Tag Archives: Holocaust

The Enduring Popularity of Nazi Comparisons in American Politics

To some strains of the American electorate, fears of Nazi-style impending rule trump both political nuance and common sense.

A sign paid for by an Iowa Tea Party group. To some strains of the American electorate, fears of Nazi-style impending rule trump both political nuance and common sense.

Americans just love Nazis. Have I got your attention? Great, now let me explain. What I mean is that American politicians — and some of the public at large — often invoke the specter of Adolf Hitler and Nazism as the go-to example of political evil. Depending on their political preferences, some Americans like to accuse their political opponents of bringing on the Second Coming of the Third Reich in America. No matter that far too many people in the good ole’ U.S. of A know precious little about ACTUAL Nazism and the historical context from which in sprang in 1930s Germany; if they don’t like the other side, then the other side must be de-facto Nazis. Because Nazis are bad.

A recent case-in-point: two Republicans in Asheville, North Carolina recently compared the flying of the gay-rights rainbow flag at the city hall to Nazism. Former city councilman Carl Mumpower didn’t mince words when he stated that, “I am equating their methods with the Nazi movement…They are indifferent to the rule of law and indifferent to the vote of the people. And that’s Adolf Hitler all over again in a different disguise.” The “they” that Mumpower was referring to in his granite-headed statement was both the Asheville City Council and U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn, who recently struck down North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Mumpower’s equating of gay rights to Nazism is particularly galling since the Third Reich actively persecuted homosexuals in Germany. But not only is his statement galling, it’s also monumentally hypocritical. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, “The Nazis posed as moral crusaders who wanted to stamp out the ‘vice’ of homosexuality from Germany in order to help win the racial struggle.” You got that? A pair of North Carolina Republicans, who fancy themselves moral crusaders in the fight to uphold “traditional marriage,” are accusing their opponents of being Nazis — the very-same Nazis who positioned themselves as moral crusaders against the so-called threat of homosexual influence in Germany. Pot, meet every single kettle EVER MADE.

But this is hardly the only instance in which one U.S. political faction has likened their opponents to Nazis. As Media Matters noted early this year, conservatives in particular just can’t stop describing those wily liberals as another Third Reich. An especially choice instance of this type of lame-brained demagoguery involved hyperbolic venture-capitalist/comical plutocrat Tom Perkins, who wrote an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal (natch) in which he called liberals’ criticisms of the so-called “one percent” a “progressive Kristallnacht.” Perkins was referring to the infamous November 1938 pogrom in which Germans attacked Jews, destroyed Jewish businesses, and sent many to concentration camps. Because criticizing the wealth of spoiled ass-hat billionaires is totally the same thing state-sponsored anti-Semitic violence.

No recent American political figure has received more Nazi comparisons than President Barack Obama. Yes, it’s true that lefty protesters had a tendency to equate President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. But the sporadic “Left” has little influence on the ostensibly “liberal” Democratic Party, as evidenced by, well, the party’s entire platform. By contrast, hyperbolic conservative activists exert a LOT of influence on the Republican Party, and boy do they like to equate Obama to Hitler. Beyond the super-rich doing it, grassroots conservative activists — especially the various factions of foaming-at-the-mouth goobers in the Tea Party — just love to claim that, “the comparison between Hitler and Obama is striking.” Other Tea Party groups have carried signs with Obama sporting the infamous Hitler ‘stash, because Obama is just like Hitler, of course.

Nazi references run rampant in American politics, and they’re a particularly favored target by those on the Right who want to tie all political threats to the supposed re-emergence of the Third Reich. But when Americans call someone Hitler, or invoke Nazism in general, they aren’t concerned with making any actual, historical connections; rather, Nazi comparisons serve as an all-purpose-catch-all for invocations of current or impending evils. When Americans call their political opponents Nazis, they’re using Nazism as a stand-in for generic evil, all of which the Third Reich represents in an easily recognizable package. Unmoored from its historical context as a sociopolitical movement that happened in mid-twentieth-century Germany, Nazism becomes a generic political boogeyman. In America, you call your political opponent a Nazi because you don’t want to address the actual substance of their ideas.

The United States' ownunique history of racialized nationalism and territorial expansion makes Nazi references deeply personal.

The United States’ own unique history of racialized nationalism and territorial expansion makes Nazi references deeply personal — and visceral.

So, yeah, Nazis are big in America. But the question remains: why Nazis? Why Hitler? After all, there have been plenty of really evil humans in the past and a good-many nasty political movements that Americans could reference as a political slur. Sure, for a while, Communism was big, and it wasn’t unheard of for conservatives to call anyone to the left of Ayn Rand or John Birch a commie pinko, but there just seems to be something about Hitler and his merry band of genocidal Übermenschen that jingles American political bells.

