Thus Hitler became a hegemonic historical analogy. He did not so much join the ranks of earlier historical symbols of evil as render them unusable. Indeed, perhaps because Western observers became convinced that wartime analogies had underestimated the Nazi dictator’s radicalism, they began to employ Hitler as the baseline for evaluating all new threats. This tendency is captured—in caricature—by Godwin’s Law: the notion that the longer an internet debate drags on, the more likely participants are to invoke Hitler.
Our present moment is a tricky one: Some commentators feel more justified than ever in invoking Hitler, yet many feel a bit numb to the comparison. The solution, it seems to me, is not to ban comparisons to the Nazis—as if such a thing were possible—but to grant that analogies have always been a tendentious business, and that only the future can tell which ones were valid. Commentators should proceed with a little more humility, a little more circumspection, and, perhaps, a little more creativity.
Before 1945, the analogical reservoir was more abundantly stocked. Even in the most obscure local papers, there were constant references to an extremely diverse array of historical figures from the classical era to the 20th century: Pharaoh Thutmose III, Alexander the Great, King Herod, Emperor Caligula, Attila the Hun, Richard III, Henry VIII, Guy Fawkes, Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Boulanger, and Benito Mussolini.
If commentators restore comparative diversity, they may not prevent a “new Hitler”—diversity did not prevent the original Hitler either—but they might better hold their audiences’ attention and point them in the direction of more germane historical episodes.
—Gavriel Rosenfeld, “How Americans Described Evil Before Hitler”
The best I could do as moderator some days was to keep the conversation from completely turning into a flaming cesspool. Last month, I was speaking to a friend, describing my long-held hope that things might someday improve, that every time a conversation in comments went really well, maybe it signaled a turning point—that from then on, things would get better. As soon as I said that aloud, I realized that it sounded as if I had been living in a long-term abusive relationship.
–Alan Taylor, For Ten Years, I Read the Comments
If true. If true. If true. In one way, certainly, it’s a fitting refrain for the America of 2017, with all its concessions to the conditional tense: alternative facts, siloed reality, a political moment that has summoned and witnessed a resurgence of the paranoid style. And yet it’s also an abdication—“moral cowardice,” the journalist Jamelle Bouie put it—and in that sense is part of a much longer story. If true is a reply, but it has in recent cases become more effectively a verb—a phrase of action, done to women, to remind them that they are doubted. If true used as a weapon. If true used as a mechanism to enforce the status quo. For years. For centuries. The woman says, This happened. The world says, If true.
–Megan Garber, Al Franken, That Photo, and Trusting the Women
I look at it this way: I’m not going to effect a change in anyone’s condition by doing X, Y, or Z “take action” thing (from Oxford, as an academic theologian) right away. I can continue engaging in the political system, work with university life to underscore the devastating folly of uncontrolled gun ownership, and so on. But at this minute, in the face of such catastrophic evil, I can take an action that binds me closer in solidarity with many others around the globe, and that (in the faith by which I live) responds positively to a divine command and orients me toward a radically more benign state of affairs. So I pray.
I get the force of the “don’t pray, do something” admonition — but it relies for its force on the premise that prayer is “doing nothing” (a premise I don’t share), on the premise that I’m trading away a more effectual course of activity (when prayer and activism are not zero-sum alternatives), and on a general resentment of public figures who make much of theological platitudes without directing any of the executive or legislative authority they have toward ameliorating a situation. Is tweeting, “Don’t pray,” an improvement over tweeting, “I’m praying”?
–Fr. A.K.M. Adam, when asked about critiques to “thoughts and prayers” responses to tragedies by Vox‘s Tara Isabella Burton