Worst of all, the Vidal tactic does undermine the "special reverence we need to feel for that which is hateful." Nazism is not a useful symbol for everything that makes us angry, from Iraq to abortion. It is a historical movement, unique in the ambitions of its cruelty. Those who doubt this uniqueness should read Saul Friedlander's "The Years of Extermination," which records the Nazi terror with the same meticulousness that the Germans displayed in producing it. Nazism was the "beard game," in which the beards and sidelocks of Jews were pulled off or set afire before audiences of cheering soldiers. It was the practice of making elderly Jews dance around a fire of burning Torah scrolls. It was whole orphanages deported to death camps, and pits full of corpses, and ancient communities erased from human memory, and death factories issuing a thick smoke of souls, and a mother trading her gold ring for a glass of water to give her dying child.
Many who study these events think silence the only appropriate response. "There is nothing," says scholar Lawrence Langer, "to be learned from a baby torn in two or a woman buried live."
But it is our nature to attempt to wrestle meaning from catastrophe. So we draw lessons about the poison of racism, the dangers of blind obedience to authority, the corruption of grand schemes of social purity, the shallowness of civilization in "civilized" nations, and the hatred hiding within ordinary men and women.
These lessons are relevant to politics. But they are trivialized when applied to Obama's health insurance reform plan or the conduct of disorderly town-hall protesters. The burning of the Reichstag and Kristallnacht are not arguments against a single-payer health plan or against the Patriot Act.
For the survivors of Nazism, memory is a kind of sacred duty. The Vidal tactic desacralizes those memories -- shrinking them to the size of our political agendas and robbing them of their power to shock and teach. The history of those times should be approached with fear and trembling, not mocked with metaphor.
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