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Hyperbole should take a holiday

By John Nowacki
web posted October 8, 2001

Several years ago, I received a humorous e-mail titled "How to Argue Effectively," in which the author recommended making up figures, using impressive-sounding Latin phrases, and responding with pseudo-intellectual questions (demanding to know your opponent's parameters, for example). If, however, these tactics proved ineffectual, the author suggested bringing out the big guns. No matter what your opponent's argument was, he wrote, the best response was to insist that it sounded suspiciously like something Hitler would say.

In the context of that e-mail, it was all very funny, but when the comparison to some unspeakable villain is made in real life, it's a very serious matter. Unfortunately, that ploy is something we've seen a lot of in the last few years.

Back in 1995, during debates on the Contract With America, Rep. John Lewis compared members of the opposite party to the Nazis while shouting on the House floor about federal spending. Later that year, Rep. William Clay equated the other party's policy positions with Hitler's propaganda machine--during a debate on welfare reform. And in a House Ways & Means Committee debate around the same time, Rep. Charles Rangel applied the Nazi label to one of his colleagues on the committee.

Jesse Jackson
Jackson

More recently, Jesse Jackson accused President Bush of winning the election by using Nazi tactics, and earlier this year, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said that the President had selected nominees to posts in his administration "from the Taliban wing of American politics"--a comment he made when its murderous policies and ties to terrorists like Osama bin Laden were already well known.

Now, none of these people saw the Holocaust or the atrocities of the Nazi regime firsthand, and Mr. Bond wasn't in Afghanistan when the Taliban shot about 300 men and boys a month before he spoke. Even so, most people would have no trouble recognizing the impropriety of those remarks. But, extending the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it was that ignorance -- at least in part -- which led them to make those truly asinine comments.

Things are different now. Just three weeks ago, we saw the mass murder of thousands of people committed right before our eyes on television . . . the work of terrorists apparently aided and abetted by the Taliban.

Hopefully, reality has set in for those inclined to make those reckless and irresponsible comparisons. It's one thing to support someone who commits the acts of September 11th, and it's another thing entirely to disagree with someone about drilling in Alaska. Federalism. Welfare reform. Or a judicial nominee's qualifications.

I hope that the next time someone -- Mr. Bond or anyone else -- decides to use this ploy in real life, he will stop to consider the meaning of what he is saying, remember what mass murderers and their supporters really do . . . and kindly, wisely, be silent.

John Nowacki is deputy director of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Law and Democracy.

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