You can’t debate online for long before tripping over a specious little adage that anyone who makes a comparison to Germany under National Socialism has automatically forfeited the argument. This is often referred to as “Godwin’s Law” or “playing the Hitler card.” Some people even refer to it by the mock Latin, “reductio ad Hitlerum,” as if it qualified as some kind of formal logical fallacy. Quite the opposite is true. Godwin’s Law, when used as an argument, is dangerously fallacious, and using it to break down legitimate bulwarks against fascism can only escalate totalitarian trends in the modern era.
In fairness to Mike Godwin, this is not how his law was originally formulated, nor how he intended it to be used. Godwin’s Law was originally coined on Usenet in 1990 and read:
“As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”
This of course has no bearing on the truth content of the comparison, and was devised as a satirical mathematical proof, not a logical one. Or, as comedian Lewis Black puts it:
”It’s like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, except there’s just one degree, and Kevin Bacon is Hitler!”
As an aside, there are only three degrees of separation between Kevin Bacon and Adolf Hitler.
- Adolf Hitler was in Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) with Curt Bois
- Curt Bois was in The Great Sinner with Kenneth Tobey
- Kenneth Tobey was in Hero at Large with Kevin Bacon
See that? Godwin’s Law, by way of Kevin Bacon, disproves all arguments everywhere. That’s what’s known as the argumentum ad absurdum fallacy. But I digress.
Mike Godwin’s original intention was to curb gratuitous comparisons to Nazis so that valid comparisons could retain their explanatory and cautionary power. It was never intended to be invoked as a complete ban on such comparisons. It seems that unnatural laws, even unenforceable internet laws, always achieve the opposite of their intention. As Godwin himself wrote in 2008:
“When I saw the photographs from Abu Ghraib, for example, I understood instantly the connection between the humiliations inflicted there and the ones the Nazis imposed upon death camp inmates—but I am the one person in the world least able to draw attention to that valid comparison.”
In fact, I have personally had Patriots invoke Godwin’s Law against me when I made comparisons of Abu Ghraib to Auschwitz.
There’s already a name for hyperbolic comparisons to Hitler. That’s an ad hominem fallacy. There’s also a name for applying the ad hominem fallacy, or any fallacy, inappropriately. That’s the argumentum ad logicam fallacy, also known as the fallacy fallacy.
In fact, Godwin didn’t invent Godwin’s law. He just named it. The mock latin reductio ad Hitlerum was actually coined in 1951 by political philosopher Leo Strauss. He claimed it was an informal fallacy, and was apparently more concerned with politics than philosophy. His fallacy was used to defend things like eugenics, which is the attempt to perfect human genetic traits through scientific and often state control of reproduction. Come up with some new Latin sounding phrase and suddenly fascist policies seem more palatable.
Leo Strauss was born in Germany in 1899 to Jewish parents and after brief employment in England emigrated to the United States in 1937. He spent most of his career as a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
According to Strauss, modern political philosophy was flawed when it stressed individual liberty as its highest goal. Strauss had a greater interest in “human excellence” and “political virtue.” Throughout his writings he returned repeatedly to the quandary of whether freedom and excellence could coexist. Not surprisingly, Strauss was a political Zionist. I’ll refrain from committing the fallacy which he invented.
Leo Strauss died in 1973, but Shadia Drury, a Canadian academic and political columnist, has labeled his adherents “Straussians.” She argues that the Straussians are dangerous, that they inculcate imperialist militarism, neoconservatism and Christian fundamentalism. Drury argues that the Straussians teach that “perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what’s good for them.” What does that remind you of?
Nicholas Xenos, a Professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, similarly argues that, “Strauss was somebody who wanted to go back to a previous, pre-liberal, pre-bourgeois era of blood and guts, of imperial domination, of authoritarian rule, of pure fascism.”
But you can’t call it fascism… because Godwin’s Law.
Do you see how absurd this all is? A bogus axiom against comparisons to fascism was initiated by a man whose political ramblings have inspired fascist political trends and policies in the modern era. It’s as idiotic as oxymoronic slogans like “ban bossy.” And how could it be any other way? Who else but the fascists does it serve if we can’t point at them and call them what they are? They say the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. Well there’s nothing supernatural about Hitler. Nazi’s didn’t occupy another dimension. They didn’t experience different laws of physics or economics. The atrocities committed in Germany under National Socialism happened right here on Earth, and refusing to heed the warnings of those who know how it happened is the surest way of seeing it happen again.
George Orwell once said, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” As a corollary I say, fascism is the ban on calling a fascist a fascist. If that is not granted, all else follows.