The Law of Asymmetrical Accusations
Dr. Seuss famously told the story about one small yopp! being the difference in getting a message over. I have no illusions that my yopp! will be so effective, but here goes:
After president Obama offered his suggestions this week about ways to reduce gun-related violence, one of my Facebook friends shared an image. On the top is a photo of Adolph Hitler surrounded by kids. On the bottom is a picture of Obama surrounded by kids.
The caption says: "When Hitler announced the firearms ban, he made the announcement surrounded by children, claiming the welfare of children as an excuse. Apparently someone else thinks this is a great idea."
There's nothing on the image to indicate who created it. When I suggested to my friend, a religious woman with whom I've had any number of civil discussions, that this was simply vile, she rejected my rebuke out of hand.
"This president...has made himself a laughing stock. Two men, two photos. They're not doctored. Why not show them?"
Why not? I was, and am, appalled at the question. As I say, I know this woman to be religious both professionally and personally, a Catholic who deeply loves the teachings and dogmas of her Church. She has more than 3,600 Facebook friends.
How could such a person think that comparing Obama to Hitler is acceptable?
She is, of course, hardly alone. And this vile behavior is not limited to one side of the political spectrum. People on the left had their Hitler mustaches on pictures of George W. Bush during the last administration.
It was and is un-American. Disrespectful not only to this country and about half of its citizens, but disrespectful to the victims of Hitler and the Nazis. It is uncivil, a way to end the possibility of accord, a declaration of civil war, a slur from which there is no graceful retreat.
And it's stupid. Hitler did lots of things. He ran a government that was responsible for garbage pickup. Are all sanitation departments akin to Nazis? But let's play the game more acutely. Here are two quotes. One is from Hitler, the other from Pope Benedict XVI.
"Our whole public life today is like a hothouse for sexual ideas and simulations. Just look at the bill of fare served up in our movies, vaudeville and theaters, and you will hardly be able to deny that this is not the right kind of food, particularly for the youth."
"The world needs transparent lives, clear souls, pure minds that refuse to be perceived as mere objects of pleasure. It is necessary to oppose those elements of the media that ridicule the sanctity of marriage and virginity before marriage."
These quotes are not, ahem, doctored. Is there any moral universe in which it would be fair to pair them? To suggest that the people who said them share anything but the possession of homo sapiens DNA? Not in the least.
I propose Weiss's Law of Asymmetrical Accusations: It is possible for someone to be deeply and profoundly wrong about an important issue without being evil.
And a First Corollary: To suggest that someone is evil because of a disagreement over government policies is almost always itself an act of evil.
Maybe Obama is deeply and profoundly wrong about gun control, but that is not proof that he's evil. He's the twice-elected president of the United States, and most of his policies have the support of a majority of Americans. Do the people who compare Obama to Hitler really want to dismiss those Americans as akin to Nazis?
To do so is to declare that the majority of Americans are inherently evil and unworthy of engaging in conversation, much less debate. (See the history of the wonderful Godwin's Law for more insight into this.)
To be clear: I'm not saying that there is no evil in this world or no evil people. But to devalue the word by using it in an argument over supersized rifle magazines renders it meaningless. And to trot out Hitler is simply ridiculous.
Look, here is why the Third Reich set the high bar for institutional evil: The Holocaust was a systematic, intentional extermination of groups of people for no reason other than their ethnic or religious identity or sexual preference, organized and run by the government, for no significant material benefit to the government or its leaders, using the best technology of the time. And it was not only not hidden, it was done with the banal openness of an agriculture department grain inventory, so that the records were preserved and available to historians.
Nothing that any dictator not named Hitler from the past century has done had that total package. Mao and Stalin were protecting their power through widespread repression. The Tutsis battled the Hutus over land. Saddam Hussein was putting down a rebellion. All were utterly and unspeakably brutal -- but none of them were like Nazis.
It should not need saying that Barack Obama is not remotely like Hitler. But apparently it does. So stop it. If you see others doing it, tell them to stop it. Share this column. Cut and paste it into graffiti.