Balkinization  

Sunday, October 01, 2006

On language proper to our situation

Sandy Levinson

I have been taken for gentle reproach by someone I like and admire enormously, Ken Anderson, for some of my use of recent language, particularly "banana republic" and "fuhrer-prinzip." I have no apology for the former, because I really do believe that the decadent legislative process in Washington, by both parties, is far more akin to the politics of a banana republic with one of the parties in thrall to a populist caudillo (lawfully elected) and the other without discernible spine even if one gives them credit for commitment to certain principles re the issues raised by the recent detainee bill. I do believe that it is unhelpful to offer the "fuhrer-prinzip" as particularly relevant to our current situation, for two quite different reasons: As someone who spent much of the 1960s arguing against the relevance of the "Munich analogy," one should be very careful about presenting historical analogies. Also, and obviously, it is spectacularly unlikely that anyone I'm trying to enter into genuine conversation with--including conservative readers whom I've asked repeatedly to assess the current quality of our legislative process--will be induced into that conversation by such language.

Still, this doesn't lessen the problem, taught us initially by Thucydides and more recently by George Orwell, about how one in fact describes "shooting the elephant." I do NOT believe we face a risk of 1984-style interrogation practices as a result of this bill. But I DO believe there is more than a whiff of 1984 in the ability of our President to pronounce, without the slightest bit of what would count as truthful evidence, about who is our enemy du jour and, concomitantly, our ally du jour, and for what reasons. Consider the following statement, titled " President Bush Welcomes President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan to the White House." It includes the following:

PRESIDENT BUSH: Mr. President, thank you for coming. It's been my honor to welcome the President of Kazakhstan back to the Oval Office. He informed me that the first time he was here was when my dad was the President. And I welcome you back.

We've just had a very important and interesting discussion. We discussed our desire to defeat extremism and our mutual desire to support the forces of moderation throughout the world. I thanked the President for his contribution to helping a new democracy in Iraq survive and thrive and grow.

President George W. Bush and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev shake hands during their meeting Friday, Sept. 29, 2006 in the Oval Office at the White House. White House photo by Eric Draper I thank very much the President for his concerns about Afghanistan's democracy, and his willingness to help in Afghanistan. We talked about our mutual -- our bilateral relations, and our mutual desire to -- for Kazakhstan to join the WTO. We talked about our commitment to institutions that will enable liberty to flourish.

I have watched very carefully the development of this important country from one that was in the Soviet sphere to one that now is a free nation. And I appreciate your leadership, Mr. President.
*****************************

I put to one side whether a "new democracy" is in fact growing in Iraq. Suffice it to say that almost no one outside the confines of the White House would make such an argument with confidence. But could anyone committed to, what shall we call it, "minimum standards of veracity," describe Kazakhstan as a "free nation" committed "to institutions that will enable liberty to flourish." To view the President as anything more than a liar--even if we can understand why, given the tenets of political Realism, he must lie in order to preserve our alliance with a country that we need in what is defined as our struggle against terrorism--is generous. So what ARE the rules of etiquette these days? Must we pretend that anything coming from the White House is automatically, for that reason, worth the kind of polite referene that civil discourse does indeed entail? I'm disinclined to think so.

I do not believe that all political conservatives have contempt for the English language. Ken Anderson most certainly does not. But I see no reason to accord a similarly generous response to those running our country today.

Finally, I continue to wonder if Balkinization's conservative readership wouldn't feel better off if we had an English-style ability to vote no-confidence in a party leader/president and replace him with someone the president's own party had confidence in. Can it possibly be the case that such readers wake up in the morning and rejoice that George W. Bush remains president for one more day?

Comments:

Gee, I don't think you were out of bounds at all Sandy -- that particular historical analog is exact:

"In both the War Powers Resolution and the Joint Resolution, Congress has recognized the President's authority to use force in circumstances such as those created by the September 11 incidents. Neither statute, however, can place any limits on the President's determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response. These decisions, under our Constitution, are for the President alone to make."

John Yoo, The President's Constitutional Authority to Conduct Military Operations Against Terrorists and Nations Supporting Them, OLC memorandum (2001.09.25), Conclusion.

*

I'd be very interested to see Ken Anderson or anyone else show where there's any real difference between that claim and the fuhrer-prinzip.
 

