Back in 1990, American attorney and author Mike Godwin observed that political discussions (particularly those that occurred online) were oversaturated with Nazi analogies. This gave birth to the expression "Godwin's Law," which argues that anyone who compares a political adversary to Nazis without sound reasoning automatically forfeits the debate.
Flash forward to last Friday, when venture capitalist Tom Perkins wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal asserting "I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany [and] its war on its 'one percent,' namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the 'rich.'"
Perkins' analogy falls apart on every logical level. First, there is the simple fact that Occupy Wall Street and any other perpetrators of this "progressive war on the rich" have displayed none of the physical violence — to say nothing of mass murder — that were staples of Nazi rhetoric and action. It is factually and morally wrong to compare the animus directed toward a powerful elite with the prejudice targeted against a long-persecuted ethnic minority.
He also has no case when arguing that some progressives are in any way the "descendent [sic]" of Nazism. As one of the foremost academic authorities on European fascism explained, fascist ideology opposes "the allegedly bankrupt or degenerate forces of conservatism, individualistic liberalism and materialist socialism" in favor of a "vitalistic nationalism." This is hardly an apt description of the Occupy Wall Street philosophy.
More important than simply understanding why Perkins is wrong, though, is ascertaining why he drew the comparison in the first place.
Thanks to the horrors wrought by World War II and the Cold War, a stigma has developed around the two ideologies responsible for those catastrophic atrocities — Nazism and Communism. Because the odium attached to each point-of-view is well deserved, it's easy to win a political argument by saddling one's opponent with the Nazi and/or Communist label. Not only does this relieve the accuser of such inconveniences as assembling facts and developing a rational case for his or her opinion, but it calls for the complete marginalization of the contending position. When this tactic is employed, the goal is not to stimulate debate, but to shut it down.
While I don't share Perkins' conservative economic views, he certainly could have articulated them in a way that would have played to the best rather than the worst of our political instincts. By violating Godwin's Law, he has discredited himself in the eyes of all intelligent, decent individuals. Not only did he cheapen the suffering of the millions who were victimized by the Nazi regime, but he did so with the goal of silencing an entire social movement.
Shame on you, Tom Perkins.
Nazi Germany via AP
Occupy Wall Street via AP