Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Nazi References, Patriotic Correctness, and Survivors on the Current State of Affairs

There was a piece on NPR yesterday about a self-described neo-Nazi running for the state legislature in Montana (although he's the only Republican in the race and MT tends to be quite red, it's a heavily Democratic district around Butte so there was little chance of his winning to start with -- less of a chance now that his allegiances are out in the open).

Over at Kos, there was a discussion about it yesterday under the title "Are Republicans Nazis? One Nazi says not quite, but close enough for him!" The diarist requested that we "pay special attention to the part where he describes why he's running as a Republican." The reasons stated by Sean Stewart, the candidate, for his choosing to run as a Republican were an understanding that third party candidates almost never win and that there were certain affinities between his beliefs and those of the Republican party, namely, being anti-abortion, pro-gun, and anti-gay.

The on-line world is well acquainted with Godwin's law which states that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." The claim in this case was that it was the exception to the rule because the person in question actually is a Nazi.

But this is wrong. What we are seeing here is the fallacy of guilt by association. It may be true that this neo-Nazi has some views in common with mainstream Republicans. This does not mean that comparisons between Nazism and American conservatism are warranted. Having some views in common with evil people does not entail that you share other views -- especially the really, really evil ones. It is a little known fact that the Third Reich was the first modern government to pass nature preservation laws. But the fact that Hitler's government passed the Tierschutzgesetz of 1933, the Reichsjagdgesetz of 1934, and the Reichsnaturschutzgesetz of 1935 does not mean that the Audubon Society or the Sierra Club can be tarred as fascist organizations.

Hitler and Nazi references are too cheap. Jon Stewart said it best when he said that, "that guy worked too hard for too many years to become that evil to have any Tom, Dick, or Harry come along and say, 'Hey, you're being Hitler.' No. You know who was being Hitler? Hitler." Any time someone of this generation makes a Nazi reference it ought to send up a red flag (not the kind with a swastika on it).

The people who have legitimate warrant to make such references are the ones who were there. To compare that time to this or any other time takes a sense of perspective that may only be acquired through direct experience or serious historical scholarship.

It is interesting, though, to hear from those who were there. I have been working for the last couple of years on an oral history project relating to the philosophers I write on. They are called the Logical Empiricists and worked mainly in Vienna and Berlin between the World Wars. When Hitler came to power and purged the universities in 1933, they were scattered as many of them were Jewish and all were quite vocal opponents of Nazism. I have been speaking with the few remaining members of the movement and their widows, children, and students. These people have been wonderful. They have been incredibly open with their stories and their remembrances, even ones that are quite personal.

But a strange thing has happened in virtually every interview. Once we have finished the conversation, there is always an awkward pause and then the person, at first somewhat tentatively but more and more stridently, voices serious concern about the current state of affairs in the US. When I engage them in the discussion, they go on to tell me how worried they are about the path that the US government is going down. Of course, if you sit long enough in a room with Jews you will eventually start talking politics. That is how life is. But this was different. It was as if they just want to make sure that something got said, that these things wouldn't go without having been talked about, that there would be no sin of silence.

These are people who all were affected by the war. One had his father, a logician trained under David Hilbert, die in Auschwitz; another, the widow of a prominent philosopher, had her father who was old and suffering from Parkinson's put a gun to his head and pull the trigger rather than wait for the Nazis to come for him; one was the daughter of a famous philosopher whose girl scout troop got folded into the Hitler Youth; and two were mathematicians and completely secular Jews who escaped -- the symmetry of these cases was stunning, in both cases their American wives (both remarried) felt it necessary to tell me their husbands' stories and how hard it was for them because the husbands themselves refused to say anything as they felt that any hardship experienced on their part was trivial compared with the suffereing of so many whom they knew perosnally. It seemed inappropriate, almost obscene, for them to dwell upon or glorify their own story in any way when they had the unbelievable good fortune to come to America and have wonderfully successful personal and professional lives while their friends and extended family suffered inexpressibly.

It is from these people, not some punk, college kid in Montana, that we ought to pay attention and take serious pause. The situation on the ground here seems to have changed since I first started conducting these interviews. No longer is the Minority Leader of the Senate publicly declared unpatriotic for voicing mild criticism of the administration. The protectors of Patriotic Correctness seems to have lost some of their enforcement power. But, nevertheless, we need to pay attention when our elders speak. And they are worried for their grandchildren.