In the May 1933 letter of Leo Strauss to Loewith rejecting Hitler, he affirmed "the principles of the Right - fascist, authoritarian and imperial." While his followers, including in a broad sense Yoo (who clerked from Clarence Thomas, a Straussian) in speaking of "commander in chief power" do not mean "Fuhrer power", they do mean something like " Duce power", something like Mussolini style fascism. Hence, the contempt for the rule of law and habeas corpus that the 40 or so, in and around the administration, so routinely display.
Strauss was an admirer of Heidegger and Schmitt. For them, it was "Fuhrer power" and Heidegger took the opportunity to name himself as the head of the University of Freiburg "Rektor-Fuhrer." During the war and having left the rectorship (actually in 1934), he saw himself as the philosopher-king of a true "national socialism" in contrast to Hitler, just as, by way of farce, William Kristol sees himself as the guardian of a true "neoconservatism" in contrast to Bush's efforts in Iraq. In any case, the notion that the stench of a "Fuhrer prinzip" emanates from "Commander in Chief" power and the little crowd of fascists around Bush and Cheney is not a misidentification but sadly accurate. Many former neoconservatives and admirers of Strauss like Andrew Sullivan see clearly enough the distinction between being a conservative (Strauss wasn't even though Sullivan still hopes he was) and being a tyrant or a "tyrant's assistant." Yes, some people will undoubtedly be turned off by naming a position which they themselves have encouraged to some extent, but others may feel that naming such politics actually enables all of us - with great effort - to reject them and fight for the rule of law and a democracy that upholds individual rights (including the right to physical security from terrorist attack).

Alan Gilbert
 

sorry sandy, but this jewish liberal thinks the fuhrer references are out of bounds under any circumstance.

your gut reaction is correct. the president and his henchmen don't give a damn about the truth. they don't give a damn about the rule of law. they don't give a damn about the real principles this country was founded upon. they do give a damn about their power. i'm not too sure they really give a damn about much of anything else.

that being said, there are certain roads we just don't travel down. most of us have family a generation or two before us that were lost in the second world war. those of us of jewish, catholic, gypsy, etc., background have a special axe to grind with hitler and his pals. this doen't extend, however, to calling anyone hitler or a nazi, no matter how evil we might think they are. it simply lowers ourselves, and does not contribute anything to the discussion.

as mark said in the prior post, the level of discourse has grown too shrill. it's reached the point where conservatives will not listen to liberals and vice versa simply because of the tone of the discussion. sinking to that level contributes to the mutual deafness, no matter how intellectual the terms of the argument may be couched.

sorry.
 

phg,

Mark didn't say its too shrill - at least in your sense. He says the shrillness IS justified because of what Bush and company are doing. Or, at least that's how I took it.
 

Sandy,

Yes, Bush in some ways is a liability to the Republican party in general, and to conservatism specifically. That said, I don't think I can answer one way or another if I'd prefer the British system of no confidence votes against the party leader.

Their system introduces a whole host of problems that may or may not outweigh the benefits. Of course, if for the purposes of your hypo, we can just ignore all that - then sure, I'd love to have a no confidence vote against Bush and someone else, preferably someone more competent put in his place.

p.s. You wrote, "I do not believe that all political conservatives have contempt for the English language." Whew! Lol, there is some hope for us yet! :)
 

In one of his essays on history, Michael Oakeshott tells us that historical analogies are difficult things and in the end we must be cautious about them. What matters, he says, is whether the analogy advances our understanding of the matter presented. Consequently, he advises, we should always consider pointing to the differences that may arise between an historical analogy and the case under discussion. This is sound and very conservative advice, useful for bloggers and academic writers alike. It's difficult to implement in a blog posting written at a stream of conscience pace, however.

But I am puzzled by the case here. Surely there is nothing objectionable about Sandy's "banana republic" analogy. The more serious criticism seems directed at the term "Führerprinzip." I assume that Ken's concern is that the use of a word like this is a crude aspersion, because your typical English-language speaker in America would link it to "the Nazis," and the phrase would carry the sophistication of a cartoon. I don't buy that. The readers of blogs like Balkinization are, judging by the comments posted, a pretty sophisticated lot, and increasingly they are people with some real depth in political science, constitutional and international law topics. "Führerprinzip" has a long history in Middle European political thinking – from Hegel, to Nietzsche, to Graf Keyserling, who popularized it through the Weimar period. It describes the last phase of Caesarist thinking, one which reflected, more than its predecessors, a criticism of liberal democracy. The "Führerprinzip" was heralded as an answer to liberal democracy; a means for retooling it to make it better able to address the threats that faced it.

