I fought the Hitler zombie, and the Hitler zombie won...maybe

It would be no fun at all to write this blog if everyone always agreed with me. (Of course, it would be even less fun if everyone violently disagreed with me and, as some of the antivaxers did, angrily and gleefully wished that I should have an autistic child, but that's another issue.) In any case, every so often I'll post something that produces a reaction that surprises me. So it was as I was looking over some of the comments on yesterday's post about Dick Durbin's recent use of the Nazi analogy. Given my history of going after such analogies, I thought it might be a nice diversion from vaccines to comment on it. Silly me. I had expected a more mixed response, but that's not what I got. Instead, the response was overwhelmingly negative. Consequently, I thought this would be a good time to do an "aggregate" response to the commentary. At the risk of angering a few loyal readers, I'll share two thoughts that came to mind:
  1. A few people didn't read what I actually wrote or read it through the prism of their biases.
  2. In my haste to get the article posted, I didn't make my point as cogently as I'm normally capable of doing, leading to an impression I hadn't planned on making.
In reality, I think it was a combination of #1 and #2. You can decide for yourself which of the two predominates. Personally, I like to think it was more #1, but then, hard as it is to believe sometimes, actual humility overtakes me and I have to admit that it could well be #2. On the other hand, it could also be that I've become enamored of the concept of a Hitler zombie eating people's brains a little too much, so much so that I like to bring out the shambling corpse with the Swastika and the Charlie Chaplin mustache a little more often than he's needed. Who knows? (Come on, admit it, though. Don't you think that the Hitler zombie is a really cool writing device to use to take down idiots who make such silly Nazi/Hitler analogies, like Rick Santorum and Charlie Rangel?)

I was puzzled by the reaction because what was being said was not that far off from what I said in my post. I agree 100% that the main problem is the way that Durbin's remarks have been reported and spun throughout the right wing blogosphere and talk radio. Indeed, I characterized the response as "way out of proportion to the actual offense" and described the right wing as "really out for blood." I even provided a link to an article by a conservative who was critical of the right wing nutcases who were out for Durbin's blood and a direct link to the text of Durbin's remarks, so that people could judge for themselves. As for the comment that Durbin never actually compared anyone to Hitler, I respond that that's a distinction without a meaningful difference. Whenever you invoke the Nazi regime, you invoke Hitler. Hitler, the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, they're all part of the same vile package. There's no easy way around it, because Hitler was the absolute dictator of the regime and no major policy the Nazi regime undertook happened without his order or at least tacit approval. Indeed, the equivalence of references to Hitler and the Nazis in practical terms, as far as rhetoric goes, is implicitly understood, which is why Godwin's Law is about Hitler and the Nazis, not just Hitler.

However, the intentionally overblown reaction of pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and Mark Levin, and opportunistic right wingers like Newt Gingrich does not excuse Durbin. Durbin's a big boy, and the reaction should not have come as a surprise to him. As a seasoned politician who's been in a few nasty campaigns himself, Durbin should have been able to predict what the right wing echo chamber's reaction to his comparison of our excesses at Guantanamo to those of totalitarian regimes like the Nazis or Pol Pot would be. In fact, part of what angers me about Durbin's use of the Nazi analogy is that he was making such good points up until then. His comparison of our policies to the mistake of interning Japanese-Americans during World War II was particularly effective, as was his emphasis that we do not have to sacrifice our American ideals to win the war on terror. He didn't need to drop the H-bomb (much less add the Stalin-bomb and Pol Pot bombs) to be effective in making his point. He really didn't. But drop it he did, and by dropping it he foolishly gave the right wing an easy opening to drown out the substance of his criticisms of how the U.S. has been conducting the war on terror in general (and how it has been running Guantanamo Bay in particular) with hyperbolic distortions, false claims of treachery, and comparing Guantanamo Bay to a death camp. Now he's been forced to apologize, and the neocons will count it as a "victory."

