Perhaps it was inevitable, but we’ve reached the point at which conversation has devolved to schoolyard taunts of “You’re a Nazi!” and “No, YOU’RE a Nazi!”
In the midst of a historic pandemic that’s killing millions worldwide, a spiraling economic crisis, record crime rates, riots in the streets and the Capitol, and social divisions not seen since the years leading up to the Civil War, it stands to reason that the political and media class have taken up the urgent question of who gets to compare their ideological adversaries to Nazis.
It wasn’t so long ago that anyone who resorted to what’s known among rhetoricians as the reductio ad Hitlerum – comparing your opponent and/or her arguments to Nazism – was laughed out of the room. From Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler” to the Blues Brothers’ feud with Illinois Nazis, for decades white supremacists of all stripes were little more than punchlines in modern society. No one debated the merits of National Socialism because it was like debating the merits of a flesh eating bacterium. Anyone with a reasonably functional frontal cortex knew as much.
The vapidity of the argument was captured perfectly in a scene from the Mike Judge classic Office Space. Jennifer Aniston and Ron Livingston are arguing over the awfulness of the companies they work for, in Aniston’s case a cheesy casual dining franchise called Chotchkie’s. The job is humiliating both for the insufferable Silicon Valley clientele and the fact that employees have to wear not only garish uniforms but a prescribed number of pins, buttons, and badges the company calls “employee flair.” Pounding his point home Livingston’s character declares solemnly, “You know, the Nazis had pieces of flair they made the Jews wear.” To which Aniston responds with an incredulous, “What?!“
I felt a lot like her character as I watched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s videotaped response to the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots. He posted it on the 9th, when Americans were barely starting to process the implications of the day. He started off innocuously enough, saying that as an immigrant he had a particular perspective. It took all of 15 seconds to go off the rails: “I grew up in Austria. I’m very aware of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.” At which point normal people heard a voice in the back of their heads asking, Where we goin’ with this, Arnie? Sure enough, the Governator declared that January 6 was “the Day of Broken Glass right here in the United States.”
He went further. In a too-clever-by-half turn of phrase he referred to the perpetrators of Kristallnacht as “the Nazi version of the Proud Boys.” Which is a new one: Using the reductio ad Hitlerum to reframe the baseline of evil as the reductio ad Puerorum Superbus.
The riots of January 6 were many things, but they most assuredly were not a government approved and supported ethnic pogrom that killed more than 100, resulted in the destruction of some 7,500 businesses, and marked the beginning of the single worst crime in human history that ultimately led the deaths of six million Jews and as many as 11 million in total, not to mention the expansion of a global conflict that ultimately cost some 75 million lives. To compare that to a few hundred morons mostly taking selfies in the Capitol rotunda one has to be either catastrophically ignorant or irretrievably mendacious. That’s not to suggest there wasn’t terrible violence on January 6th, but Schwarzenegger was comparing the SS Minnow to the Titanic. [UPDATE 2/17/21 Over at Substack, Glenn Greenwald has written an excellent analysis of the media’s systematic exaggeration of the events of January 6, particularly the intentionally misleading (if not outright false) reporting of the circumstances surrounding Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick’s death]
As of today Schwarzenegger’s video has more than 50 million views on various YouTube and social media channels and has been shared millions more times. No one is calling for his cancellation; indeed quite the opposite. The media praised his “insight.” Vanity Fair gushed about his “level of understanding” and “righteous anger.” The New York Times, NPR, Newsweek, CNN, and other outlets reported with varying degrees of approval (It’s worth noting that CNN also ran a piece explaining how, no matter how much one may loathe Donald Trump, and there are plenty of reasons to do so, he was in many ways the opposite of a fascist; then again that piece wasn’t written by an American but a Scottish professor).
Compare the general approval, if not outright adulation, of Schwarzenegger’s video with the cancellation of another practitioner of the same logical fallacy. It involves someone named Gina Carano, who apparently stars in the Disney series The Mandalorian. At least she did, until she said more or less exactly the same thing Schwarzenegger said just a couple of weeks earlier and Disney fired her for it. The Mouse’s termination announcement was adorned with the usual pearl clutching and garment rending.
Ms. Carano’s sin was writing the following on Instagram: “Jews were beaten in the streets, not by Nazi soldiers but by their neighbors…even by children. Because history is edited, most people today don’t realize that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbors hate them simply for being Jews. How is that any different from hating someone for their political views.” She included a graphic, disturbing black and white image of a bleeding, half-naked woman running from what appear to be children attacking her. The picture presumably is from 1930s Germany
We can all agree that this is an incandescently stupid, insensitive thing to say and post. Conservatives, even of the noxious white nationalist stripe, are not being beaten in the streets much less rounded up and sent to camps to be worked, tortured, and gassed to death. The second failed impeachment of Donald Trump was about as close to the Night of the Long Knives as January 6 was to Kristallnacht. Even people who recognize the hypocrisy in the political and media classes’ disparate treatment of Conan and Cara Dune don’t defend the latter’s comment.
