I have made no secret of the fact that I have deep concerns about the current usage of the meme (or counter-meme as the creator would have it) known as Godwin’s Law, but have only touched on the specific reasons for this. While the meme’s original intention was to improve discussion by pointing out that it is ridiculous to reference the Holocaust every time someone is even slightly firm in their opinion or advocating a mildly authoritarian policy, the meme itself has become an equivalent form of intellectual sloth. It has taken on the character of a way to bully people who disagree with a prevailing opinion, and, more perniciously, a peer pressure mechanism that helps to ensure that we do not learn history’s lessons.
In 1990, Mike Godwin noticed that discussions on Usenet had developed a meme that he found troubling, that of comparing the opponent’s position to the Nazis, even if such was totally non sequitor.
“But the Nazi-comparison meme popped up elsewhere as well – in general discussions of law in misc.legal, for example, or in the EFF conference on the Well. Stone libertarians were ready to label any government regulation as incipient Nazism. And, invariably, the comparisons trivialized the horror of the Holocaust and the social pathology of the Nazis. It was a trivialization I found both illogical (Michael Dukakis as a Nazi? Please!) and offensive (the millions of concentration-camp victims did not die to give some net.blowhard a handy trope).”
So, he coined a new meme, which states:
“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”[
It was a good, Voltarian sort of quip, which had a noble purpose. Fast forward twenty years, however, and the counter-meme has become yet another handy trope for what are probably the same class of “net.blowhards” that it was originally directed at. One cannot make any analogy between a current situation and the Nazi regime without having Godwin’s Law thrown at them. This may have to do with the general degradation of people’s knowledge of rhetoric, whereby the analogy has come to be seen as requiring a one to one match rather than an overall similarity.
I think it has broader implications, however. There are a number of politically naive assumptions behind the current usage of Godwin’s Law that I find not only invalid but deeply troubling. Chief among these is the notion that the Holocaust was a transient episode in human history. A horrible aberration that we have learned from and moved past. But genocide, torture, and nationalistic fanaticism were not invented by Hitler. Human civilizations have been murdering, enslaving, and generally immiserating other, less fortunate populations since the advent of the cerebral cortex, if not before. Being a demagogue is an easy way to power, especially in times of strife and economic upheaval, such as that which Germany was undergoing when the National Socialists rose to power.
It is Democracy, as a modern ideology, that is historically unique and as yet unproven in practice. The glib, upper middle class white douchebags who sit complacently behind computer keyboards typing out snark about how perfect the system is generally do not recognize this latter fact. Most of the population of the United States does not support the Bill of Rights, almost everyone has some group of people whom they feel are unworthy of civil liberties, and two out of three branches of government, the Executive and Legislative, are so beholden to pork barrel interests that the odds of any effective change happening that would benefit the people is, as of this writing, virtually nil.
And Democracy is profoundly counter-intuitive to the way human societies have traditionally run. Equality? Rights for everyone? For most of the history of civilization, human beings were the subjects of war lords and their heirs. Slavery was not only common but necessary to sustain the lifestyle of the ruling class. What liberated us, to an extent, was the machine that made available a huge amount of leisure time. But today, rather than being indentured to a feudal lord, we are indentured to banks and corporations. We still treat our Executive like a Sun King. The differences between the past and now are not so great as the promoters of “progress” would have you believe.
So I get a little frustrated when people fall into the patterned thinking that labels any instance of an analogy as invalid, regardless of context. If someone started burning books and calling for the extermination of a population, I would wager there are still those who would cry “Godwin’s Law” when the obvious historical parallel was invoked. I am not the only person who feels that this meme has turned back on itself. In 2005, after an incident involving Dick Durbin’s use of a Nazi comparison, Reason’s David Weigel said:
“The Nazi taboo was flawed before the Durbin affair, and it’s only deteriorated since. Recently, armchair general Victor Davis Hanson took to the Chicago Tribune to assert that the swarthy enemies of freedom grow bolder “each time a public official evokes Hitler to demonize the president.” The chorus demanding Durbin’s apology included Rick Santorum, who’d apologized just a month before for comparing Democrats’ filibuster arguments to Nazi war plans. The effort of keeping up the ban has become more convoluted than Charlie Chaplin’s last speech in The Great Dictator. We’ll be better off rolling back Godwin’s Law and admitting the all-purpose usefulness of Nazi analogies. It’s exactly what the Germans wouldn’t want.”
We also need to come to terms with the fact that things aren’t “okay.” For a good summary of just how fucked we are in terms of our economy and the stability of civilization in general, I would suggest checking out Michael Ruppert’s Collapse. It gives far greater detail on our state of affairs than I possibly can in this context.
We live in times that are ripe for the advent of pure fascism. Our economic situation parallels if not exceeds that which Germany was undergoing in the mid to late 1930s. Yet the denizens of the internet can only snark, and rest complacent in the assumption that things will go on as usual. This is America, after all, where no one is really oppressed. It’s a democracy where “those sorts of things can’t happen.” History demonstrates something different. When empires begin to crumble, as ours unequivocally is, they split into factions, and the faction that offers an outlet for the anger and a paradoxical kind of comforting stability will tend to dominate.
Even given all this, it may seem like hyperbole to compare, say, the Third Wave Movement in Christianity to the Nazis. A moment of reflection, however, should show that this is just the sort of movement that we should be concerned about in an era where our social and economic infrastructure is demonstrably crumbling. They are populist, capable of mobilizing millions of people who are willing to kill and die for their cause, and give people and easy target for their frustration, not to mention a deus ex machina whereby everything they loath will be destroyed. When the proverbial shit really hits the fan, when there are shortages food shortages in Middle America, when gasoline costs so much that many critical services simply cannot be provided because they are prohibitively expensive, it is to movements such as the Third Wave that people will turn, not ideologies of love and tolerance.
What concerns me is not that there is a movement with the potential to capture the minds of the angry and lonely. It is the fact that the biggest venue of public discourse, the Internet, is infected with a meme that functions as a discussion stopper, less an admonition against hyperbole than a way to dismiss the warning signs that history has left for us. The road to destruction is paved with just these sorts of icons of ignorance.