Nazi comparisons are potent in America because Nazism sheds light on the darkest aspects of modern nationalist culture and its accompanying characteristics of patriotism and group-think — characteristics from which Americans have not been immune. Nazism invokes, whether consciously or unconsciously, a shared cultural fear that recognizes the universal human capacity for evil while simultaneously trying to relegate that capacity to the past.

Let’s take a general view of the central tenants of Nazism. Above all, there was the idea of a unified, powerful nation-state underpinned by a core belief in Aryan racial superiority over all other supposedly “inferior” races. White supremacy led the Nazi-controlled German state to purge its population of Jews, homosexuals, eastern Europeans, Gypsies, and other groups whom the Nazis deemed of lesser value than supposed ethnic Teutons.

But the Third Reich didn’t stop at its own borders. The Nazis believed that a racially homogenous Germany had the right to forcefully expand and conquer the rest of Europe (and eventually, the world). The “superior” Aryan population — the Master Race — was destined to dominate over areas populated by racial inferiors. Indeed, among Nazism’s driving forces was its incessant militarism; its cultural belief that war and violence could purge the world of “undesirables” and claim Germany’s rightful place as the supreme ruler of humanity. This potent combination of militarism and white racial supremacy eventually resulted in the Holocaust, during which 6 million European Jews were summarily exterminated in what remains the worst instance of “ethnic cleansing” in modern history.

Of course, the long arc of U.S. history also involves its own themes of white supremacy, the vast territorial expansion of an increasingly powerful nation-state, and the violent conquest and subjugation of non-white peoples. The near two-centuries long forced removal and relocation of Native Americans onto federally designated and administered reservations was the most significant legacy of an American ideology of white supremacy merged with a Manifest Destiny to expand the (white) American empire from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

While there is heated debate among historians over whether the American treatment of its native peoples constituted a genocide, there is no disputing that Indian Removal was born of white supremacist nationalism. President Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, spoke for millions of (though not all) white Americans in his famous speech to Congress in which he outlined how removing Indians would “place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters.” For Jackson, and for many Americans in the nineteenth century, “the waves of [white] population and civilization” were “rolling to the westward,” and “the benevolent policy of the Government…in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements” would soon come to “a happy consummation.”

Although genocide wasn’t the goal of American Indian Removal, the results where nonetheless violent and tragic. Hundreds-of-thousands of Indians died from exposure, starvation, and from outright warfare with the United States government. This mass death and relocation took place in the name of a racially unified, expansionist American nation-state. In the words of nineteenth century journalist John O’Sullivan, “we are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can.” Among those earthly powers who couldn’t stop this “human progress” were America’s native peoples.

The United States also displayed its racialized nationalism via the enslavement of millions of African-Americans and the continued relegation of blacks to second-class citizenship for decades after slavery’s demise. The notion of a white “master race” who ruled over an inferior black slave race was codified at the highest levels of American government and embraced on an intimate, social level in the South. Even in the regions where slavery was illegal, white supremacy was a potent cultural force, and it remained so well-after the Civil War and into the twentieth century. During the Second World War, for example, critics as diverse as the NAACP and the Axis Powers pointed out the hypocrisy of an American nation that fought for freedom against the dictatorships while still maintaining a segregated armed forces and a system of domestic racial apartheid.

The U.S. has its own issues with race, but dang-nabbit, we still kicked Hitler's Teutonic ass.

The U.S. has had its own issues with race, but dang-nabbit, we still kicked Hitler’s Teutonic ass.

Americans with even a basic grasp of history understand how ugly shades of racial subjugation and expansionist nationalism influenced their own past. Some choose to look at history as, in part, an abject lesson in the human capacity for evil: even those who purport to represent freedom can fall prey to the darkest of human impulses that lead to violence and domination. For other Americans, however, the fact that some of Nazism’s ideological underpinnings have also influenced U.S. history leads them to embrace denial and oversimplification. For them, Nazism was evil incarnate, therefore, it is the antithesis of all-things America, as are their political opponents.

On the one hand, the continued use of Nazi comparisons in U.S. politics does highlight the American ability to (eventually) overcome the worst political ideas that the world has to offer. We know that the Nazis were bad and we don’t ever want to become just like them. The U.S. of the past was a white supremacist nation bent on, at times, violent national expansion, but it never became the kind of totalitarian one-party state that defined the European fascist powers. Heck, the United States fought — and won — a war against fascism even as it continued to struggle with the legacy of its own past, in which racism had a profound influence. Many Americans are aware of the uglier aspects of their history, and they want to continue to move beyond it, and that’s a good thing.