And the concept "Führerprinzip" has particular importance to international humanitarian law – a field with which Ken supposedly has some familiarity – because it was a focus of liability arguments by both the defense and prosecution at Nuremberg. One of the best definitions is certainly the one that Reichministerialdirektor Schlegelberger offered in the Justice Ministry trial – he said that under this principle, the leader was simultaneously supreme executive, legislature and judge. It was in effect used to sweep away the dissonance associated with bourgeois liberalism. (I am trying to recall whether this was included in "Judgment at Nuremberg," the film version of this trial, in which Burt Lancaster portrays a lightly fictionalized Schlegelberger – perhaps it was.) Schlegelberger's definition is perilously close to arguments which have been raised by the Administration in defense of its highly expanded notion of commander-in-chief powers, and those claims, it seems to me, easily invite the comparison. Is the opprobrium of association with the Nazis so great that this comparison is illegitimate? The "Führerprinzip" is not, strictly speaking, a Nazi concept – even if those who lack depth in this corner of intellectual history don't know any better. I don't think the comparison is illegitimate, at least not before an academic and professional audience. Or is Ken telling us that we should disregard the precedent of Weimar Germany altogether – the only major Western democracy to have self-destructed within the last two generations? That would be not only foolish, but dangerous.

If Sandy's reaction to this rebuke is to post less frequently, I would reckon that a great loss. I don't see much in the criticism, frankly. But I sure wish Sandy would spell "Führerprinzip" correctly in the future.
 

Regarding Kazakstan, at about the same time its leader was meeting with George W, it had a four page ad in the front section of the NYTimes, trying to convince the American public and investors what a great democratic county it was. Kazakstan has placed similar ads in the NYTimes in the past several years. But has Kazakstan demonstrated that it is a democracy, or heading towards becoming one? George W and Cheney are convinced that Kazakstan is an ally, not because of democracy, but because of its oil and other energy reserves. They are extending the Monroe Doctrine to Central Asia. Why rob banks? Because that's where the money is. Why support the dictatorships of Central Asia? Because that's where the major sources of energy exist. There is no longer a Cold War competition between the US and the now defunct Soviets. But there is an Economic War involving not only Russia and its energy resouces that support its economy but also the needs of the growing economy of China and its needs for energy from nearby sources such as Central Asia's dictatorships. No more Cold War, but a growing Economic War, that may lead to a Hot War (assuming that our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and our eyes on Iran and North Korea is not already a start of the Hot War). The US national interest under Bush and Cheney seems to be oil, oil and more oil, not democracy, democracy, democracy.

Perhaps there are not convenient terms to summarize the faults of Bush and Cheney. So let's use a lot of words to explain what they are doing to us.

At one time it seemed that voters looked for a president who was smarter than them, inspired them, would lead them to a better future. Can we say that about Goerge W? Kazakstan may look like an ally now, but what will Bush et al do when Russia and China flex their muscles, economic and otherwise? No, we don't need a single word to depict George W, especially when we have the description a Texan came up with several years ago: "A Texas fence post turtle."
 

People can kvetch all they want to about using the term Füherprinzip to describe the Yoonies in the Bush Administration.

If it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck, etc. Frankly, I have little sympathy for those who, for whatever reason, lift their skirts and raise themselves up on their toes whenever they hear the term. If there's any fundamental philosophical difference between the Unitary Presidency and its Nazi equivalent, I'm afraid I fail to see it.

What concerns me more than semantic delicacy at this point is the extent to which the Bush Administration will follow the same logic as the German Führer himself did. Given even the admittedly much abused traditions of our jurisprudence, they'll have a difficult time of it if they actually do intend to go the full nine yards. Like many here, I myself doubt they have the stomach for such extremes, but I don't think any of us should be so confident of that as to turn our eyes elsewhere, not for the time being, at least.
 

A COMMENT ON SANDY'S POST From Kenneth Anderson:

Sandy and I have a mutual admiration society, please understand - I regard him as one of the finest and morally most acute intellectuals writing in the US today; his book on torture and his new book on the constitution are simply required reading for anyone seeking to understand our political system today. Why he thinks so well of me - heck, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

So I want to be clear. I have no question whatever about the use of 'banana republic'. Re fuhrer prinzip - well, I don't think it is used inappropriately in a blog post; one of the good things about blogs is that they allow us to speak more strongly, and more emotionally, than we necessarily do in other contexts, and I dislike the idea of squelching that.