But the above complaints are matters of Durbin screwing up political tactics, a critique that I could have made even if I didn't find his use of the Nazi analogy offensive and foolish. One commenter asked me what it was that I found offensive about Durbin's use of the Nazi analogy. That's a fair question, and perhaps my mistake is that I didn't expand upon it in the original post. Basically, it's a matter of degree. Yes, the Nazi regime (and the Stalin and the Pol Pot regimes) did things similar to what the FBI agent's report said we did to prisoners, such as leaving them chained for 24 hours or more in the fetal position, or in excessively hot or cold conditions, and mentally abusing them. (They probably would indeed have subjected prisoners to loud rap music, had such music existed then.) But they also did so much more to their prisoners. The Nazis, for example, intentionally exterminated millions, systematically building up a machinery of death camps with gas chambers in the service of eliminating the Jews and those whom they considered their racial enemies. In their camps, they intentionally starved and worked their prisoners to death. They performed brutal medical experiments on them, all in the name of "racial hygeine" or "race science." It is because their crimes were so great that they have become synonymous with more than just authoritarian regimes and thuggish interrogation techniques; they have become synonymous with evil. The Soviet regime ran a string of gulags in which millions died. Pol Pot's regime used similar tactics, starving and working Cambodians until they died of malnutrition or malaria, as well as carrying out brutal purges:
Purge after purge of high and low Khmer Rouge followed. They increasingly filled the cells of the major security facility in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, with communist officials and cadre. Pol Pot's gang had these people tortured until they fingered collaborators among higher-ups, who were then executed. Confessions were the aim of most torture, and the gang would even arrest, with all the lethal consequences, interrogators who were so crude as to kill their victims before getting a confession.

On the suffering of the tortured, one such interrogator reported. "I questioned this bitch who came back from France; my activity was that I set fire to her ass until it became a burned-out mess, then beat her to the point that she was so turned around I couldn't get any answer out of her; the enemy then croaked, ending her answers..."

The sheer pile of confessions forced from tortured lips must have further stimulated paranoia at the top. The recorded number of prisoners admitted to Tuol Sleng was about 20,000, suggesting how many were tortured and made such confessions. Only fourteen of them survived this imprisonment--fourteen. And this was only one such torture/execution chamber, albeit the main one in the country.
I'm sorry, but even the worst abuses at Guantanamo Bay are similar to those of Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin only in the same way that a firecracker is similar to a thermonuclear device. Both are explosive devices, but they are so many orders of magnitude different in force that comparisons between the two should be undertaken with a great deal of care. Comparing Guantanamo Bay to such brutality not only grossly exaggerates how serious the abuses at Guantanamo Bay are beyond reason but also, as was suggested as one reason for my disgust, "waters down our collective memory about these horrors." It's also so inflammatory that it instantly incinerates whatever other points a speaker is trying to make, no matter how thoughtful or reasonable. As Marc at Spinning Clio has put it, "once the F├╝hrer enters the room, the debate has probably 'Jumped-the-Shark.'" It certainly did in this case, as no one paid attention to the rest of what Durbin said, particulary this, which I agree with:
The issue debated in the press today misses the point. The issue is not about closing Guantanamo Bay. It is not a question of the address of these prisoners. It is a question of how we treat these prisoners. To close down Guantanamo and ship these prisoners off to undisclosed locations in other countries, beyond the reach of publicity, beyond the reach of any surveillance, is to give up on the most basic and fundamental commitment to justice and fairness, a commitment we made when we signed the Geneva Convention and said the United States accepts it as the law of the land, a commitment which we have made over and over again when it comes to the issue of torture. To criticize the rest of the world for using torture and to turn a blind eye to what we are doing in this war is wrong, and it is not American.
Too bad no one was listening anymore after he dropped the H-bomb. His opponents were sharpening their knives and firing up the attack machine, and those who might have been predisposed to agree with him heard only sound bites. If you're going to make comparisons to Nazis, the bare minimum criteria should be that the crimes are at least somewhere on the same order of magnitude, unless you're going to do a lot of careful qualification, something political speeches are quite unsuited for.