But while the presence of Nazis as all-encompassing political boogeymen in U.S. politics might serve as a useful reminder of the benefits of American freedom, more often than not, such comparisons are reduced to pointless, hyperbolic fear-mongering. So what’s say we lay off the Nazi comparisons. Barack Obama is not Hitler. George W. Bush is not Hitler. Only Hitler was Hitler. The sooner Americans recognize these points, the sooner they can reconcile the best and worst aspects of their own history and move forward to create a better (and fascist-free!) future.

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The Ugly History of “Makers vs. Takers” Rhetoric

This is not a good way to debate human social organization. Its just not.

This is not a good way to debate human social organization. It’s just not.

During the 2012 presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney made some remarks that may have sunk his candidacy. This was nothing new for the perennial presidential candidate. After all, the guy is about as charismatic as a brick wall and has changed his political positions so often over the course of his public career that “foot in mouth disease” likely runs in his bloodline. But the comments to which I’m specifically referring were his infamous “47 percent remarks” delivered on May 17, 2012 in Bacon Raton, Florida to a table of chair-straining plutocrat donors. The remarks were, of course, captured on hidden camera by bartender Scott Prouty.

Romney’s remarks effectively divided the U.S. into two populations: the supposedly hard-working, usually rich, and always self-unaware “takers,” and the 47 percent of welfare-addicted takers who allegedly rely on government redistributive policies to siphon wealth from the “makers.” The full text of Romney’s remarks can be read here, but the “47 percent” spiel went as follows:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney says in the video. “All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what … These are people who pay no income tax.”

Besides the unmitigated chutzpah of a son-of-a multi-millionaire arbitrarily chastising some amorphous mass of U.S. citizens for not working hard enough while claiming that he himself had “inherited nothing,” Romney’s comments echoed a familiar idea, popular among the American Right, that crudely divides human society into camps of either productive workers or useless parasites. In recent years, this idea has been promoted in pseudoscientific right-wing literature, is routinely promulgated by utopian-craving Libertarian circle-jerk centers like Reason.com, and is spewed out by columnists like Wall Street Journal fungus-sprout, and privileged son of the affluent Chicago suburbs, Stephen Moore.

Such a simplistic division of humans into opposing “productive” and “worthless” camps, however, is nothing new. In fact, this odious approach to social organization is rooted in 19th century pseudoscientific racial thinking. The idea of “makers vs. takers” influenced the social trajectory of modern western history and, when taken to its extremes, it has provided the intellectual justification for slavery, eugenics, and, in the worst case scenario, the Holocaust. Lest the former point strike you as hyperbolic, I thought I’d take some time in this post to highlight some past examples of “makers vs. takers” arguments as revealed in some good ole’ fashioned primary source documents. These texts can help demonstrate why the “makers vs. takers” argument is despicable and dangerous.

19th century philosopher Herbert Spencer. At least his impressive chops were the fittest.

19th century philosopher Herbert Spencer. At least his impressive chops were the fittest.

Let’s begin with Herbert Spencer, the 19th century English philosopher, anthropologist, and all around tool whose unscientific application of Darwinian natural selection to human societies led him to coin the term “survival of the fittest.” Spencer adamantly opposed 19th century “poor laws,” early types of state welfare, because he believed such laws took from the “strong” to give to the “weak.” Take, for example, this excerpt from Spencer’s work Social Statistics (1851):

The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many “in shallows and in miseries,” are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence.

It seems hard that an unskilfulness which with all his efforts he cannot overcome, should entail hunger upon the artizan. It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence—the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the low-spirited, the intemperate, and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.

Spewing the racialist thought popular at the time, Spencer believed that some humans, like European whites, were inherently genetically superior to others, like black Africans, that were inherently inferior. He thus divided humans into “weak” and “strong” camps, and justified the disease, death, suffering, and poverty experienced by millions as natural retribution for their inherent weaknesses. Spencer claimed that the good of greater humanity depended on such “harsh fatalities,” which were, in fact, of the “highest beneficence” to humanity in general. He opposed poor laws and welfare because he believed that such laws propped up weak, inferior takers at the superior makers’ expense.

