An article by Katrina VandenHeuvel in this week's edition of The Nation Online -- a call for adulthood in language.
Don't We Need a New Political Language"
Here's a modest proposal for improving nationalpolitical discussion. Let's stop equating ouropponents WITH famous dictators, their chiefexecutioners, police apparatus, or ideologies. Let'sdeclare a national ceasefire on "his (or her) viewreminds me of..." -- fill in the blank: Hitler,Goebbels, Eichman, Stalin, Mao, the Gestapo, theGulag, the KGB, etc.I figure these are hard enough times in Americanpolitics -- war, threats to national security, the greatest increase in inequality in our history, deepcultural divisions, a brewing constitutional crisis --that we don't need demonizing rhetoric that furtherconfuses matters. The demons are already among us.
Itmay be that our 24/7 cable/talk radio politicalculture is too far gone to hope for rationaldiscussion of issues of public importance. But if wesuck it up, I think we could manage to stop callingeach other mass murderers. Doing so doesn't clarifydebate. It further polarizes. And it shows a seriouslack of imagination. I'm all for learning from history, but I'm also for describing presentdifferences in contemporary terms.
Consider the value of such a cease-fire as you readthis cross-section of quotes:
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on VenezuelanPresident Hugo Chavez: "I mean, we've got Chavez inVenezuela with a lot of oil money. He's a person whowas elected legally-- just as Adolf Hitler was electedlegall."
Senator Rick Santorum, on Democrats protesting the"nuclear option" of eliminating the filibuster:"[It's] the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying,'I'm in Paris. How dare you invade me. How dare youbomb my city? It's mine.'"
Senator Robert Byrd, on the nuclear option: "Hitler never abandoned the cloak of legality; he recognizedthe enormous psychological value of having the law onhis side. Instead, he turned the law inside out andmade illegality legal. That is what the nuclear optionseeks to do..."
Author Michael Crichton, on a Senate global warming hearing: "It's all like a Stalinist show trial. TheSenators all get up and make their statements andleave. No one listens."
James Dobson, on stem cell research: "In World War II,the Nazis experimented on human beings in horrible ways in the concentration camps, and I imagine, if you wanted to take the time to read about it, there wouldhave been some discoveries there that benefited
Sen. Dick Durbin, on Guantanamo abuse: "You would.believe this must have been done by Nazis,Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others...Sadly, that is not the case. This was theaction of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners."
Ralph Peters, New York Post columnist, on Howard Dean and his supporters: "I can predict with certainty thatDean's Internet Gestapo will pounce on this column...These are the techniques employed by Hitler's Brownshirts...Had Goebbels enjoyed access to the internet, he would have used the same swarm tactic."
Rush Limbaugh, alleging a pro-life majority: "Militant femi-Nazism has backfired.."
Harry Belafonte: "We've come to this dark time in which the new Gestapo of Homeland Security lurks here,where citizens are having their rights suspended."
Grover Norquist, on those who support the estate tax:"That's the morality of the Holocaust. 'Well, it'sonly a small percentage,' you know...the morality that says it's okay to do something to a group because they're a small percentage of the population."
Larry Schweikart, describing the left: "I think the modern so-called 'left' in fact greatly resembles the Nazis."
Sheri Drew, who led the opening invocation at the 2004Republican Convention: "Those who support gay andl esbian families are no different from those who supported Adolph Hitler."
Ward Churchill, on victims of the World Trade Centerattack: "...little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers."
Congressman Frank Lobiondo, describing Guantanamo detainees: "Hitler, in his philosophy, was, you know, he hated Jews, he was murdering Jews, and there were some people he liked. But he never went to the levelthat these extremists are going to."
Michael Savage, on George Soros' campaigning against Pres. Bush: "I couldn't believe what I heard when Iturned on C-SPAN today, and heard Billionaire George Goebbels Soros attacking Bush."
Camille Paglia, on students tape-recording professorsas evidence of liberal bias: "...when students becomesnitches, we are heading toward dictatorship by Mao'sRed Guards or Hitler Youth."
You get the picture. Now, does anyone think we'd lose anything by dropping such rhetoric? Of course, to update our political language will require a little work. As historian Eric Foner has asked: "How do we describe the current system in which the government is increasingly corporatized and militarized yet democracy continues to exist?...Whatlanguage should we put in its place?" Along with new analytic terms, we'll need some new analogies, symbolic politics, and cultural allusions.
A lot of us, albeit for different reasons, are very angry right now about where our country is headed. The purpose of public speech is not just to restate that anger, but to clarify the principles and evidence that fuel it -- in ways that invite discussion, not inhibitit. I know that finding the language (and analytics, symbols and metaphors) to do that is itself a formidable task. But maybe we can get started by dropping the dead dictator talk and saying something new."