Is argumentum ad Nazium always a fallacy? No, but in most cases as used by most pundits, it is. But because it is so toxic, to avoid being a fallacy, it should be done with extreme care and only rarely, as I've explained before. David Neiwert has accomplished this in his two famous series (and here) but, unfortunately Dick Durbin did not. He came close but couldn't quite manage it, and it would have been better for him and his message if he had not even tried. It just goes to show that no matter how fast on your feet (rhetorically speaking) you think you are or how thoughtful you think you are, you use the Hitler zombie at your own great peril. Just when you think you've successfully sent him against your opponent, you'll turn around and find yourself staring into a rotting maw with a funny little mustache getting ready to take a bite out of your skull.


  1. Because I have read your blog, I understand why you feel the way you do about comparisons to Hitler. I agree that many of the actions by the Nazis, Stalin Soviets and Pol Pot's regime were orders of magnitude worse than anything alleged at Guantanamo. I understand your fear that comparing bad things to unutterably abominable things can trivialize those abominations. I also agree that Durbin could have made his point without the comparisons, and that making those comparisons opened his otherwise valid points to criticism by the defenders of torture. Despite all that, I think his analogy is not invalid, although it is perhaps close to over the top. But again I ask, to whom should he compare the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo?

    I disagree that Hitler vs. Nazi is a distinction without a difference. If you compare an event to a Hitler event, then someone must be Hitler. Durbin did not go that far, and I don't think he intended to.

    I'm afraid you are fighting a losing battle in trying to keep the true horror of the Nazis alive in our communal memory. I think that WW II is already fading very quickly into one of those mildly interesting historical events like WW I, the American Civil War, and the near extermination of the American Indians. How many people today think about the haphazard slaughter of Muslims and dark-skinned Christians alike by the crusaders when they compare the American fight against terrorism to a crusade?

  2. I'm on your side on this one Orac. There is much to be said on the subject of Guantanamo - and none of it needs the oversimplistic rhetoric of the argumentium ad nazium. The question of 'to whom should he compare the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo?' is frankly irrelevant - it's a similar bad move to how else do you explain it?: even if there were no alternative comparison, the Hitler analogy would still be inaccurate and therefore bad.

    A good argument can and should be allowed to stand on its own. One need not rely on idiot comparisons to condemn torture... indeed, I'd go so far as to say if you feel it is necessary to drag up the horrors of nazism in order to recognize that torture is morally unacceptable then you need to take a serious look at your moral assumptions.

  3. I am close to taking offense at the "idiot comparison" remark. Humans always -- always -- think of a new thing in terms of an old thing. Why else would someone say that a photon behaves sometimes like a particle and sometimes like a wave, when a photon is clearly neither? We use analogies and comparisons to understand a concept or event and to place it in context. It is entirely reasonable to compare the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo to something with which we are familiar. Such behavior must be understood in some context. Durbin's argument depends on a recognition that this type of behavior is not what we have come to expect from Americans, but something we might expect from some regime that we would condemn.

    To argue against the use of comparisons and analogies is to argue that the nature of human perception is wrong. This is the way we are. Live with it.

    I reiterate: Durbin did not compare anyone to Hitler. I reiterate: There is a difference between saying "like the Nazis" and "like Hitler."

  4. I agree with Mark Paris. Yes, the methods used by the cited totalitarian regimes were worse, but the kind of acts described in the FBI eye witness report is something you'd normally associate with such regimes, and that was what Durbin made clear.

  5. The Chicago Tribune published this article today, giving the tipping point to Richard Daley. Unfortunately, I agree with them. Those of you who do not reside in Chicago probably cannot understand, but when Da Mayor's machine is so powerful that it even puts fear in our senior US Senator.

    It has been said that Daley is the most powerful Democrat in the US. And as the article states, even though he had stated he was not going to apologize, he did so mere hours after Daley's angry remarks.

    Link to article (registration required) http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-0506230185jun23,1,1850839.story?page=1&cset=true&ctrack=1&coll=chi-news-hed

  6. Sorry, Orac, you're still making the same error: Durbin did not "[compare] Guantanamo Bay to such brutality", nor did he compare the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo to the treatment of prisoners at Auschwitz. He pointed out that if you asked a quote-unquote normal American citizen about the treatment, they would probably assume it came from one of those regimes and not the States. That's not a trivial distinction.

    As long as you continue to insist that Durbin did something he didn't we're going to have to agree to disagree here, although pretty much all of your other points I agree with.

  7. Orac:

    When will people ever learn? There is no valid comparison to the Hitler and/or Nazi regime. The outrageousness of the atrocities committed is unequaled and the way politicians (bloggers and commenters too) throw around the Nazi-like and Hitler-like comparisons sickens me.

    We have Mike Paris suggesting that what might have occurred in a US combatant prisoner camp is comparable to the Nazis. He uses a rhetorical ploy to justify the comparison – if not the Nazis then who? I’ll provide some suggestions. Let’s look at the rest of the world. Let’s compare how prisoners captured on a battlefield are treated world wide and see how the US ranks. This, unlike a Nazi comparison, would be a valid one since it is the rest of the world that now seems to be condemning the treatment of the captured combatants in US prisons camps. Alternatively, we can continue to strive to be the moral beacon in the world and reflect internally on what we know is right and wrong (outside of the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery actions in the 1800’s, what other nation in world history has act so selflessly for others?)

    Mr. Paris then goes on and tries to differentiate between Nazis and Hitler – impossible. The terms mean on and the same.

    The true thoughts behind Mr. Paris’ posts come to light in the last paragraph when he speaks of historical events that seem to be forgotten - America bashing. First I’d like to point out that although most of the country has probably forgotten the Civil War, in many places down south, it is still being fought. (Stonewall Jackson is facing north in Richmond to repel the Yankee horde). It’s as if Mr. Paris is saying it is ok to use an invalid comparison since no one will know what you are saying – I agree with the second part, most people out there in TV land have no clue as to the evilness the Pol Pot regime (let alone who he was). More importantly though, Mr. Paris resorts to his Nazi/Hitler comparison rhetoric again this time by including the near extermination of American Indians and the Crusaders comments. Is the reader to now think hmmmmmmmm Nazi, Pol Pot, war, Whites killing non-Whites, prisoners at Gitmo – they’re all equal, factually and in degree hideousness? A couple of points 1) There is the failure to give the entire history of Americans Indians. I can’t but I’ll add a few nuggets. Mr. Paris fails to mention the killings and massacres that were occurring between the American Indian tribes themselves. He fails to mention that it was a European power that decimated the native cultures in Central and South America (he left it up to the reader to think: dead Indians = USA bad). There was also a failure to mention that SCOTUS ruled in favor of the American Indians but it was Old hickory that stated let John Marshall enforce the ruling. This is not a justification for the treatment of American Indians; I am merely adding some facts to the discussion (for some reason when one questions another’s argument about mistreatment, s/he is always thrown into the “you must approve of it” category thus I will attempt to preempt that classification). 2) The killing of darker skinned peoples and non-Christians is thrown into the mix (I believe it is an anti-Christian shot across the bow and thus an anti-W and anti-American comment but I could be wrong. We are not a Christian nation but it is the religion of most of our population). While I am no fan of the present day Christian right, lets not forget the atrocities committed by non-Christians leading up to and including the Crusades. If one is going to throw the grenade of atrocities into the ring, make sure all sides are represented especially if the grenade is “haphazard slaughter” One reason, and there were many, for the Crusades was the expansion and subjugation of others, through war, by Arab Muslims. Did you forget about the “haphazard slaughter” of Jewish merchants in Medina at the near beginning of Arab Muslim conquest? The dhimmi status of all non-Muslims in Muslim controlled areas? When I think of haphazard slaughter these days, I think of a suicide bomber in Iraq – why no mention of that? (I leave out the slaughter of innocents in places such as Beslan, Dafur, and Tel Aviv because those were/are in no way haphazard – all planned killings) Of note, while the Christian Crusaders probably killed innocents, many of them were unlucky European Jews who happened to be in the path of an advancing Christian Army (light skinned killing light skinned). A little history changes the scenario a bit and one might
    no longer use this formula USA=Bad.

