Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- During live television coverage of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, novelist Gore Vidal famously called William F. Buckley a " crypto-Nazi." To which Buckley famously replied (in addition to other choice words), "Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered."

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Buckley later apologized. He also explained: "Can such men understand the causes of anger in others? Understand the special reverence we need to feel for that which is hateful? I do not believe that anyone thought me a Nazi because Vidal called me one, but I do believe that everyone who heard him call me one without a sense of shock, without experiencing anger, thinks more tolerantly about Nazism than once he did, than even now he should."

In recent weeks, left and right have employed the Vidal tactic. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused town-hall protesters of "carrying swastikas," leaving the impression they were proud Nazis -- when, in fact, a few protesters carried signs accusing Barack Obama of having Nazi aims (bad enough). Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., declared the protesters guilty of "Brown Shirt tactics." Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., compared America under Obama to Germany in the 1930s. Rush Limbaugh talked of "similarities between the Democrat Party of today and the Nazi Party in Germany."

The accusation is a staple of American T-shirt and bumper-sticker political culture, found too often at liberal anti-war protests and conservative tea parties. Anyone with a black felt pen, and the ability to draw a Hitler moustache on a poster, can make this witty, trenchant political statement. Michael Moore compared the Patriot Act to "Mein Kampf." Al Gore warned of "digital Brown Shirts."

This rhetorical strategy is intended to convey intensity of conviction, as in, "I am very, very, very serious, you Nazi jerk." Actually, it is a lazy shortcut to secure an emotional response. Worse than that, it is an argument that puts an end to all argument. What discourse is possible with the spawn of Hitler? And when someone is unjustly accused of Nazi tactics or sympathies, what response can we expect other than Buckley's outrage? Let the head knocking begin.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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