What do Woody Allen, Dick Gregory and Harry Belafonte have in common with James Dobson? They all blur distinctions of the evil of the Third Reich, making exaggerated analogies in pursuit of a flawed political point -- or in Woody Allen's case, a crass attempt to be funny.
Harry Belafonte was asked the other day whether Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice had raised black opinion of the Bush administration. He opened his mouth and let nonsense out: "Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich. Color does not necessarily denote quality, content or value," he told Cybercast News Service. This was both inaccurate -- there were no Jews in the hierarchy of Nazi Germany -- and it smacked of more than a little ethnic bigotry.
Dick Gregory, being a stand-up comic, was even more perverse. He observed at an Atlanta civil rights rally that black conservatives "have a right to exist, but why would I want to walk around with a swastika on my shirt after the way Hitler done messed it up?" Blacks in brown shirts?
Woody Allen made a reach, too, in an interview with der Spiegel, the German news magazine, trying to level the killing field in the name of moral equivalence. "So in 2001 some fanatics killed some Americans, and now some Americans are killing some Iraqis," he said. "And in my childhood, some Nazis killed Jews. And now some Jewish people and some Palestinians are killing each other. . . . History is the same thing over and over again." Woody is often funny, but sometimes he can be an oxymoron.
Rafael Medoff of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies rightly observes that "such analogies pollute public discourse by trivializing the brutal horrors committed by the Nazis," but that doesn't take us very far. Such remarks are less about the Holocaust than about the way the Holocaust has seeped into the vernacular as a pop comparison of no redeeming value. Since Mel Brooks produced the musical "The Producers," richly satirizing the Nazis with a song titled "Springtime for Hitler," with leggy blonde chorus girls in thigh-high black boots giving the "Heil Hitler" salute as they kick in unison in a Busby Berkeley-like finale of a revolving swastika, it's been difficult to push the envelope of bad taste. "The Producers" was funny because the irreverence was outrageous.