    Amazingly, Mr. Paris uses the same historical knowledge that people don’t have (see his first post) to make his point in the second post. I ask this question: Since according to you, knowledge of Nazi atrocity is a flickering flame in the minds of today’s citizens (a point I agree with completely) how can the horror of Hitler and the Nazi regime be used as the constant for a comparison? While it is correct that one can make comparisons to understand a place or concept, one must know and understand the two topics to be compared. The population at large has no understanding of either of the two current topics. There is no historical knowledge base for using the terms Hitler/Nazi and currently, most of the information about Gitmo is propaganda. The Right states it’s Club Med while the Left makes it out to be one of the last rings in Dante’s Inferno. IMO – Mr. Paris (deep space nine?) uses thinly veiled “America is bad” comments to justify the use of Hitler/Nazis comparisons. I think such usage is wrong.

    Kristjan jumps on the bandwagon and agrees. I must disagree. What Sen. Durbin described is not something one would normally associate with the regimes mentioned. As discussed above and in Mr. Paris’ 1st post, most people do not know the outrageousness of the atrocities committed by Nazis/Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot (again, I would wager a large sum that the name “Pol Pot” means absolutely nothing to most people). Read Orac’s original post for an example of the evil that comprised those regimes. One would need a warped sense of morality equivalence to equate sleep deprivation (what seems to be a common technique) with forced slave labor sans food (a common method of torture used by the Nazis).

    While not justifying any mistreatment at the hands of US soldiers (if they occurred, they are wrong. End of discussion), the comparisons of US actions to Nazis are totally and completely erroneous. IMO, it is anti-Americanism that fosters these comparisons all the while allowing actual real-life present day totalitarian regimes to commit true atrocities and, for the most part, get away with it without a single word of condemnation (from these very same people that wish to crucify the USA for its actions).


    "A good argument can and should be allowed to stand on its own. One need not rely on idiot comparisons to condemn torture... indeed, I'd go so far as to say if you feel it is necessary to drag up the horrors of nazism in order to recognize that torture is morally unacceptable then you need to take a serious look at your moral assumptions. A good argument can and should be allowed to stand on its own."

    Great point!!! (I may borrow this in the future but I will provide you with full credit)

  8. I started to respond to chaperonin60, but then I realized there is no point.

  9. Oh, OK, I can't resist. Here's just one:

    chaperonin60 says, "He uses a rhetorical ploy to justify the comparison – if not the Nazis then who? I’ll provide some suggestions."

    OK, I'm waiting. You forgot to provide the suggestions.

  10. I'll take that challenge myself. (I just got out of the O.R. a little while ago; otherwise I would have answered earlier.) A more appropriate comparison for the abuses at Gitmo would be authoritarian regimes like Manuel Noriega's, Fidel Castro's, or our erstwhile "allies" Pakistan or Egypt. These would still be somewhat overblown comparisons, but they wouldn't be nearly as ridiculously overblown.

    I still don't think it's that important a distinction that Durbin used the fictitious "average American" for the comparison. It's a rather convenient device to bring up such comparisons with a bit of plausible deniability. Now that I think of it again, I don't even think he was correct in using that rhetorical device. I would argue that, when the "average" American thinks about the Nazi regime, it is Auschwitz and the death camps that come to mind (like in the movie Schindler's List). When the "average American" thinks of Pol Pot, he probably thinks of the movie The Killing Fields and mass torture and slaughter. When the "average" American thinks of Stalin, he probably thinks of the gulags and far greater brutality. I sincerely doubt he thinks of prisoners being tied up in their own waste for 24 hours or forced to listen to loud music, as bad as those may be.

