Hardly a day goes by, it seems, without someone invoking the name of Hitler to drive home a political point. Hitler is so convenient a metaphor for anything from bad to evil that his name also has become the world's weariest cliche.
In the popular lexicon, Hitler references are nearly as ubiquitous as the word "Google." And yes, to Google him is to find him - 21,600,000 times. The genocidal wunder-freak continues to fascinate.
But increasingly, I find the Hitler refrain annoying. This compulsion to Hitlerize our political foes, though their deeds justify no such moniker, trivializes one of history's true monsters. This tendency to Nazi-fy any unwelcome action, though it falls far short of the atrocities committed by real Nazis, cheapens the horror of historical events.
It's convenient, yes, but also lazy. And oftentimes, plain dumb.
Most annoying of all is the routine (in certain circles) comparison of President George W. Bush to the German fuehrer, an analogy so ridiculous and historically inane that it doesn't bear refuting.
The idea, conceived in the anti-war/anti-Bush camp before and after the Iraq invasion, was recently resurrected on late-night TV when comedian Bill Maher (sort of) compared first lady Laura Bush to Hitler's dog and Bush to Hitler. One of his guests on the show, journalist Christopher Hitchens, chivalrously objected.
Maher had just shown a series of doctored photographs depicting Bush as a drunk and wife beater, prompting Hitchens to say in Bush's defense: "It must be to his credit he got Laura Bush to marry him. She's an absolutely extraordinary woman."
Whereupon Maher said, "Oh, come on. That's like Hitler's dog loved him ." A provoked Hitchens replied: "You're being ungallant about Laura Bush, you've compared her to Hitler's dog. I'm not going to sit here and listen to that."
Explaining himself, Maher said that "the idea that we somehow humanize any person because somebody else loves them is ridiculous."
Point taken. But the larger point may be that Hitler's usefulness as an analog has expired. No longer the name and face of evil, he has become a comedian's punch line.
Or a politician's blunt instrument.
A vivid case for the latter point surfaced several days ago in Virginia, where one gubernatorial candidate accused the other in a television ad of being weak on Hitler.
Can there be an indictment more damning?
The ad, for Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore, claimed that his Democratic opponent, Tim Kaine, said Adolph Hitler doesn't qualify for the death penalty.
The intended implication, apparently, was that Kaine is so wobbly on the death penalty that even Hitler would escape punishment. Whatever the intent, Kilgore's camp clearly distorted both what Kaine said and what he meant.
FactCheck.org, the fact-checking arm of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, dissected the quote in question, a variation of which came from a September editorial board meeting with Kaine at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Kaine was responding to a reporter's questions about the extent of his opposition to the death penalty, as in: Would even Hitler qualify for ultimate justice? Kaine, who also opposes abortion, equivocated somewhat, saying that "God grants life, and God should take it away ." Nevertheless, he's on record repeatedly promising to enforce the laws of the state, including the death penalty.
At the newspaper meeting, Kaine, in fact, said that Hitler "may deserve the death penalty" for his acts. He never said that Hitler doesn't qualify for the death penalty.
Even had he gotten his facts right, Kilgore should have resisted the temptation to exploit the Hitler moment. He cheapened himself even as he helped devalue Hitler's unique contribution to human horror.
What's clear is that playing the Hitler card is a cheap trick designed only to sensationalize and stir emotions. Hyperbolists on both sides of the political aisle are equally guilty, and the effect is both numbing and boring. "Hitler" isn't a magician of horror; he's a stuntman for unimaginative hucksters.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, writing for Time magazine a few years ago, described Adolf Hitler as "the incarnation of absolute evil . Under his hypnotic gaze, humanity crossed a threshold from which one could see the abyss."
As such, Hitler deserves our continued scrutiny and study. How else to prevent another? But we should retire his name as a casual catchall for whomever we find awful.
Familiarity breeds not only contempt, but also indifference. And Hitler's death camps taught us what indifference breeds.