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."
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.
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.