Thursday, February 23, 2012

This Post Is Totally Godwinned

If you've spent time online at any political comment board, you've surely noticed that whenever anyone makes any sort of comparison between Nazi Germany and anything in modern America, someone else will always post "GODWIN!!" in response. (The original "Godwin's Law" simply stated that any online political discussion was bound to result in a Nazi analogy sooner or later, but for many since then, "Godwin's Law" has since come to mean "Don't even think about making any sort of comparison between us and the Nazis, not if you harbor any hope of being taken seriously.")

According to a quick search on Google, before today I only mentioned the word "Godwin" in one post on this blog, last month, when I wrote, "reading the news these days feels like watching a documentary on a World War Two cable channel, a documentary about how things went dreadfully wrong in a certain country I dare not mention because anytime anybody makes the slightest comparison between anything here now and anything there then, somebody will scream Godwin! and at that point the conversation is over."

And today, Kevin Carson took that attitude to task in an excellent essay titled Nazi Exceptionalism; or, How Godwin's Law Gets It Backward. It's worth reading in its entirety, but it starts out like this:

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!

Since I've already gone and violated Godwin's Law once today, I'll do it again by quoting Robert H. Jackson, the former chief US prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials (a quote I found in Amy Alkon's succinct anti-TSA column in today's MensNewsDaily):

"Uncontrolled search and seizure is one of the first and most effective weapons in the arsenal of every arbitrary government. Among deprivations of rights, none is so effective in cowing a population, crushing the spirit of the individual and putting terror in every heart."

I've been banging the anti-TSA pro-civil liberties drum on this blog since 2006, the same year I started it. And America's gotten worse, incrementally, as people lead their ordinary lives. It led directly to the passage and acceptance of the NDAA, with its unconstitutional insistence that the government can arrest any citizen at any time with no evidence, no trial, no legal rights at all, provided the government first says "Trust me, he's totally a terrorist." It's led to what Carson calls a "de facto internal passport" required for travel within the borders of our own country. And when those who support these laws watch documentaries on the rise of the Third Reich, they shake their heads in patriotic superiority and swear "It can't happen here."


Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks, Jennifer! When I saw the title I thought it was pretty damn synchronicitous, and then I found out it was actually about my column.

6:46 PM  
Blogger TedTheJackal said...

I got Godwinized by HuffingtonPost when they censored my comment because it mentioned Goebbels, which since he was I suppose history's most notorious censor it got me wondering what he would have thought about it.

Let's see if there's room for this-
"You know," he went on, "when men who understand what is happening--the motion, that is, of history, not the reports of single events or developments--when such men do not object or protest, men who do not understand cannot be expected to. How many men would you say understand--in this sense--in America? And when, as the motion of history accelerates and those who don't understand are crazed by fear, as our people were, and made into a great 'patriotic' mob, will they understand then, when they did not before?

"We learned here--I say this freely--to give up trying to make them understand after, oh, the end of 1938, after the night of the synagogue burning and the things that followed it. Even before the war began, men who were teachers, men whose faith in teaching was their whole faith, gave up, seeing that there was no comprehension, no capacity left for comprehension, and the thing must go its course, taking first its victims, then its architects, and then the rest of us to destruction ...."
Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-1945

11:08 AM  

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