Not all that long ago, Glenn Beck went on the air and suggested that if we hadn't collectively done such a poor job of following the Ten Commandments, then perhaps our angry and vengeful God wouldn't have slaughtered the innocents in Japan, where a recent tsunami had devastated large stretches of seacoast. "There's a message being sent," he told us while his radio sidekicks laughed. Many found his comments offensive. The Twitterverse was awash with commentary on Beck's commentary, and Michael Charney wanted his voice heard, too. An unusual experiment began, its goal to convince people that Beck wasn't what he seemed to be at all, but was, instead, just an actor playing a part.... A Twitter persona emerged--@BeckIsALib--and began to launch odd little ideas into the virtual world: Glenn Beck is an actor. Glenn Beck believes in global warming. Glenn Beck cares about animals and the environment. And, most importantly: Glenn Beck--and others like him--are not us. If we continue to let the loudest voices define us then we risk no less than the loss of our truest visions for democracy: equality, fairness through compromise and the right to be heard--and represented.Charney has granted the Review permission to republish the following chapter of his book, "America Needs Its Bad Guys," from his website.
America needs its bad guys—the more unambiguously hateful the better—and given a cultural blueprint that predisposes us to think simply, we’ll gladly embrace bad-guy rhetoric as long as it’s delivered with wit and style. Glenn Beck—for all that I may not like about him—has wit and style in droves. He also knows that when it comes to bad guys, the blacker the hat the better. So thanks (at least in part) to Glenn Beck, Adolph Hitler is enjoying an enormous resurgence.
Hitlerian comparisons have a long history. Back in 2002 Matthew Engel, a writer for the Guardian wrote an essay entitled “Enough with the Hitler Analogies,” in which he reminds us that “Saddam Hussein is not Hitler, as hysterical Americans keep claiming,” nor is Israel “the mirror image of Nazism.” He adds additional comparative absurdities, including George Bush and Tony Blair as modern-day Adolphs. More than a quarter century earlier the Hastings Center (a nonpartisan research institute) convened to discuss the use of Nazi analogies in ethical debate. Ten years after that Hastings was still discussing the habit and issued a report describing how Hitler and Nazi analogies are often used to secure the moral high ground and thereby stunt any real debate, the rhetorical equivalent of taking Pork Chop Hill before the other guys get there.
Like just about everything else in our Twitter-centric universe, mention Hitler and the name echoes like the sound of a water droplet in Mammoth Cave: endlessly. In two months of tweeting I’m pretty sure that not a single day has passed when I haven’t seen at least a few such references. Eventually I got to the point where all the ‘Twittlering’ really bothered me:
BeckIsALib: If I hear one more stupid, infantile, moronic Hitler analogy, I think I'll scream!!!
Glenn Beck references Hitler quite a bit, perhaps more than any other talk show host out there. A quick Google search for “Glenn Beck” and “Hitler” brings back a rich selection of links. I chose a link to an article from The Economist in part because it’s not American and in part because the magazine always fills its pages with erudite and comprehensive reporting written in thick prose. I know this because I subscribe to The Economist yet rarely manage to read it.
The article in question bears the title “Glenn Beck’s Hitler Fetish.” In it the author states that “It's kind of fun to write about Mr. Beck, because he's created a zone in which Godwin's Law necessarily ceases to function.”
And there’s a good example of why I rarely read The Economist; deciphering the articles often requires an encyclopedia.
Turns out that Godwin’s Law (also known as Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies) states that the longer any discussion continues, the greater the odds of some reference to Nazis along the way. Given enough time, apparently, every discussion in the universe will eventually include an analogy to the Nazis and/or to Adolph Hitler. (Correlatively, given infinite time, every conversation will eventually include a Nazi analogy!)
It’s a brilliant idea, really, and Godwin makes clear that he intends the notion to be only somewhat tongue-in-cheek; he wants us to remember how horrible—truly horrible—Hitler and the Nazis were and to avoid trite comparisons that only serve to trivialize the horror.
