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Godwin's Law

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In a recent issue of National Underwriter, I ran an editorial from one of my senior editors, Trevor Thomas, entitled “Taxes are Not the Problem.” Go ahead and read it for yourself, if you have not done so already. Don’t worry. I’ll be here when you get back.

Welcome back! What did you think of the article? I’m guessing a fair number of you disagreed with the points Trevor made. I’m guessing at least a few of you, if the reader mail I have received so far is any indicator, think that Trevor is clueless at best, and a Socialist or Marxist at worst. Fair enough – Trevor’s a big boy and he’s got a thick skin. And we don’t run editorials so we can force our opinion down people’s throats; we do it to provoke thought and conversation, even when such conversation may disagree strongly with us. As far as I’m concerned, that’s great. It means the readership is talking, and the more it does that, the better. Because you are all part of a large and important community. And any time we say or do something that makes you guys feel more tightly bound to each other, that’s a good thing. Hopefully we will do it more often by making you nod your head and think, “Yes! Exactly!” than by thinking, “What a bunch of maroons. Where do I go to unsubscribe to this thing…?”

So it doesn’t bother me that Trevor’s taking flak for his article. He knew he would when he wrote it, and I knew he would when I published it. What does bother me is how readily people are slinging the terms “socialist” and “Marxist” at him, though. To me, those are fighting words, and here’s why.

Hoo boy. Here we go.

As I wrote in a letter to a reader this morning – a letter that will likely appear in the next issue of National Underwriter Life & Health – I visited the Soviet Union when I was a teenager. I got to see firsthand what everyday life over there was like, and let me tell you, I did not like what I saw. The Soviet model was a delivery mechanism only for tyranny, oppression, regression, stagnation and was, in my opinion, a nearly century-long crime against the Russian people and the rest of the world. The ideals of socialism and communism are the sorts of things that can only work on paper, and we have plenty of proof of it. To anyone who doubts, let’s not forget that recently, even Fidel Castro admitted the system was broken. When a guy like him is throwing in the towel, you know the argument has been closed.

I mention all of this because I take offense at people using “socialist” and “Marxist” like a dirty word, and towards people who are proposing certain kinds of policy in the American political sphere. There is nothing remotely socialist or Marxist about healthcare reform, financial services reform, tax policy, or anything else we’ve seen while the Democrats and Obama have been in power. Their policies are no more socialist or Marxist than Bush’s policies were fascist or Nazi, although during his administration, Bush got plenty of that kind of commentary, too, and it was just as ignorant and as unfair then as it is now.

Nazi. Also, Hitler.
Marxist. Also, socialist. The worst kind, too.
Not a Nazi. Or a socialist. Just so we're clear.

Really, what all of this comes down to is the rather overheated state of political discourse in our country today. It’s the kind of environment where fringe elements on both sides, empowered by a media looking for increasingly sensational stories to drive traffic, have cast the illusion that they are leading the debate on things.  I suppose after a decade of this, I have grown weary of the hyperbole, and more than a little concerned that people in the middle are quietly letting such nonsense-talk leach into their bones. Probably not, however; our country has always been governed, ultimately, by the middle. Sometimes it leans left. Sometimes it leans right. But it almost always leans forward. We’re Americans. That’s what we do. I just hope we can collectively dial things down a notch as we do it.

There is something called Godwin’s Law, which states that on an infinite timeline, any heated discussion on the Internet will inevitably result in one side likening the other side or the other side’s point, to Hitler. The one that makes the comparison to Hitler automatically forfeits the argument. At the moment, Obama’s getting double-Godwinned recently because folks are comparing him to Hitler for healthcare, and to Marx or Lenin on financial reform. (I guess Bush got off easy being compared by his detractors only to Hitler, but still, that’s too much.)

Normally, I wouldn’t mind so much because when you step into politics, you open yourself up to this kind of thing. When a lot is at stake, then your opponents are bound to compare you to the worst possible iteration of what they don’t like about you. And for as much as I don’t care for the acidity of modern political name-calling, we’ve got nothing on our vaunted forefathers. Early American politics was unspeakably brutal, with opponents frequently bringing in each other’s wives and children into the debate, a move that would be seen as strictly off-limits today. After all, there is a reason why Alexander Hamilton died in a duel; he called out one of his detractors who spoke of him in such harsh tones, that the matter demanded what would then be considered “a gentleman’s satisfaction.”

This is not the way to settle an argument. But it would be easier if it was.

The point I’m trying to make, ultimately, is that when we Godwin ourselves by turning our opponent into a monster, we undercut our own authority. We disqualify ourselves from being taken seriously. When Bush decided to invade Iraq, he caught a lot of hell from people who thought the war was wrong, and for years, they Godwinned themselves by paiting that stupid little toothbrush ‘stache on him and Photoshopping swastikas on the Presidential seal. We’ve seen just as much of that kind of nonsense from Obama’s worst detractors more recently, who seem to have not the foggiest clue as to what socialism or fascism really is. All one has to do is actually read the Communist Manifesto or Main Kampf to get the difference. But for a depressingly large number of people, that’s too much work. After all, they’ve got a Photoshop to finish.

Who makes this stuff, anyway?
Same kind of people who make this kind of stuff, I guess.

Don’t be part of the problem, people. Be part of the solution. Be smart. Be passionate. Be true to what you feel. But don’t Godwin yourself. You’ll be thankful you didn’t.


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