The Varieties of Nazi Analogies

Adam has touched on this, but here's a bit more Nazi analogies: If the Internet has brought us anything, it's the opportunity to contemplate the nature of Nazi analogies at length. But yesterday's argument about it is actually instructive. Briefly: Jeffrey Goldberg defends the invasion of Iraq by noting that the Kurds were quite pleased by it; Glenn Greenwald criticizes Goldberg by noting that every invasion, including those perpetrated by the Nazi regime, found some people in the invaded country who welcomed it; Joe Klein, with whom Greenwald has a pre-existing feud, goes crazy on Greenwald for comparing America to Nazi Germany. Kevin Drum sensibly notes that we shouldn't say a priori that all Nazi analogies are out of bounds.

There are really two kinds of Nazi analogies that are worth distinguishing here. The first is the meta-argument, which goes something like this: You have argued X. Your argument is unpersuasive, because I could take that principle and use it to defend something Hitler did, and we all know that what Hitler did is indefensible. That's the first kind of Nazi analogy. The second kind of analogy, which we might call The Jonah, goes something like this: You have done X. I have found something that Hitler did, which is kind of like what you did in some way. Therefore, you are kind of like a Nazi. The classic use of The Jonah is that Hitler was a vegetarian, which obviously proves that all vegetarians are fascists.

The problem here is that Joe Klein seems to be mistaking Glenn Greenwald's meta-argument for a Jonah argument. Klein says about Greenwald, "Comparing the United States to Nazi Germany is not merely disgraceful, but revelatory of a twisted, deluded soul." But Greenwald didn't compare the United States to Nazi Germany; he made an argument about Goldberg's argument, saying that it was so weak it could be used to defend Hitler, which of course neither Goldberg nor anyone else would want to do. Maybe you find Greenwald more persuasive, or maybe you find Goldberg more persuasive, but either way, we should be clear on what Greenwald did: He used a meta-argument, not a Jonah argument. The point of his Nazi analogy isn't to demonstrate that the invasion was wrong; it's to demonstrate that this particular way of defending the invasion is weak.

So let me suggest a modification of the "Don't ever use Nazi analogies" rule: The Jonah is never OK, since it makes you look like both an idiot and a jerk. Meta-arguments, on the other hand, are sometimes OK (though we should judge on a case-by-case basis).

-- Paul Waldman

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