By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Saturday mornings in my house mean listening to Weekend Edition on National Public Radio.  This Saturday, my wife and I were preparing breakfast, having our coffee, when the host of the show, Scott Simon, had a quick one minute aside about the French trying to control the English language’s dominance of social media terms.  Evidently, many of the French don’t enjoy all this English terminology within their lexicon and the term ‘hashtag’ is the latest concern.  This seemed like a light little story, until Simon reported a darker twist: One group called  Avenir de la langue française (Future of the French language) ratcheted the discourse up a couple notches by recently proclaiming that this ‘English invasion’ threatens the “French language more than the Nazis did.”  I was in awe of this hyperbole.  This crap makes me really angry.

In one sense, this story makes me feel better about American culture since I was under the delusion that this type of rhetoric was exclusively a province of American politics.  On the other hand, it frustrates me to no end when anyone plays the compare-this or that-to-Nazism game, and unfortunately, it seems this practice is becoming close to the norm in the Imagepublic arena.  The most noticeable example is in the realm of political rallies. The Tea Party has taken this to an extreme in their gatherings, especially when it comes to their disdain for President Obama.  Google ‘Tea Party Rally Obama Hitler sign’ and you will see some quite radical examples of this rhetoric.  However, this attack method is not the exclusive province of the right-wing Tea Party.  On the left, anti-war protestors had a field day making Imagesigns and posters that equated President George W. Bush to Hitler.  Hitler is an equal opportunity bogey-man in America.

If this was just the work of a couple crazies that take to the streets, that would be one thing; but, of course, it’s not. The shout of “Nazi” has also been used by our politicians in Washington on the floor of the House of Representatives.  On the satirical Daily Show, John Stewart has attacked such tactics.  Stewart has also humorously illustrated that smearing the other side with the ‘Nazi’ moniker is an everyday occurrence in the world of the 24 hour news cycle programs and talk radio.  Perhaps the most disturbingly absurd media example came in 2009, when Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and President Obama were lambasted for Imagearguing that empathy was an important trait for a Supreme Court Justice. Glenn Beck, the most infamous ‘boy who cried Nazi’, somehow found a connection between Sotomayor’s and Obama’s belief in judicial empathy and Adolf Hitler’s supposed use of empathy to justify ‘putting down’ the sick and mentally challenged using the T4 euthanasia program.  Yikes!

It seems the rise of such name-calling goes hand-in-hand with the growing power of the internet.  Cyberspace is a sanctuary for all sorts of wackos to have their ideas heard, and not surprisingly, many Neo-Nazis find the internet as an indispensible tool for spewing their race hatred or strange conspiracy phobias.  Of course, such people are self-proclaimed Nazis, and hence, the term is not used as one of abuse in such forums. The obnoxious use of Nazi as an attack method is more common within purportedly rational discussion boards, blog posts, and social media. The description of others as Nazis, Gestapo, and/or modern day Hitlers is such a frequent occurrence in internet locales that twenty years ago a man named Mike Godwin formulated it into a ‘scientific law’. ‘Godwin’s Law’ states “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving  Nazis or Hitler approaches… In other words…given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope—someone inevitably makes a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis.

So, are internet users simply using logical fallacies?  Has Avenir de la langue française overstated their case?  Is Glenn Beck drawing historical corollaries to simply smear his political opponents?  Well, yes, and that is disturbing enough. But, using the Nazi affront has even more treacherous consequences. Those who equate their political, social or cultural enemies with Nazis believe that they can clearly see the present, because they have an understanding of the past.  Beck and his ilk feel their vigilance of Nazism reborn is based upon the old cliché that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.  They repeatedly proclaim that their stark grasp of history repeating itself must be appreciated.  Those who follow ‘Godwin’s Law’ are the prophets; the solitary voices in the wilderness.


Justice Sotomayor


Reinhard Heydrich

Ironically though, the hyperbolic commentators are doing the opposite. They do more than simply FORGET history; they expunge it.  If a radio talk-show host equates Sonya Sotomayor’s or Barack Obama’s ideals of empathy with Reinhard Heydrich’s ideals, this is more than a horrible insult to Justice Sotomayor or Obama (which, of course, it is).  This is an insult to the millions who died in the Operation Reinhard camps (Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec); the hundreds of thousands who were worked as slave laborers by Heydrich’s SS; the millions whose homes and lives were destroyed by the Nazi war machine.  These millions of people erased from history truly experienced Nazi ‘empathy’. Beck’s particular equation of Sotomayor’s empathy to this type of ‘empathy’ should make us take serious pause in regards to his ethics, if not his sanity.

As with all clichés, there is a good bit of truth in the statement that if we forget our past, we are doomed to repeat it.  The problem is the ridiculous usage of Nazi as an attack term makes us forget what really happened in the past.  And so, a reminder: President Obama is not Hitler; President Bush is not Himmler; and the use of ‘hashtag’ in France is not the same as the creation of the Vichy puppet government.  To make such a hyperbolic analogy is a slap in the face to us all.  


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