Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Ad Absurdum : Hitler and Obama (or anyone for that matter)

It took less than a week following the massacre in Newtown, CT, amid talk of a renewed gun control movement, for some people who are radically against any gun control to begin discussions comparing President Obama to Hitler. Such an argument is commonplace for over-zealous adherents to do, no matter their political predilections. Liberals have made use of such an argument. Right now, conservatives are doing it. And of course, mainstream citizens are not usually the first to make comparison, but it usually sticks with them because either they recognize some similarity and figure that there is some transitive property and it must be true, or they are stunned at the invocation of the most popular super villain of the 20th century who caused true evil in a debate about the United States' policy.

At any rate, the use of Hitler in a debate simply shuts down debate (The loss of any rational conversation once Hitler/Nazis are invoked has brought about the rise of Godwin's Rule/Law of Nazi Analogies, which technically applies to online debates, but is clearly also appropriate for our current conversations as well). It is the FΓΌhrer of all reductio ad absurdum arguments. It is also the most absurd. Simply having similarities does make for an obvious equation.

In the midst of this reality, I am reminded of a passage from Oliver O'Donovan's The Desire of the Nations, where he is discussing politics and moral debate.
... Serious moral debate cannot avoid arbitrating questions of description and so enquiring into the structures of reality. 
     In the case of politics this enquiry is especially difficult; for political structures are historically fluid, not, as some other structures are, given in nature. ... The phenomena themselves have changed, the tribe, the military empire, the nation kingdom, and the bureaucratic state replacing each other in the course of history. And there are different discourses conducted about politics, which might as well belong to different universes: politics as power, politics as justice, politics as the extension of the home, politics as the construct of the market-place, etc. Before political ethics can begin, then, there must be a work of descriptive theory, which will define the events and orders that are of this kind and not some other.... 
     But true concepts are an essential prerequisite for organised theory. We may be seduced into thinking that concepts are interchangeable, communicative forms, so that we may express what we have learned through one set of concepts quite as well through another. But that is not so. Concepts disclose the elementary structures of reality in relation to which we can begin to identify questions for theoretical development. ...Only theorists could be so foolish as to think that it did not matter which concepts one grasped-- apart, that is, form the morally immature. A class of sixteen-year olds, told for the first time that what one calls a 'terrorist' another calls a 'freedom fighter', may miss the point so badly as to conclude there is no difference between the two; but that is the privilege of being sixteen. The mature adult knows it is because one and the same thing can look different that we need the two concepts of 'freedom fighter' and 'terrorist' to differentiate. Those two concepts are not interchangeable; if we did not have both, we could not frame the question that has to be put, nor understand why it might be difficult to reach an agreed answer. To grasp the opposed concepts of freedom and terror is to know something about the alternative shapes political experience may take, and the about the scope of practical political decision. (emphasis author's)
 -Oliver O'Donovan,  The Desire of the Nations,  
2002 paperback, Cambridge, pp. 14-15  

By perpetuating comparisons between Hitler and whatever opponent we might face is a deliberate obfuscation. Serious conversation and debate is thwarted, which allows the true super villain, not some twentieth-century one, to thrive. Who might that be? Our fallen sinful self. 

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