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Retire the Hitler comparisons

The flap over two political ads comparing President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler, which were submitted to a "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest sponsored by the liberal MoveOn.org Voter Fund and were briefly hosted on the group's Web site, has gotten a lot of press (courtesy of outraged Republicans).

Unfortunately, this is only one in a rich crop of Hitler and Nazi analogies littering the landscape of so-called public discourse these days. And this particularly vile rhetorical device is, alas, an equal-opportunity offense.

There is a lot of back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats on whether MoveOn bears any responsibility for the ads (one of which cuts back and forth between images of Bush and Hitler, using alleged quotes from Bush and a soundtrack from a Hitler speech). Conservatives portray this as a scandal exemplifying the degree to which the Democratic opposition has been hijacked by hate-filled loony radicals. Liberals counter that the real scandal is the right's brazen distortion of the facts.

It is true that MoveOn did not create or sponsor the Bush-as-Hitler spots. Neither ad was among the 15 finalists selected by MoveOn supporters who voted on the Web site. MoveOn has pulled the two offensive ads from its site and expressed regret over their appearance. But is the organization completely blameless? Not quite. Not all of the 1,500-plus submissions to the contest were posted on the site; they were first vetted by MoveOn, whose spokesman told the New York Sun the Nazi ads somehow "slipped through."

Maybe it was an oversight. But it's also possible that MoveOn staffers did not realize just how offensive these spots were because Bush-Hitler comparisons are not viewed as beyond the pale on the left side of the political spectrum.

One of the finalists in the contest, Michael Stinson, is also the creator of a Web animation that depicts President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in Nazi uniforms and highlights alleged Bush family connections to the Nazi regime. (Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, controlled companies that had extensive business dealings with Germany in the years before World War II.)

Appearing on the Fox News show Hannity & Colmes to discuss the Hitler ads, Wayne Madsen, co-author of the book America's Nightmare: The Presidency of George Bush II, said that he saw "some similarities" between Bush and Hitler: "If you look at the early days of Hitler's rise in Germany, if people could have stopped him before he trashed the entire German constitution and seized dictatorial to powers, he could have been stopped." Madsen also compared the war against Iraq to Hitler's "pre-emptive warfare" against Poland and France.

That's the anti-Bush left. Meanwhile, on the pro-Bush right, there's a gem of a column published on Jan. 5 by the New York Post. The author, retired Army officer and writer Ralph Peters, manages to compare Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean to Hitler, Goebbels, Lenin, Trotsky, and Brezhnev. (It's a wonder that Mao and Saddam Hussein didn't make the cut.) And how does Dean warrant this comparison? He and his followers try to "restrict the free speech of others" by attacking their critics on the Internet. (That's right up there with being sent to a concentration camp.)

Peters charges that "Dean wants to muzzle his Democratic competitors, too." (Dean recently criticized Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe for not urging other Democratic candidates to refrain from negative campaigning.)

Besides, he says, some of Dean's followers have turned up at rallies for other candidates and chanted to drown out their speeches: "These are the techniques employed by Hitler's Brownshirts. Had Goebbels enjoyed access to the Internet, he would have used the same swarm tactics as Dean's Flannelshirts."

How is this pernicious tripe different from the Bush-equals-Hitler variety? The only difference so far is that MoveOn has repudiated this rhetoric, while the Post has not.

It's not just in political campaigning that Nazi analogies are used in vain. A Brazilian judge said last week that the U.S. requirement that visitors from some foreign countries be fingerprinted and photographed is worthy of "the worst horrors committed by the Nazis." Talk-show host Laura Schlessinger said that the neglect of children in day-care centers is "like something out of Nazi Germany."

How about a belated New Year's resolution for 2004? No more Nazi or Hitler analogies to describe policies or politicians you dislike. Unless, of course, those policies include actual mass murder and torture, or those politicians who engage in such acts.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe. Public Eye, which usually appears in this space, will return next week.

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