Freedom to compare: Bush & Hitler


As the student most likely to accuse everyone of being Hitler (noted by authorities such as Fenno and the Parody), I thought I might respond to Alex M. Gordon’s “Unique Wrongs” op-ed. He expressed hostility to the use of Hitler imagery applied to President Bush, meat-eaters and others. Indeed, the imagery is intended to create discomfort, to shock. In that sense, it succeeds in communicating something of a message. One might call that a First Amendment right, but rights don’t apply to national security threats, so that claim wouldn’t amount to much.

For those who abhor the Bush/Hitler comparison, a possibly more accurate one is to compare Bush to Andrew Jackson and especially the use of the “preemptive strike” doctrine as first applied against a band of Creek Indians who purchased rifles from Spaniards in Florida in 1815 (allegations of rape and torture abound, as well as certain treaty violations, but I don’t think U.S. intelligence agencies verified any of those reports). America’s liberal democracy proved itself capable of genocide and ethnic cleansing (recall the “Trail of Tears”) in the name of security against “savage” offenders of international norms (and in the interest of certain property rights).

Unfortunately, accusing Bush of being like Jackson is unlikely to raise anything but a perplexed eyebrow. Instead, the Bush/Hitler analogy has been raised publicly, and here, Gordon has an interesting concern: that this message “trivializes” a different message, that of the horrors of the Holocaust. By the same reasoning, those who burn the American flag in public protests to communicate outrage at U.S. military policy are held to “trivialize” the unique sacrifices of U.S. servicemen, and those who use the “badge of slavery” argument to describe current racial imbalances in America are described as “trivializing” the unique horrors of slavery.

A consistent response to all such “trivialization” claims is that the use of historical events, objects or individuals as symbols to express deeply felt objections to present day policies does not cheapen the actuality at all, but rather imbues it with present meaning. That’s what symbols are there for. The specter of past horror is exorcised not by memorializing the victims but by conducting affairs in the present to prevent the horrors they experienced from ever recurring.

There are some legitimate reasons not to compare Bush to Hitler, to leave the Holocaust, as it were, on a shelf, unexploited in contemporary debate. Perhaps a fixation upon genocide conducted by gas chambers will dull responses to genocide conducted by machetes, or it might lead one to conclude that only maniacal dictators commit genocide and not civilized democracies. Horrors that might have been averted might be ignored.

But the notion of “trivializing” Hitler’s genocide, as if it were some brand name that could be diluted by excessive use, cheapens the horror of the Holocaust far more than its exploitation in public discourse. Further, ascribing some ownership interest over a crime against humanity to the victims who experienced it entails that only some have the authority to raise the issue. What linguistic sovereignty confers legitimacy on demonizing Hussein or Arafat with Hitler analogies, but not George W. Bush?

In the American system, unlike some others, the victim has no ownership claim over a heinous crime. Only the state has the authority to prosecute, and only on behalf of the entirety of the state. The victim may neither pull the lever nor commute the sentence. The victim may not draft or veto legislative efforts by claiming his or her unique experience of a wrong entitles him or her to correct it.

A swaggering nationalist (or a national socialist) might consider it hateful to look honestly into one’s history and evaluate the record, puncturing a national sense of self-aggrandizement. Thus, America’s vile deeds on the world stage are obscured, while successes are lauded. American actions in Latin America, Vietnam and elsewhere are abstract, isolated missteps, and the only history memorialized in the popular imagination is saving those weak-willed men of Old Europe from Nazis and commies. Where Hitler’s evil is universally acknowledged and our own mixed record is not (save a handful of readily dismissed aberrations), the temptation to resort to a “lazy method of making a case” is understandable if that case is intended to stop America from perpetrating further horrors.

But dissenting like this is disloyal and will threaten my prospective job in the Bush administration. Let’s go shoot ourselves some Injuns, er, Iraqis, install a compliant democracy like all the ones we set up in Latin America and make the world safe for, well, safe for something or other. I’m not entirely sure what. We’ll probably figure that out after we remove all the “bad” leaders. By that point, I expect Gordon will have me put in jail for defending someone’s right to say the president is like Hitler.

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