Thursday, June 05, 2014

On hyperbolic historical comparisons

In a New Statesman interview, Alistair Darling has caused a bit of a fuss by using the term 'blood and soil' to describe the sort of nationalism represented by the SNP.  Okay, he didn't actually use the phrase but I'm not sure the supposed clarification takes much away from the original complaint.  The journalist suggested it and he appeared to agree with it.  The expression actually predates National Socialism but since it is now forever associated with the Third Reich, I don't think there's any point in arguing that Darling's way of expressing himself was anything other than unwise, to say the least - as was his comparison of the First Minister with the late North Korean dictator.  However, there are two observations one could make.

The first is obvious enough and has already been made by several people.  What is behind the faux outrage of some nationalist commentators is absolutely jaw-dropping hypocrisy.  If there is anything in Goodwin's law - the idea that the first in any debate to make a Nazi comparison is the one who lost it - this applied to the nationalists years ago.  It was the SNP's Alex Neil who got a standing ovation at the SNP party conference for comparing the then Shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson to a Nazi collaborator.  More recently, Salmond himself described a BBC journalist as a Gauleiter.  

That the journalist in question was a sports journalist serves to reinforce another point.  Some have taken the latest outburst of Twitter stupidity as a symptom of how ill-tempered the independence referendum has become.  Well, it has - but the fact that anyone could come up with a 'law' to cover the frequency with which people use Nazi comparisons in arguments shows the extent to which people seem to have absolutely no other historical analogy with which they can express their disapproval of something.  

An aggressive foreign policy is always 'like what Hitler did in the thirties' - never something else, even something obvious - like Napoleon or something.  (It might be worth noting in this context that the purpose of the comparison in this context is to de-legitimise any response other than one that involves the use of military violence.) 

We also saw Egypt's government toppled in a bloody military coup - justified on the grounds that the Muslim Brotherhood were dismantling democracy from within, just like what Hitler did in the thirties.  No other comparison - say, a Latin American one - would do.  Or maybe Putin?  Oh hang on, he's just like Hitler too.  It is in this context we should understand this latest nonsense.  Making a plea for people to try and cut down on the number of Hitlers they see is probably pretty pointless but I would insist that it shows, not that people know too much about the Nazis, but that they don't know very much at all.  If they did, they might have a better sense of proportion.


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