What I was concerned to point out is that, outside of the context of a blog - a blog post quoted in the Washington Post - a term like furher prinzip (which was not actually quoted in the article) to describe the US Senate sounds, well, really different. It is a different genre and it sounds very different from how it sounds in a blog post. (But I don't think that's true at all of 'banana republic'.)

The problem I was attempting to describe over at my blog post, using as an example Friday's quotation of Sandy's 'banana republic' blog post in a news article otherwise quoting actual interviews with other famous intellectuals and law professors, is what happens when language that seems okay in one genre, a blog, migrates over to another, such as a regular news story. I queried whether Sandy would feel comfortable had the reporter quoted the "fuhrer prinzip" part of the post instead - I doubted it, and as Sandy says, he shares the same feeling. So it left me wondering what happens in a world in which blog posts migrate over into regular journalism, and whether a journalist ought to check - as apparently the WP reporter did with Sandy - to see if the wording is okay.

I did add a comment, as an aside, and as a conservative reader of Balkinization generally, that it has grown more shrill of late, quite understandably, considering how momentous these issues are, if one sees one's positions losing and essentially given up by one's friends. I hope it was helpful simply to let the contributors know anecdotally that I know of administration officials who used to read Balkinization regularly, not just for its technical analysis but to understand its normative arguments, who find it simply too shrill to follow. I don't mean to suggest that the emotion that I think merits expression should be squelched - but that it does cost readers among some of the people who might, at least on some matters, be open to persuasion. I, of course, will faithfully read Balkinization every day; I'm not sure everyone else will, and I'm not sure that this form of loss will be evident from the feedback given by reader comments.

I am, I should add, coming more and more to share Sunstein's concerns about the echo chamber effect of the blogosphere and the internet generally. An editor friend from abroad came over to our house and saw the NYT, WaPo, WSJ, Wash Times, the Economist, New Republic, Weekly Standard, National Review, and the Nation - apart from suddenly understanding why I constantly miss his deadlines, and the expense, he was genuinely surprised that I would read across, so to speak, confessional lines. Despite what it appears, I'm not patting myself on the back for broad reading or spending lots of money on subscriptions; I don't think there was anything in the least unusual about that for an academic or intellectual even just a few years ago. But I do think it is becoming much more uncommon now, and that is not a good thing.

Sandy, please don't censor your impulse to give some passion to your expression in all this. If we did not have passions about this, there would be something wrong with us. But I don't know exactly what one does about passions taken from one genre and converted, not precisely homologously, into another. The expressions do not necessarily translate, and I don't know what one does about that.

(A ps to the above, Monday, October 2, 2006. It is very frustrating not to be able to post a comment to Balkinization - bad, Beta Blogger, bad, bad! If someone wanted to be kind enough to post the comment below in red to Sandy's post at Balkinization, as a comment from Kenneth Anderson, I'd be very grateful.)
 

A COMMENT ON SCOTT HORTON'S COMMENT From Kenneth Anderson:

I read with particular interest Scott Horton's comment in which he defended Sandy's passing reference to the US Senate as fuhrerprinzip on the grounds that Balkinization readers, being erudite, learned, well read, etc., would not merely associate the term with the Nazis, but would see it as an appropriate term because it reaches back much further and beyond the Nazi regime broadly to signify a certain kind of authoritarianism which is perfectly appropriate to describe the Bush administration. Well. Supposing that is true - what I was noting in my post was not what the erudite and learned readers of Balkinization might think, but instead what happens if that bit were quoted in a mainstream newspaper story, in the NYT or WaPo. Does Scott still think the term's popular connotations irrelevant to that setting - and, recall, the point of the post was to ask, using the quotation of Sandy's post as an example, whether academic bloggers are prepared to have their words migrate from one genre to another.

In any case, while I don't doubt for a moment - I am not being ironic - that Balkinization's readers are among the most highly educated, learned, and intellectually sophisticated in the blogosphere or anywhere else, suppose we take a poll of Balkinization's readers and ask what they think of when they think of fuhrerprinzip - a long intellectual history of Middle European political authoritarianism, or ... Hitler? For that matter, Sandy is a thoroughly honest person - Sandy, were you thinking of all the various things Scott was talking about, or were you, too, thinking about Nazis? When it comes to international humanitarian law, "a field," Scott reports, "with which Ken supposedly has some familiarity," I think Fuhrerprinzip and I think Nazis. But then, given that my knowledge of the field is "supposed," perhaps that doesn't count. Maybe Scott doesn't merely think Nazis, although his discussion of it turns out to be not so much Weimar, but mostly Nuremberg and, well, Nazis. Maybe you, gentle Balkineers, think about Middle European political theories. But I bet you think Nazis. And I bet Sandy does, too - which was surely why he used it in his post.