And yet. Ms. Carano’s post arguably is relatively more on point than Schwarzenegger’s (the wishy-washiness of that sentence is intentional; we’re still talking about idiotic and hurtful statements). She referred the political environment in Germany prior to the Holocaust, the social forces that ultimately led to millions of Germans embracing National Socialism policies. Yes, that’s likely giving her far more credit for nuance than she deserves, but nevertheless it’s inarguable that the Final Solution was presaged by a decade of anti-Semitic agitation not just in Germany but throughout Europe. Indeed, it’s one of history’s most tragic ironies that prior to the rise of the Third Reich European Jews had seen Germany as one of the few relatively safe havens on the continent. Ms. Carano is accurate insofar as demonization and outright dehumanization were essential precursors to the Holocaust.
LucasFilm, which produces The Mandalorian, said in its press release announcing Carano’s termination that “her social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable.” Once again the only sane reaction is, What?! To understand LucasFilm’s (or rather, their woke PR department’s) transmutation of an ill-advised, insensitive political statement into an intentional and conscious act of cultural denigration requires unpacking several levels of woke postmodern abstraction. It also requires one to reckon with the mind-altering history of anti-Semitism in Hollywood (it’s worth noting that far bigger stars with histories of intentionally anti-Semitic tweets, including John Cusack, Chelsea Handler, Ice Cube, and others remain firmly in Hollywood’s and the media’s good graces because they dutifully toe the woke PC line). By the same token, while Schwarzenegger’s Nazi comparison was exaggerated to the point of absurdity there’s not the slightest indication he intended to denigrate the victims of Kristallnacht.
Which makes her post at least relevant and worth discussing, particularly in light of subsequent reactions. Regardless of how one feels politically it is undeniable that large swathes of America’s media, technology, and entertainment industries routinely – at this point, reflexively – vilify conservatives, with a strong assist from academia. People are being shamed, silenced, deplatformed, even fired and criminally prosecuted for having the wrong views or acting the wrong way. Chillingly, more than a few mainstream Democrats have called for some form of “deprogramming” or “reeducation” of their political opponents. It’s not difficult to imagine a slippery slope (in that regard Ms. Carano would have been better advised to compare the current climate in the United States not to anti-Semitic violence in interwar Germany but to the ideological warfare of 1920s Russia – including demonization and dehumanization of disfavored classes and violence against them – that paved the way for Stalinism and the gulag archipelago).
Take it a step further: For the last seven months scores of American cities have endured unprecedented violence from the political left, from the so-called “autonomous zone” in Seattle where three people were murdered and dozens were beaten and raped, to the flames that consumed places like Kenosha, Wisconsin. In the week after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police more than 20 people died in riots. In Santa Monica during the May 30-31 riots an elderly man was dragged from his car and beaten nearly to death in the middle of the street, more than 50 others were injured, some severely, and more than 200 businesses were looted, ransacked, and burned (the riots of that weekend literally hit home: looters broke into lobby of my building in Santa Monica, emptying the mail room and breaking into several cars).
The violent felons behind the nationwide riots received constant encouragement from prominent Democrats, who praised the “mostly peaceful protests” and prostrated themselves before Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA. The support went all the way to the top: As a Senator Kamala Harris urged people to donate to a bail fund in Minnesota that ultimately helped free accused murderers, rapists, even gun dealers (oh, the irony).
In short, regardless of one’s politics it is undeniable that Leftist shock troops have engaged in far more violence and mayhem than the Trump flag waving idiots did on January 6. Yet even as they fomented and encouraged their own brand of political violence and murder Democrats, liberals, and progressives spent much of the last five years comparing Donald Trump to Hitler and his supporters to the brown shirts. A quick web search for “Donald Trump Nazi” returns thousands of hits, including stories in CNN and BBC from just last week.
With the exception of monsters like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin no one – repeat no one – can be compared to Adolph Hitler. To do so merely reveals the speaker’s ignorance. The reductio ad Hitlerum is insidious precisely because it minimizes the Holocaust. Staged speeches like Schwarzenegger’s, complete with his Conan the Barbarian prop sword and his own life size Muscle Beach self-portrait hanging conspicuously in the background, outright belittle it. If we’re going to cancel people for making stupid, hurtful, and historically illiterate comparisons, we should cancel them all.
Or, alternatively, this being a free country in which anyone can make a complete ass of themselves in front of millions, don’t cancel any of them.