    I also stand by my contention that the Hitler vs. Nazi distinction is a distinction without a significant difference.

  11. I was hoping for a rise from chaperonin60. I was going to point out that my name is actually Mark, not Mike, and at least I use my real name in these comments rather than hiding behind "chaperonin60" to take cheap, personal shots.

    But Orac, I won't argue with you any further about any of this. We can agree to disagree on some of these issues. (And I do not include your use of a pseudonym as hiding.)

    I agree that the regimes you mention are more appropriate comparisons, but if one uses an analogy to explain something, the analog must be familiar in order for it to work. I don't think those other, more appropriate examples are familiar enough for the rhetorical device to work. Besides, hyperbole is a time-honored rhetorical device, as anyone who has read some of my more unmeasured comments can attest.

  12. And it was hyperbole that I was slamming Durbin for in the use of that analogy, was it not?

  13. And, Orac, I trust that you can recognize my intent when I said I was afraid you were fighting a losing battle. I do not want that battle to be lost. The efforts and sacrifices of people like my father, a WW II veteran, will be forgotten along with the horrors as that epic struggle fades. But fade it will. We will forget, and we will allow things more like it than Guantanamo to happen again (not by us, I hope). I'm afraid we are very close to something like that in Africa right now.

  14. Daily Show's take on Dick Durban's remarks and other hyperbolic rhetoric:


  15. Off topic, but the Wall Street Journal has an article up about autism and vaccinations...

  16. Hijacking comment thread...

    Thank you, trance, for that link. I hadn't seen it...
    the wall street journal article is called "Immune to Reason" and slams both Kirby and Kennedy pretty efficiently.

    OK, returning thread to Hitler zombie topic.


  17. Mark Paris,

    You are right that hyperbole is a time-honoured rhetorical device, but frankly that is no defence. The real strength of rhetoric is in defending weak positions where facts alone are inadequate to defend an argument, or when communicating to an audience incapable of comprehending the arguments themselves.

    Moreover, whether defending a strong or weak position a good rhetorician moves with caution. Audiences are often savvy and certain rhetorical devices no longer pack a punch - instead acting as beacons indicating the weakness of a position. This is true of no rhetorical device more than of the argumentium ad nazium, which as I pointed out is so commonplace it has earned itself its own faux-latin tag (not to mention being the subject of a well-known law!).

    Orac's response - and the responses of many others, including those on the 'right' but also many like myself on the 'left' - shows clearly that the effect of Durbin's comparison has not been to focus the attention on the offenses in Guantanamo but to distract attention from them. Neither Orac nor myself, for two examples, are defenders of Guantanamo or of the torture conducted there, yet we too have found ourselves focusing on this inappropriate idiot comparison rather than on reports from the prison camp itself; the very fact that we are having this discussion reveals that as a rhetorical move this failed dismally.

    You earlier claimed to feel insulted by my reference to 'idiot comparisons'; frankly, since you continue to defend the nazi comparison you are free to feel insulted. Comparisons are not idiotic per se, but inappropriate comparisons are - and it cannot be said too often that the nazi comparision is invidious.

    The torture and tormenting of prisoners at Guantanamo is horrifying, the seeming official endorsement thereof doubly so; however, not only is it not comparable in scale to the offenses of the nazis it is different in intent and effect. Not only do nazi comparisons fail to enhance the debate - they completely and totally miss the frakking point.

  18. Outeast, you appear to be somewhat limited when it comes to reading comprehension, so I will explain that you reference to hyperbole was an attempt at humor as I agreed not to pursue this argument. But, since I can now see what you are, I will not feel offended by any more of your comments. By the way, is Outeast your real name?


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