If the definition of insanity, according to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and Godwin’s Law means losing an argument the moment you compare someone to Hitler, then the Einstein-Godwin Question must be: Why do people never learn that comparing anything to Hitler and the Nazis never ends well?
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Over the last two weeks we’ve had three prime examples of people doing this in three separate countries, so you just have to ask yourself: Do they never learn? Has anything good ever come out of these verbal meanderings down the road of the Third Reich? Not only do you never win the argument, it’s been proved time and again to cause so much damage, far outweighing whatever verbal jousting you ever hoped to win.
In Britain it was former London Mayor Ken Livingstone clinging to his warped version of history in which Hitler was an early supporter of Zionism “before he went mad.” In France it was presidential candidate Marine Le Pen trying to rewrite history as well, insisting that the French government that sent French police to round up 75,000 Jews and send them to German death camps wasn’t actually France. And in the United States it was White House press secretary Sean Spicer tying himself in knots by comparing Syrian President Bashar Assad to Hitler, who apparently hadn’t used chemical weapons, at least not on his own people, outside “Holocaust centers.” Or something like that.
Why? These aren’t random Twitter trolls fulminating in the anonymity of social media. Instead, they’re people who were, are or aspire to be in positions of national responsibility, standing in the full glare of publicity, with advisers, aides and attorneys to steer them off a treacherous path that has already claimed so many careers. Why do they insist on going down that road?
On the surface, you can perhaps discern their separate motivations. Livingstone, who has a long history of sparring with the Jewish community, whose members he sees as being too wealthy to be Labour Party supporters, seems to be acting largely out of political spite. While the mainstream of his party, even its hapless leader Jeremy Corbyn, is trying by various degrees to deal with the anti-Semitism in its ranks, Livingstone has steadfastly insisted that he has never in all his decades seen any anti-Semitism in Labour. And while it has become near consensus that slurs against “Zionists” are simply another way of saying Jews, he justified the practice with his bizarre historical assertion, based on some long-ago discredited Marxist book, that Hitler actually supported Zionism.
But all this happened a year ago. Last week a tribunal found him guilty of bringing the party to disrepute and suspended him for a year. The normal thing to do, after offending both the entire Jewish community and alienating even many of his own comrades, was at the very least to apologize and pipe down, for the good of the party if not out of common decency. But Livingstone only doubled down on the same ridiculous claims, in full knowledge of the offense it causes to Jews and Holocaust survivors and the damage to his own party. It really defies all logic by this stage.
Le Pen’s political angle
Le Pen’s motives at least make some political sense. By sticking to the claims that the deportation of Jews wasn’t the responsibility of the French state, she hopes to establish a bond both with older voters who remember the days when both socialist (Francois Mitterand) and right-wing (Charles de Gaulle) presidents denied French responsibility, and with younger voters who simply want a break with the past. Like other populists in the West, she recognizes that votes can come from both the far right and the far left.
But then again, is it really worth it? Two years ago she publicly distanced herself from her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, after an interview he gave trivializing the Holocaust and defending France’s collaborationist president, Marshall Henri Philippe Petain. It was the calculated maneuver of a politician trying to make the move from the margins to a position where she can seriously be considered a contender for the presidency. The polls at least suggest it was a clever move. Why ruin it all now, two weeks before the first round of voting?
Spicer’s painful act of historical contortionism on the White House podium can also be explained away to a degree. His job was to portray Assad, whom his boss President Donald Trump had described as “an animal,” in the worst light possible. So out of historical ignorance and political dimwittery, he grabbed the easiest analogy and started digging. Unlike Livingstone and Le Pen, he at least had the belated sense to apologize (unlike them, he also has to answer to more powerful bosses who may have been the ones forcing him to apologize).
But that doesn’t answer the question why he chose to go down that path to begin with. You would have thought that even the most substandard spokesman would have realized by now that whatever you do, you just don’t compare anyone to Hitler. Even by the extremely low standard of professionalism Spicer has established for himself over the last three months, this still beggars belief.
The intelligence factor
Spicer is different from Livingstone and Le Pen also because his sins weren’t ideologically motivated. He didn’t burble an outdated Marxist narrative or nationalist creed. So it was also easier for him to come clean and fully apologize.
But it doesn’t make it easier to understand why he made such a mistake. Since there’s nothing in his background to suggest any reason he’d want to minimize the crimes of Nazi Germany, and despite everything we’ve seen, I still can’t believe the Trump administration would have appointed a total moron as its chief spokesman. (Though I know on this count some readers will differ.) I can only go on the basis of what we’ve seen from him since Trump’s inauguration and my own journalistic experience.
Sean Spicer is simply the archetypal bully spokesman a mid-level official of at best average intelligence, education and experience who finds himself in a position of power with his hands on the spigot of valuable information. Every journalist has to contend with these bullies, though rarely do they reach the heights Spicer has been thrust to. They’re the opposite of professional spokespeople who understand their dual role, serving those in power and the public, to which they have a responsibility to supply accurate and important information.
The bully spokesman believes the journalists are his enemies; he resents them and sees them as intellectual poseurs. He uses his control over information to bully them. And bullies always go wrong when they use big words like Hitler. Talking about the Nazis gives their false sense of power a boost.
Which is where Spicer does have a lot in common with Livingstone and Le Pen, both bullies as well, though much more sophisticated ones. Not only are Marxist dogmatism and nationalist populism forms of ideological bullying – absolute truths with which to cow weaker enemies – Livingstone and Le Pen, while ostensibly coming from opposite political poles, both so obviously relish the power their words have to shock and offend. Which is why unlike Spicer who was obviously forced to apologize by a bigger bully, they won’t retract.
Livingstone, a nasty politician with his career behind him, craves the power he feels from having a public podium on television and radio stations that will never tire of his breathtaking provocations. He’s addicted to the rush of indignation that his rantings on Hitler and Zionists and Jews automatically generate. It’s beyond ideology and politics by this stage. A bully can’t help himself when he has that power over a microphone and camera lens and people’s feelings. He won’t stop. He can’t stop. He has nothing left.
Le Pen is at a very different stage in her power trajectory. She’s at the point where she believes she could be the president of France in a month. She can already taste and feel the power. It’s a heady sensation that caused her to abandon the cautious positioning of two years ago and take on the Jews this week. Her inner bully made her lunge prematurely at the opportunity to hurt and offend. And like every bully, she senses weakness and won’t go back. Hopefully this will prove to be a mistake.
Bullies resent intellectualism and fear those who represent knowledge and values that aren’t constrained by rules and boundaries. Anti-Semitism, a fear of Jews and what they represent, has at its base always been a form of bullying which is why today’s bullies have such a fascination with Holocaust revisionism.