And, again to be perfectly clear, to return to the point in my original post - I do not object to that kind of reference in a blog post. I don't mind it. It's okay by me. I might very well use it and even stronger language and references myself - I like provocation. So thanks, Scott, but in order to defend Sandy you really don't have to offer a whole intellectual history about why fuhrerprinzip is not just about Nazis and is all about alternatives to liberalism. It's okay with me even if it is a reference to Nazis. Others do object - including some in the comments to Sandy's post - but not me. I myself think it is perfectly okay for Sandy to invoke indirectly these kinds of images, and 1984, and Stalin and the Gulag, and all the rest. I may agree, I may disagree - but I don't think they are somehow beyond the pale in a blog post, a genre which accepts a certain level of passion that academic writing usually does not. It is a genre with its own internal sense of style, including a certain amount of passion, which is one reason I like it - and beyond a certain level, a reason I don't like or read the wilder parts of the blogosphere.

My question in the post - which Scott doesn't actually address - is whether Sandy, comfortable with using that kind of referrence in a blog post, would still be comfortable with seeing it quoted as a description of his view of the Bush administration in a newspaper story, surrounded with quotations from other experts who were actually interviewed and not simply blog-mined. "Banana republic" - sure. But "fuhrerprinzip"? I wouldn't be, if it were me, and my guess, and question to Sandy, was that he wouldn't be, either. And I was curious about whether the journalist contacted him directly to ask him about the quote - he did - and whether those of us who blog think there should be some kind of known, understood journalistic convention here, about quoting, about contacting for quotes, etc. I don't have a view on this - I don't often get interviewed, and anyway tend to turn them down. My question is about the migration of language from one genre, blog posts, to another, newspaper stories, and what the conventions should be for writers of blog posts and journalists mining them for material.
 

Ken Anderson writes:

"My question in the post - which Scott doesn't actually address - is whether Sandy, comfortable with using that kind of referrence in a blog post, would still be comfortable with seeing it quoted as a description of his view of the Bush administration in a newspaper story, surrounded with quotations from other experts who were actually interviewed and not simply blog-mined."

Blogging is certainly a far less formal medium than traditional publishing, and Ken is surely correct that academic writers like Sandy might well approach it less carefully than an interview with a reporter from an illustrious journal like the New York Times or Washington Post. These periodicals have a different readership, and we do tend to edit our remarks to suit our readers, right? This would argue against using a phrase like "Fuehrerprinzip," or if you use it, to explain how the present facts are different from the historical model. Just as political leaders today who invoke the idea of "Munich," "appeasement" and "1938" should explain why they think this historical image is relevant to a discussion about post-occupation Iraq, when the Iraqi Government and a two-thirds majority of the Iraqi people want to see a US commitment to leave.
 

I'm curious whether Mr. Anderson is as critical of the ubiquitous practice on the right of invoking Neville Chamberlain when it suits their apologia.
 

Just for the record, the Washington Post did not get in touch with me re its quotation from the blog post (which I still have not yet tracked down). I suppose I see anything "published" in Balkinization as sufficiently on the "public record" to warrant someone quoting it without asking my permission, as would be the case with anything else I published. That doesn't overcome the point that Ken is raising, which is whether blogging invites a kind of rhetoric that I would be more hesitant to use were the Post actually to offer me the same 500-1000 words that I often post here. And the answer is yes.

Also for the record, when I used the term fuhrerprinzip, I was indeed thinking of its most world-historical instantiation. I am often awed by Scott's erudition, but it is most definitely his erudition and not mine. I think it we are all walking a kind of tightrope when we evoke the lessons of Weimar, including what can be learned from Carl Schmitt. I continue to find these debates during the 1920s very illuminating. But that would be the case even if Weimar had not morphed into Hitler.
 

Let not propositions and "ideas" be the rules of your Being. The Fuhrer alone is the present and future German reality and its law. Learn to know ever more deeply: from now on every single thing demands decision, and every action responsibility. Heil Hitler!

~ Martin Heidegger, 1933



The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

~ Ron Suskind quoting an "unamed aide" to President Bush



It seems the question raised by Mr. Anderson in this instance, boiled down, is whether or not you are guilty of vulgarization, and a consequent "thought stopping" end to dialogue. Clearly, as elucidated in the wonderfully thoughful comments seen here, I'd say this assertion is wrong on both points.

