Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Hitler, McCarthy, Dubya??? Again???

Previously, I have posted my annoyance with the frequency with which pols and pundits truck out the Hitler / Nazism analogies, then in the context of Rick Santorum's deplorable comments regarding the audacity of Senate Democrats in opting to use the procedural tools at their disposal (i.e., the filibuster). And I largely stand by my comments, and restrict them to no one side in the various inflamed ideological debates that abound (and apparently want for the sort of talented rhetoriticians who can at least couch their ad hominem attacks in novel terms, or bury them beneath even the thinnest veneer of legitimacy). But today the occasionally mercurial Juan Non-Volokh, at Volokh Conspiracy, took on Brian Leiter's comments finding parallels between Nazi Germany, McCarthyist America, and America today. In the comment of which JNOV (cute, eh? (lawyer humor -- either you get it or you don't) complains, Brian Leiter, law and philosophy prof at the University of Texas, writes:

[I]n every society of which I'm aware the vast majority of the preeminent academic figures were, in general, cowards when it came to their own regimes, and apologists for what later generations would see clearly as inhumanity and illegality. This was clear in Germany in the 1930s, as it was in America in the 1950s. There is no reason to think the United States today is any different. (Emphases in original).

Now I grant that this is inflammatory. Hell, it may just be wrong. It does sort of reek of the sort of all-encompassing, self-verifying, thinly-disguised platitudes which fortune-tellers make their stock in trade, rarely saying anything that, in some dimension, isn't true of everyone. I mean, how many academics declining to criticize a sitting administration does it take to reflect a groundswell of cowardice?

Furthermore, I'll grant that it seems unlikely that the cowardice evident in the United States during the McCarthy era has any analogy now: I could know more about campus life then than I do, but if I'm not mistaken the tenor then, the utterly reactionary response to any evidence of communist affiliation, was stronger than tenure kand an indelible stain. Criticizing Bush these days, on the other hand, is hardly a professional liability in academic circles. Moreover, the bane of public stigmatization, ostracization, indeed, something almost akin to excommunication, that attended branding as a communist is more or less wholly absent from public discourse now. Yes, we on the left are criticized for our moral relativism, or debased refusal to criticize everyone who chooses to live differently than we do, and so on. But is anyone being denied access to a bar, a bar association, or anything else of particular relevance based on criticism of the sitting administration? I think now.

That said, JNOV's endeavor to lump this in with other efforts to wield the nazi lable like a rhetorical truncheon is facile. Leiter, in characteristically outspoken fashion, sets forth a hypothesis, or perhaps states a suspicion or an intuition. And the hypothesis or intuition is imminently falsifiable. For the reasons I state above, or JNOV hints at, or for other reasons entirely, it may be the case that Leiter is full of shit. That's fine. But he's not calling anyone a Nazi: he's positing that, in times of greatest need, academics, who one might hope would be paragons of progressive thought tend to sit back and cover their asses until the storm passes, preferring to criticize in hindsight, when the weather is fair.

And it is precisely the falsifiability of this hypothesis that distinguishes it from those talking heads (and, sadly, government officials) who call anyone who disagrees with them a Nazi. Here, instead of a direct and unanswerable slur, the idea presented is that there are certain historic patterns that may, in time, turn out to have emerged here as well. It's worth noting that JNOV doesn't appear to meaningfully contest the parallel drawn between craven academics during WWII and craven academics during the McCarthy era. Inasmuch as neither movement would have gotten anywhere without widespread cowardice, the parallel at leasts suggests something worthy of consideration. Whether it applies today, is a topic of discussion, not an insult to be written off as though it had no more intrinsic merit, or content, than some blowhard smearing those opponents he lacks the moxie to engage in meaningful debate.

Reflexive accusations of nazism are counterproductive. But so are reflexive accusations equating an historically defensible, if ultimately wrong, proposition with the empty slurs of an intellectualy impoverished and rhetorically imperial commentariat.


Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker