The other day my daughter was watching me kill zombies on the Wii, and she said, "Wait a minute. Are those zombies Nazis?"
"Yes," I said.
"I don't know."
It bothered her. Not that she was struck with some warmhearted compassion for the Nazis who now must jump into zombie suits as well as everything else. It was more like, they're already zombies, is it necessary that they be Nazis, too? I think she's just had enough of Nazis, and to see them in yet another manifestation was more than she could take. I'm with her. I've had enough of Nazis, too.
Not as Nazis, mind you. I'm not trying to suggest that there is not great value in reminding ourselves of the atrocities perpetrated or the societal manipulations mastered by these hateful men. Those historical lessons can never be examined enough. It's the Nazis as metaphor, as parallel, as analogy that is completely played out. And I don't think that's just for my daughter or me.
If you use or encounter a Christ-figure in writing or speech, that concept can stand for any number of meanings. A Christ-figure might be just a savior, a martyr, a teacher, a supernatural being, a revolutionary leader, a non-conformist, or some combination of those, plus a whole lot more. A Christ-figure can even be ironic, like the fighting, drinking, whoring McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest who nevertheless leads a number of other mental institution patients to rebirth, new lives, salvation.
Nazis are a different story. You invoke the word "Nazi" and you are invoking the human manifestation of Ultimate Evil. And not without cause, since we all know the many bad, bad things that the Nazis did and how those traits and techniques were then adopted and modified by the evil regimes that have followed. But there really aren't any shadings of the Nazi parallel. You connect someone or some party or some cause to Nazism, and you are hanging on them every blitzkreiged country, every camp and corpse of the Holocaust, every action driven by a desire for racial purity, every image of Hitler and stormtroopers and Stukas and ovens. They are simply too overwhelming an evil to ever be compared to anything except similar dictators and genocides.
And, yes, there continue to be many things wrong in this country and this world. And there are people and political parties who may do things that strike you as not in the best interests of you, your country, poor people, immigrants. There are people who act based on racial prejudice. There are people who are indifferent to the suffering of others, who may do things that add to that suffering. There are people who are masters at spinning the news, the situation, the congressional bill so that it works to their advantage. There are presidents and preachers, governors and gun lobbyists who have repeated the same lies over and over again until they have begun to take on a facade of truth. But to invoke a comparison to the Nazis just doesn't work.
I'm thinking, of course, of the most recent example: Rep. Steve Cohen (D) of Tennesse invokes the practices of Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels in his characterizations of House Republicans concerning the Health Care bill, particularly the use of the lie that is repeated enough that it becomes truth. Now, I've read the expanded comments of Mr. Cohen. It's not vitriol; it's not soundbytes for the networks. Here's what he said:
"They don't like the truth so they summarily dismiss it," he said. "They say it's a government takeover of healthcare. A big lie just like Goebbels. You say it enough and you repeat the lie, repeat the lie, repeat the lie until eventually people believe it. Like blood libel, that's the same kind of thing. The Germans said enough about the Jews and people believed it, and you have the Holocaust," he added. "You tell a lie over and over again."
Almost no one was there in the chambers when he was talking. But, oh, it got picked up by the media, all right. "Say What? Democrat Compares Republicans to Nazis," says ABC News. And there are so many variations of that out there now as well.
Whatever salient points Mr. Cohen thought he was making, he ended up subverting those with the use of the Nazi simile. The thoughtful insight overwhelmed by the soundbyte. And that's why it can't work. You can't go Holocaust when it isn't the Holocaust. You can't go Hitler just because someone is a domineering, race-or-ethnicity baiting idiot. You can't go Goebbels just because someone is propogating a colossal lie over and over again.
And you don't need to. Try this on for size: "The Bush Administration wanted war and didn't like the truth so they summarily dismissed it," he said. "They said Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11.. A big lie. You say it enough and you repeat the lie, repeat the lie, repeat the lie until eventually people believe it. Bush and his cronies said enough about Hussein and 9/11 and people believed it, and you have the Iraqi War," he added. "You tell a lie over and over again."
See? Safe rhetoric. Close to home. And no one can argue with it. The Nazis have enough crimes of their own, so many as to be overwhelming as a comparison to almost anything. Let's leave them dead and not keep dragging them up in words to walk the earth again.
I'm not asking you contentious politicians to be politically-correct; I'm asking you to be rhetorically-smart. Then we might start to get somewhere.