Historical Analogies, From Wrong to Awful

Here's a little tip for those commenting on public affairs, whether politician, writer, or just someone with a microphone in front of them. You'll be tempted from time to time to use a historical analogy, comparing present events and controversies to more momentous ones from the past. But there are a few you definitely want to avoid, including the following: I am like Jesus. The people I disagree with are like Nazis. The people I disagree with are like slave owners or segregationists. I or people Iike me are as oppressed as slaves were, or as Jews in Nazi Germany were. Those comparisons will pop into your head, but do yourself a favor and try to come up with something better. That shouldn't be too hard, should it?

Apparently, it is. Today we saw one of these analogies, and another one that isn't quite so bad but still has some issues. The first was from Robert Benmosche, the CEO of AIG, the company that, you'll recall, kind of destroyed the world economy a few years ago, then was bailed out by the taxpayers. Benmosche complained to the Wall Street Journal that the controversy over whether AIG executives should get bonuses "was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that–sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong."

Oh dear. Had he not said "it was just as bad and just as wrong," there would surely have been somewhat fewer spit takes over this morning's coffee. But this analogy fails in every conceivable way. In the broadest terms, getting criticized over your receipt of enormous bonuses is nothing like getting kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in the most gruesome way possible. Nothing. Not. A. Thing. Would Mr. Benmosche say, "I stubbed my toe on a table leg yesterday, which was sort of like when my neighbor got pancreatic cancer, went through months of horrific treatments, then died. It was just as bad as that"? I guess he would. There's also no specific way in which the two situations are alike. Nobody even knew who the AIG executives were. They were singled out for criticism because of what appeared to be undeserved rewards, not because of some immutable factor of their being. If they suffered at all, it would have been a rather mild form of suffering. The criticism came in the form of some public statement people made, not in the form of a genuine threat to them as individuals. Oh, and also, they weren't lynched, you idiot. In fact, I'm sure they ended up doing just fine.

Now let's look at another misconceived historical analogy we heard today. Senator Mike Lee of Utah conceded to a radio host that most Americans don't support the effort by him and other congressional Republicans to defund the Affordable Care Act, but then said this:

I would remind your listeners out there that the Revolutionary War was fought and won with the support from a minority within a minority of Americans. There are lots of fights we have fought as Americans where we were the underdogs, where not everyone was on board. But a select few knew that it was worth fighting. And eventually they persuaded others to go along and eventually they won. This is one of those moments, Mark.

Lee's analogy is far less objectionable than Benmosche's, beyond the obvious reason. What he's saying is that the current situation is analogous to a particular distinctive feature of a historical precedent. He's basically saying that you can be in the minority but still be right, which is certainly true. Of course, analogies do more than just make those kinds of simple comparisons; they attempt to transfer meaning—both substantive and emotional—from the thing being compared to (the source, in this case the Revolution) onto the thing we're actually talking about (the target, in this case the defunding effort). So yes, Lee is trying to imbue his attempt to deny people health insurance with the heroic spirit of the Founders, but Tea Partiers like him do that with pretty much everything. It's Founding Father fetishism; if you asked Lee whether he'd like a tuna sandwich, he'd find a way to work a stirring reference to James Madison into his answer.

Not being a historian of the Revolutionary War, I can't say for sure whether Lee's "minority of a minority" assertion is strictly accurate; there were no polls at the time, and the references I've seen seem to converge on the vague-but-safe conclusion that many and perhaps most colonists were neutral on the question. But I can tell you where it comes from. The idea that only a small proportion of American colonists supported and/or fought in the Revolution is an oft-repeated talking point in libertarian and anti-government circles, particularly among extremist gun-rights advocates. Many of them call themselves "three percenters" on the theory that the war was fought by only three percent of the colonists, and like those heroes of old, they'll one day have to take up arms while the spineless populace suffers in silence under the tyrant's boot. Google "three percenter" and you'll come up with all kinds of creepy web sites written by people who sound like they're just a step or two away from shooting their local cops, planting a bomb at an FBI office, and holing up in a backwoods compound while they wait for the next revolution to begin.

So nice to know that that's where our politicians are getting their analogies from.

Comments

Given that for over a century historians have considered "What was the fuss about?" a central question about the Revolution, this is especially remarkable. Lee's presumption is that a brave but righteous remnant stood up against "tyranny" while others stayed neutral out of cowardice. But it's not clear at all that the British were that "tyrannical"; up until the mid-1760s, at least, the colonists took enormous pride in being part of what they regarded as the freest realm on earth, and such revolutionary icons as Benjamin Franklin were eager to patch things up until virtually the last minute. Further, a lot of people, especially in the southern back country, actually regarded the overweening elites of their own colonies as more tyrannical than the Mother Country. I suspect the Tea Party has more in common with those latter than with the Founders who wound up foisting the federal government on them, but whatever.

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