Glenn Beck’s not paying attention.
Beck’s analogies would make Salvador Dali’s clock melt. He has compared the SS to the Peace Corps, Obama’s health care plan to Mein Kampf, and Al Gore’s conversations with school kids to recruiting for Hitler’s Youth. Dana Milbank, the Washington Post writer who first exposed Beck’s Hitler obsession in a systematic way (and on whose work The Economist piece is partly based) noted that “In his first 18 months on Fox News, from early 2009 through the middle of this year , he [Beck] and his guests invoked Hitler 147 times. Nazis, an additional 202 times. Fascism or fascists, 193 times. The Holocaust got 76 mentions, and Joseph Goebbels got 24.”
Thanks to Beck and his compatriots having mainstreamed the idea, it’s no surprise that my corner of the Twitterverse runs rampant with Hitlerian references. The far right wing of the GOP considers all Democrats to be Socialists, who are really just Godless Communists in disguise, which makes them Fascists, which makes them Nazis, which makes their leader, President Barack Obama, Hitler. It’s the kind of loopy history lesson commonly born from a Glenn Beck chalkboard, with twisted thinking that leads to tweets like these:
JerryRibeye: Liberal Democrat Jews are married to Obama. Hitler was backed by Rothchild, a Jew, some say the king of all Jews.
Getemoutnow: Hitler used radical propaganda and caused the death of 26 million people in WWII. Now Obama is trying to beat that number. He needs to go NOW.
And this one, from an avowed Glenn Beck superfan who felt compelled to shout his disdain for what he believes are Obama’s attempts to mollify the Arab world:
BeckforPrez: HITLER is looking 'UP FROM HELL' and 'PRAISING OBAMA' for his attempt to create a second 'HOLOCAUST' in 'ISRAEL'.
Tweets like these do not merely stretch the analogy, they shred it. These people are referring to a man who introduced a health care plan based on Republican ideas, who wants to raise taxes on the top 2% of income earners, and who has proposed nearly the same Middle East solution as his predecessor George W. Bush, and they’re comparing him to Adolph Hitler. How can that possibly make sense to anyone? How can people hold such thoughts in their head and not wonder at their own sanity?
Lest one think that Hitler has a lock on the right, let me disabuse you of that notion. The left are just as prone to Hitlerizing political dialogue. Searching Twitter for the terms “Hitler” and “GOP” turns up tweets like these:
Bizfreak: Backed by the Church, hates minorities & Socialists: What do Hitler and the GOP have in common?
GrinningIndy: If Hitler were alive, being that he was a European white male, the GOP would nominate him.
These constant references to Hitler, absent any irony at all, suggest to me that we’ve forgotten how good we really have it here in America. Very few of us experienced the Third Reich (including myself) and too many are learning their history from so-called teachers like Beck who layer a fresh ideological coat of whitewash over everything they say. No one needs to care whether Hitlerian hyperbole makes sense because we have nothing to compare it to. We may pretend that having seen Saving Private Ryan or Patton means that we know what it was like back then, but we really don’t. We’ve never seen anything like the European Theater during World War II. Very few of us have any perspective or any experience with such pain. Our pain these days—the pain that prompts us to compare our President to Adolph Hitler—is the pain of higher gas prices, natural economic cycles, financial and commercial regulations, depressed home values and potholes. These simplistic and embarrassing comparisons collapse instantly when the scaffolds on which they weakly hang are exposed to even the most basic reasoned dialogue.
Nazi analogies are nowhere near as prevalent outside of America. A Twitter search for French President “Sarkozy” and “Hitler,” for example, brings up a grand total of one result. Checking for the co-occurrences of Hitler’s name with the current German Chancellor Angela Merkel returns just thirteen examples, more than for Sarkozy but still a far cry from the hundreds I found linking the fuehrer with Barack Obama.
Godwin’s law is alive and well and, like much of what we do here in America, we’ve made it brighter and louder than ever before.
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