Another dissent, by "phg," parallels this critique, recalling and honoring the catayclysmic loss of 50,000,000 lives -- somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000,000 of these shot, starved, or gassed to death in extermination camps -- forever linked to Nazi-related (or even Nazi-sounding) jargon. Up to this point, the crimes against humanity committed by Bush & Co. are, in substance, far from matching those of the last "freely elected" leader (and his cliche) of a militarily-strong, liberal democracy to assume similar powers.

Still, your analogies hold. (So too, similar parallels between some of the neo-cons now whispering in the ears of Rove and Cheney and the Jacobins of the French "Great Terror.")

To abuse your solid analogy: Does Iraq look anything like Poland / Kazakhstan like Romania?

Reconstituted Nazis? Maybe not. Ideologues? Some of them. Oil men fighting oil wars by any means? For sure.

"Yoonies." Cultic, constitutional hysterics. That's a good one!
 

This is the Post article:

Washington Post --

September 29, 2006; Page A13
MANY RIGHTS IN U.S. LEGAL SYSTEM ABSENT IN NEW BILL
By R. Jeffrey Smith

*

As for the discussion, Adolf Hitler was not a product of black magic or bad luck, he was a product of fallacious reasoning. The similarity of the Bush administration's thinking is hardly the fault of their critics.

Long before Hitler or Bush, Madison (following Montesquieu) decribed the political pathology precisely:

"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

James Madison, The Federalist, No. 47
 

I think American political culture presents a problem for terms like "fascist" and "F?hrer," but that it does not speak well for the culture that it does. Partly the problem is our lucky history, partly our national myth. We've been spared the curse; and we think of ourselves – as does much of the world, if decreasingly – as the very definition of a stalwart democracy. These create heady ideas that sum up in the maxim "It can't happen here." Now, amid growing signs that it is, we hear insistences it is not and declarations that any suggestions to the contrary are out of bounds.

This is all predictable. If one accepts Robert Paxton's analysis, fascism capitalizes on the dysfunctionalities of a democracy, using situational opportunities. That means both that it will always appear to work within the system as it finds it, and that it will always do so differently, since each system presents it with different openings. In Mecklenberg, Germany, neo-Nazis are building a political base working around the legal prohibitions against swastikas and Hitler references. No one seems to know how to declare them illegal. In Israel, talk of "transfer" is officially banned, which kept Meir Kahane's party out of the Knesset, but others have since learned to avoid the term.

What makes our political culture particularly troubling is that fascism counts on rock-ribbed democrats thinking it's bound to fail. The worst of the rhetorical signals are laughed at, and the real tendencies are read as ambiguous and thus taken less seriously than is warranted. They begin with perhaps an eye-twitch that soon shows itself as a longish wink, then comes a limited power grab for apparent reasons, then an outright grab for none at all. There's no general metric for this pattern, and I do not know where to put the Military Commissions Act (MCA) on this spectrum. But it seems more than an eye-twitch.

Still, I recognize the cultural problem, and so even in my postings I adhere to Godwin's law – not using the "f" word – because "fascism" is thrown out without no grasp of disanalogies or parallels to our case. But I do so with regrets. Take the MCA debate. Hitler's Enabling Act began with a four-year sunset; Obama could not get five. Reid looked to McCain and the JAG; Hitler's last roadblock was Alfred Hugenberg, a Krupp magnate who like McCain thought he had a deal; thereafter Hitler's worst nemesis was the military. Stepping back, how many Americans know that to its last days the Third Reich operated under the Weimar constitution?

And in other ways there are lessons to draw from Nazi Germany. There are others to take from Italy, from Japan, and even from ancient Rome. But they need to be titrated into our discourse, cut down to size and woven into what we say, think and do as we face the problem that confronts us. This seems possible and worthwhile.

It seems there are just two ways to raise public consciousness to the threat that looms: either look back to the Constitution and what it stands for, or look ahead to a dystopian denouement. In the wake of the Dred Scott decision Lincoln returned to politics to do both, looking back to the Framers' intent to put slavery on an ultimate course of extinction and asking what would limit slavery anywhere if the opinion were given credence (as Douglas was doing). I think we can and ought to do the same.

As for treating Hitler as sui generis, I think "Never again!" means it must never happen again, not that it can't.
 

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