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Don't We Need a New Political Language? | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Don't We Need a New Political Language?

A condensed version of this post, titled Had it With Hitler, was published today by the Washington Post.


Here's a modest proposal for improving national political discussion. Let's stop equating our opponents WITH famous dictators, their chief executioners, police apparatus, or ideologies. Let's declare a national ceasefire on "his (or her) view reminds me of..." -- fill in the blank: Hitler, Goebbels, Eichman, Stalin, Mao, the Gestapo, the Gulag, the KGB, etc.

I figure these are hard enough times in American politics -- war, threats to national security, the greatest increase in inequality in our history, deep cultural divisions, a brewing constitutional crisis -- that we don't need demonizing rhetoric that further confuses matters. The demons are already among us. It may be that our 24/7 cable/talk radio political culture is too far gone to hope for rational discussion of issues of public importance. But if we suck it up, I think we could manage to stop calling each other mass murderers. Doing so doesn't clarify debate. It further polarizes. And it shows a serious lack of imagination. I'm all for learning from history, but I'm also for describing present differences in contemporary terms.

Consider the value of such a cease-fire as you read this cross-section of quotes:

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: "I mean, we've got Chavez in Venezuela with a lot of oil money. He's a person who was elected legally-- just as Adolf Hitler was elected legall."

Senator Rick Santorum, on Democrats protesting the "nuclear option" of eliminating the filibuster: "[It's] the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying, 'I'm in Paris. How dare you invade me. How dare you bomb my city? It's mine.'"

Senator Robert Byrd, on the nuclear option: "Hitler never abandoned the cloak of legality; he recognized the enormous psychological value of having the law on his side. Instead, he turned the law inside out and made illegality legal. That is what the nuclear option seeks to do..."

Michael Crichton, on a Senate global warming hearing: "It's all like a Stalinist show trial. The Senators all get up and make their statements and leave. No one listens."

James Dobson, on stem cell research: "In World War II, the Nazis experimented on human beings in horrible ways in the concentration camps, and I imagine, if you wanted to take the time to read about it, there would have been some discoveries there that benefited mankind."

Sen. Dick Durbin, on Guantanamo abuse: "You would…believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others...Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners."

Ralph Peters, New York Post columnist, on Howard Dean and his supporters: "I can predict with certainty that Dean's Internet Gestapo will pounce on this column...These are the techniques employed by Hitler's Brownshirts...Had Goebbels enjoyed access to the internet, he would have used the same swarm tactic,

Rush Limbaugh, alleging a pro-life majority: "Militant femi-Nazism has backfired…."

Harry Belafonte: "We've come to this dark time in which the new Gestapo of Homeland Security lurks here, where citizens are having their rights suspended."

Grover Norquist, on those who support the estate tax: "That's the morality of the Holocaust. 'Well, it's only a small percentage,' you know...the morality that says it's okay to do something to a group because they're a small percentage of the population."

Larry Schweikart, describing the left: "I think the modern so-called 'left' in fact greatly resembles the Nazis."

Sheri Drew, who led the opening invocation at the 2004 Republican Convention: "Those who support gay and lesbian families are no different from those who supported Adolph Hitler."

Ward Churchill, on victims of the World Trade Center attack: "...little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers."

Congressman Frank Lobiondo, describing Guantanamo detainees: "Hitler, in his philosophy, was, you know, he hated Jews, he was murdering Jews, and there were some people he liked. But he never went to the level that these extremists are going to."

Michael Savage, on George Soros' campaigning against Pres. Bush: "I couldn't believe what I heard when I turned on C-SPAN today, and heard Billionaire George Goebbels Soros attacking Bush."

Camille Paglia, on students tape-recording professors as evidence of liberal bias: "...when students become snitches, we are heading toward dictatorship by Mao's Red Guards or Hitler Youth."

You get the picture. Now, does anyone think we'd lose anything by dropping such rhetoric?

Of course, to update our political language will require a little work. As historian Eric Foner has asked: "How do we describe the current system in which the government is increasingly corporatized and militarized yet democracy continues to exist?...What language should we put in its place?" Along with new analytic terms, we'll need some new analogies, symbolic politics, and cultural allusions.

A lot of us, albeit for different reasons, are very angry right now about where our country is headed. The purpose of public speech is not just to restate that anger, but to clarify the principles and evidence that fuel it -- in ways that invite discussion, not inhibit it. I know that finding the language (and analytics, symbols and metaphors) to do that is itself a formidable task. But maybe we can get started by dropping the dead dictator talk and saying something new.

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