Spencer, an early supporter of eugenics, advocated sterilization to eliminate the “unfit” parasites from the earth. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, eugenics was popular among both progressive and conservative thinkers, but Spencer’s Social Darwinian theories are still popular within contemporary right-wing circles, where his delegation of the human race into “fit” and “unfit” categories appeals to those inclined towards a “makers vs. takers” worldview. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that nearly all of Spencer’s writings can be accessed for free at the website of Liberty Fund, an Indiana-based Libertarian foundation.

Moving along from Spencer, lets visit the antebellum South, where we’ll examine the famous 1858 “Mudsill Speech” delivered by pro-slavery apologist, and South Carolina senator, James Henry Hammond. Hammond was unquestionably one of the great scumbags of American history. In 1829, at age 21, he married a wealthy heiress named Catherine Fitzsimmons, from whom he gained ownership of over 100 slaves. Hammond not only sexually abused his female slaves on multiple occasions, but also molested his own nieces, a process he bragged about in detail in his own journal!

These actions stemmed from Hammond’s domineering worldview that saw women and blacks as tools for his pleasure. This idea informed his “Mudsill Speech,” through which he defended southern slavery against northern criticism by dividing society into a racial hierarchy of peon laborers and dominating owners:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.

Hammond emphasized that without a laboring “mudsill” class to do hard, manual labor without complaint, and for little compensation, civilization itself could not flourish. The existence of a permanent laboring class freed up enlightened geniuses like himself to marry rich women and pursue intellectual stimulation that would lead to cultural “refinement.” In Hammond’s racist time, better to have enslaved “inferior” blacks do the dirty work. For him and his ilk, “equality” was anathema to freedom, since the natural order of free society supposedly necessitated an “inferior” (read: black) class to provide for the economic and political security of a ruling (read: white) class. For men like Hammond, abolishing slavery entailed foisting a vast “taker” class of African-Americans onto the ruling “makers” who were busy building civilization.

James Henry Hammond: he really was a total jerk.

James Henry Hammond: he really was a total jerk.

Echoes of Hammond’s “Mudsill Theory” reverberates in modern conservative ideas about “makers and takers.” This view of society provides those who identify themselves among the “makers” with a feeling of superiority over an allegedly idle class that refuses to pull up its collective bootstraps and embrace good old fashioned labor. No matter the pittance of compensation or carefully constructed barriers to economic advancement that may come with such labor; conservatives, like those at the Heritage Foundation, bemoan the supposed “erosion of our culture of work” because such an erosion allegedly creates a parasitic class that refuses to be “mudsills,” and instead leaches from the noble upholders of American civilized culture.

But by dividing society into “makers and takers,” conservatives come eerily close to consigning the human population into “worthy” and “unworthy” classes, a type of social division that provided the ideological justification for slavery’s domination of one human group by another. Pro-slavery ideologues like Hammond dehumanized blacks as unworthy of participation in the American experiment, and modern conservatives who blithely dismiss half the population as parasites by extension deny millions of their fellow citizens their basic human dignity as legitimate members of the body politic.

The repugnant, and possibly dangerous, consequences of viewing human society as made up of “makers” and “takers” stems from a long tradition of historical beliefs that sought to categorize the human race into various types of “worthy” and “unworthy” groups along lines of genetics, race, gender, and class. The Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer still echoes in modern conservatives’ characterization of “welfare” as undeserved “handouts” to those unwilling to work on their own. Moreover, the notion of hard-working “worthy” and idle “unworthy” classes underpinned pro-slavery arguments that inequality was essential to the upholding of freedom for the “civilized” classes.

When you arbitrarily divide human beings into “productive” and “unproductive” groups, you inherently deem the so-called “unproductive” classes as undeserving of social acceptance. Historically, this has been the first ideological step taken by those wishing to dominate other humans by controlling their labor or, in the worst case scenario, eliminating them altogether. Those who label their fellow humans as “takers” equate them to parasites, and parasites must be exterminated.

Historically, this view, taken to its utmost extremes, has resulted in the genocide of Native Peoples in America, Jews in Nazi Germany, and the Tutsis tribe in Rwanda, to name but a few examples. It’s no coincidence that 19th century American Indian Bureau officials sought to “make labor honorable and idleness dishonorable” among Indians who would otherwise starve to death following the confiscation of their hunting grounds by whites. It’s also no coincidence that the Third Reich railed against “parasitical Jews,” and that Rwandan Hutu death squads viewed Tutsis as “treacherous speculators and parasites.”

Dividing human beings into simplistic camps of “makers” and “takers” implicitly dehumanizes one group while empowering the other. The historical baggage that comes with such divisions is not something that should be exhumed from the graveyard of discarded human ideologies. Political differences are fine, and should be recognized, but let’s not lose sight of basic human dignity in the process.