazis. Why is that not obvious?
We seem to have lost the ability to disagree with something unless we label it evil. Whatever happened to simply being wrong? Why are so many people, including those who are in positions of real political power, unable to make reasonable analogies which shed as much light as they do heat? It’s as if we have become inured to any argument which is not “all or nothing at all.”
We seem to have lost any sense of proportionality when it comes to most any issue about which we care. That’s a very dangerous place to be because it demands that every issue is one of ultimate importance, a life or death fight and those are precisely the fights in which it becomes increasingly easy to take another life.
After all, if someone really is the equivalent of Hitler, wouldn’t we use any means at our disposal to stop them? Is that really what those making the analogies and carrying the posters want? If not, then they should stop, and stop now.
But this is not only about the people with the signs in their hands or those standing at the microphones, whether at public demonstrations or on the floor of the House of Representatives. This is about us, because let’s face it, if such analogies didn’t capture our attention and rally the support of those to whom they are addressed, nobody would use them.
If more of us did not actually enjoy this stuff, there would be immediate outrage from inside the camps whose members make these outrageous comparisons. For example, all those who fail to rebuke Rep. Brown, and all those who march alongside protestors carrying Hitler/Walker posters, also bear marks of our cultural sickness and share responsibility for spreading it. They also have the power to cure our culture.
We need to decide that the quick hit of moral superiority which comes with these analogies is like the quick high of addictive drugs – it feels good for a moment, makes you feel lousy afterward while endlessly seeking more and more of what makes you sick, and leaves you and all those around you in increasingly bad shape. American politics must be better than that however we feel about whatever the issue, for all of our sakes.
Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and the President of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.